play is fundamental
An Interview with richard siken
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Richard Siken is the author of 2004’s Crush, a Yale Series of Younger Poets prize selected by Louise Glück, and the 2015 collection War of the Foxes. Siken is also a painter, photographer, filmmaker, and an editor at Spork Press. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Lannan Residency Fellowships, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, and a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. He can be found on the web at richardsiken.com.
RS: I hesitate, but yes. These things go bad fast. I was raised by wolves and schooled by lawyers. And all those times I said You get the page, I get the rest—well, I meant it. But sure, let's. Back and forth, though. Five questions in advance is a job interview, a dog trick. Let's accumulate instead.
TMR: In our current political climate, what is something that brings you joy?
RS: Joy is such a startling word. I guess I've been aiming low, hoping for moments of occasional relief. I feel like I am, like we all are, being strong-armed into reaction and binary thought. I'm drawn to anything that can remind me of playfulness or multiplicity. I was watching a YouTube video on film editing yesterday—a little thing, couple minutes long—and I found myself thinking about lateral movement, concurrent meanings, texture, atmosphere, the consequence of the frame. I don't know if I could call it joy, but I remembered that I had more strategies to understand the world than I was being encouraged to use, and more agency to use them than I was allowing myself.
TMR: In much the same way that the editing video reminded you of strategies you can use to understand the world, I find that your poetry gives readers strategies on how to understand and digest their grief and trauma—and also their longings and desires, the underbellies of their own selves. Your art has given comfort to those that needed it, even when it seemed that on your end, as artist, there was little comfort at all. With this in mind, what does the writing of a poem look like—"The Field of Rooms and Halls" from War of the Foxes, for example?
RS: A man found a door and hung it on the wall. What kind of strategy is that? It's not Socratic; it's not scientific. I envy it. I strive for it. How should we size the days, where should we put our sadness, how can we find the hallway that isn't there? Reframe the question, the poem suggests. I love that poem. I love the fact that I can read it in public without crying. It's about desperation but it doesn't enact the desperation, which is the kind of poem I usually write. Admitting failure hurts. Admitting desire hurts.
Admitting failure hurts. Admitting desire hurts.
Remembering with or without feeling hurts. I like all kinds of poems—emotionally distant or emotionally close—and I'm still amazed that words in a certain order can re-enact an event, but I want to learn how to talk about drowning without drowning. And sometimes I worry: what if I'm only painting the walls of the room I'm locked in? That's a really uncomfortable question to consider.
TMR: Tin House once asked about your development as a poet, pre-Crush, and you said, "if I ever feel disengaged, I read. I've also noticed that I feel discouraged when I only read work I love. When I read work I hate, I get motivated to make something in opposition to it." What is an example of this?
RS: I love experimental writing. I love experiments. But I love them because they lead to innovation. I don't want to waste your time with my experiments, I want to effect your capacity with my innovations. I remember wrestling with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. I love the energy, I love the disruption, but I wasn't convinced that narrative had to be annihilated or that the self needed to be completely obscured. In Crush, the poems "Straw House, Straw Dog" and "The Dislocated Room" were responses to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. I got more hinge and torque by honoring them, but I also insisted that there was a speaker behind the language and an urgency behind the fractured narrative.
I love confessional poems as well, but the poem that insisted that the self could be an example of the world has degenerated into a mode of expression that seems primarily concerned with sharing anecdotes in calm tones and colloquial language. "I am sitting in a bar, wearing my striped tie, drinking a gin fiz..." I think all the "landscape" poems in War of the Foxes are a response to this. I decided I'd withhold the boring exposition (I am sitting and painting) and concentrate on confessing the truly uncomfortable thoughts in my head. Things like: "I guess I am a bully" and "The enormity of my desire disgusts me."
TMR: Vulnerability and honesty with one's self can often be terrifying to the point where confronting one's flaws can feel like an impossibility. Being so forthcoming about the uncomfortable thoughts you have, what would you say is the value in doing so?
RS: There has to be a place where we can say something true.
TMR: When did you begin to be honest with yourself in your work? Was there difficulty in that?
RS: It's always been difficult. It's still difficult. When did I begin trying to be honest? From the start. Which lines in my body of published and unpublished work are honest? Impossible question.
TMR: What do you look for and value in the work that you enjoy reading? Similarly, what draws you to the work that you take on for Spork Press?
RS: I'm always taken by voice-driven work. I want a speaker that sounds like no one else. Louise Glück suggested to me that, when looking over my own work, I should strike any line that could be written by someone else. It's an impossible standard, though. For Spork, we want to be moved or surprised. We love innovation, but we equally love anything done well. We published eight full-length titles in 2018 and we have another dozen or so in the queue. In looking over our catalog, I see two strange things. I'm invested in work that uses form in the service of intent, and I'm invested in intent that makes me question my aesthetics. We're publishing several titles that I didn't "like" at first, but I know they're vital, and necessary, and deserve a readership. Enjoyability can't be the only goal of literature. I think an editor is supposed to be uncomfortable.
TMR: "Enjoyability can't be the only goal of literature"—would you expand on this?
RS: Sometimes I wonder if I've wasted my life. I know I'm not alone in this. The other night, I overheard someone else say it: I've wasted my life. The response they got? There's no right way to do it. It was a comforting thing to hear. I think it's the same with writing: there's no right way to do it. I already know what I have to say and how I would say it. I want to hear other voices, other versions. It's not enough to know your three favorite desserts. It's not enough to know your seventh favorite dessert. We should be confronted with things we never considered putting in our mouths.
And enjoyability can't be the only goal of life, either. My mom just went into hospice. She's dying. I don't like the feelings that I'm feeling—sadness, anger, fear, relief, guilt—they're contradictory, and sometimes they overlap. It's confusing, sometimes paralyzing, and certainly not enjoyable. The options are: pay attention or don't.
I feel like we're being encouraged to become righteous and absolute in our convictions. I don't see how there can be any room for compassion or development if we abandon our doubt.
I feel like there's more to say about it. I feel like I should be able to explain, for pages, with certainty, but I can't. I come from a place of doubt. I think doubt informs my poetry, my editorial style, and my discomfort with the cultural moment. I feel like we're being encouraged to become righteous and absolute in our convictions. I don't see how there can be any room for compassion or development if we abandon our doubt.
TMR: What is your relationship with the concept of doubt?
RS: Doubt is fundamental to any sense of playfulness or experimentation. We could call it uncertainty. If I climb that tree, will I be able to see the river? If I put bacon in it, will it be better? Is this form the best choice for the poem? Doubt allows us the freedom to paint without blueprints, or start a poem without knowing how it will end. Fear can make us forget about play. It's important to defend yourself, it's important to make calls during business hours, but play is a sideways thinking that solves problems linear thinking can't. We're living in a moment of great and necessary advocacy. We shouldn't, we can't, abandon our advocacy, but there has to be room for not-knowing. Not-knowing is the energetic force that propels invention and discovery. I don't mind being afraid for real reasons, but I wonder if we're diminishing and weaponizing ourselves against a vague and pervasive gloom. I've been saying "anxiety" when I mean "excitement." I've been saying "doubt" when I mean "play." This is a sloppiness I'm not happy with. It's a fundamental struggle, keeping our engines clean, recalibrating, but we have to do it. It makes no sense to limit our strategies when facing such important work.