It has been ten years since Richard Siken’s first collection Crush was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Since its release, I have turned to Crush many times to take pleasure in the images and voices that populate its poems. Pleased to discover that Copper Canyon Press will soon release his second book War of the Foxes, I invited Mr. Siken to correspond with me through email to discuss this long-anticipated collection. The poet’s resistance to answering certain questions—and his generosity in responding to others—reveals a deep respect for his art, which I am grateful that he shared with me.
[Ed. Note-You can read two of Richard’s poems in the latest issue of Tin House]
Peter Mishler: In your new collection of poems War of the Foxes there are lines that express concern about art’s ability to represent reality. This is your first collection in ten years. Do these questions of representation have anything to do with the significant length of time between books?
Richard Siken: Even before I could attempt to address my concerns about the problems of representation, I had to come to terms with the ramifications of having already made something. After Crush was published, many people accused me of contaminating their bookshelf or bedside table with my melancholy. You never make me happy, but you can always make me sad, they said. I hadn’t anticipated this response and I wondered about what kind of culpability I might have. I, personally, was being held responsible, rather than the work—which had the undertone of “poetry isn’t art” because they refused to, or were unable to, understand that I had made a thing. They didn’t see the thing, they only saw me.
Additionally, readers began to ask me if the poems were “true,” by which they meant, “Did they really happen?” which seemed both beside the point and also intrusive. I realized that if they thought poems were biographically accurate, then they could walk away, knowing I was just a sad little man. If, however, the poems were crafted and framed with intent, then they would be confronted with a piece of art. No longer able to simply pity me, these readers would have to take ownership of their feelings and reactions.
And even more additionally, poets use the materials of conversation for not-conversation, and this makes people angry and confused. So I had several immediate problems to solve before I would be ready to share new work. I needed to take myself out: I had to sidestep the premises of “you are the work” and “the work is true” while making the not-conversation of it all (lying and singing) worthwhile and engaging. That’s what took years, ten years, between books.
The first lines in the first poem of the new work insist that an artist can be faithful to the world or the representation of the world, and the speaker declares that he will be faithful to the paint and not the landscape. Later, in the same poem, the speaker says, “they see the field but not the varnish” to remind the reader, perhaps even redirect the reader, to the concern of the work: the varnish. Put simply, this is lying and singing. This is storytelling.
PM: I am impressed with a sense of conflict when reading these poems—do you have a sense of whom or what this conflict might be with?
RS: I don’t know what you’re asking. Or, if I do, I insist it’s the responsibility of the reader to deal with. All art has conflict. Explanation is easy and the truth is boring. What are you really asking?
PM: What do you find yourself writing against? Are there particular worldviews, principles, occurrences—aesthetic or otherwise—that you find yourself abraded by, or in conflict with, that lead you to start writing lines of poetry?
RS: I’m still not sure I understand what you mean by conflict. And when I don’t understand a concept, I’m usually so immersed in it that it’s invisible to me. In an early interview, right after Crush was published, I was asked why my aesthetic vision was so violent and grim. I answered, truly without guile or hostility, “What world do you live in? Because I want to live there.”
It seems to me that everything in the world is actively trying to kill everything else in the world, on every level, and always has. I think we live in a world of palpable abrasion. Microbiology is the study of conflicting entities; and Chemistry, Geology, Thermodynamics, History, Anthropology, and Literature are as well. I guess poetry seemed like an arena where I could investigate these abrasions.
PM: Could you describe your development as a poet, pre-Crush, pre-War of the Foxes?
RS: I started keeping a journal in high school. I didn’t write anything interesting before reading dozens and dozens of books. My development as a poet increased at the pace with which I read. School helped, peers helped, working with literary journals helped, but 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. Perhaps this is part of the answer to the “conflict” question you asked.
PM: Did you have any early experiences with poetry that have informed or shaped your work in significant ways?
RS: I loved it when I first discovered work that had concerns other than plot. Gertrude Stein and Thomas Pynchon rattled me. Attention to language was important, they assured. It was electrifying.
PM: You are also a painter. What has painting taught you about making poems?
RS: After I wrote Crush, I had nothing left to say. I went back to painting. I opened the tubes and looked at the colors, pushed them around. Not much happened, not for a long while. Eventually, I began making things that were worth keeping, that evoked. I realized the hand could say what the voice could not. That helped inform the new work.
PM: Can you elaborate?
RS: I made paintings and then wrote about making paintings. The elaboration is the book.
PM: There are poems in this collection that are centered around someone making a painting, or the speaker is giving himself directions on how to fill in a canvas, and sometimes the paintings talk back. Are you thinking of specific paintings here? Yours? Another artist’s? Or are these poems purely allegorical?
RS: The idea of ekphrastic poetry—poems about paintings—both interested and repelled me. It seemed cheap, seemed like cheating. Much in the way epigraphs are often cheap and easy: at their best, which is infrequently, they show a continuation of the tradition and dialogue of poetry. But most often they are an attempt to bootstrap a poem into importance by name-dropping or by co-opting someone else’s thinking.
I had been painting, and had some things to say about the act of painting and the actual paintings I had made. I started there and then let myself address the history of art and other works and painters.
PM: You have a poem that contains three passages, and each one is—in part—a narrative about a particular artist and one of their lesser-known works (e.g. Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610). Do you have a sense of why you were drawn to these particular artists and works initially?
RS: I didn’t pick the best-known works because I felt the conversations around them had already clicked shut. It seemed too obvious to talk about Guernica by Picasso—one of the most famous paintings about war—so I aimed sideways. Still, though, I didn’t want to pick work that was too obscure. I had a list of over a dozen paintings I wanted to talk about, for various reasons, including The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault and two of the Napoleon Crossing paintings by Jacques-Louis David. I narrowed the list by limiting the discussion to a single idea: the doubling of self.
In Gertrude Stein, her likeness and the rendering of her likeness diverging from each other immediately fascinated me. It resonated with the idea of the bird and the painted bird, which recurs frequently in other poems. I love Picasso’s insistence that the painting would end up becoming the “true” version of her likeness.
In the iterations of Raphael’s Saint George and Saint Michael there was again a doubling. He painted both twice. There’s a set where they are brothers and then there are the other two where they are approached as singular subjects. Multiple doublings. Charming and crazy-making. Another example of repeated attempts at the impossible task of representation.
In David with the Head of Goliath, the painted head becomes fetishized: a token worth more than the artist’s actual head, which had a price on it. A head monetized. It addresses the friction between the separations of biological self, biographical self, and presented self. Also, the images of horse and head are fundamental in the argument of the book: selves and powers. These paintings had heads and horses. The Napoleon Crossing paintings had horses, heads, and powers, but the section where I wrote about them was too strained, so I dropped it.
PM: Looking at the paintings you’ve presented on your website, many of them have titles that mirror titles or lines from your new collection. Could you talk about one of your paintings specifically and the process of creating its “sister”-representation as a poem?
RS: Most of the relationships aren’t deep. War of the Foxes (the painting) has two bunnies in it, like the poem does. “It Is Too Heavy,” Says the Canvas (the painting) mirrors the poem “Turpentine,” where the canvas says, “It is too heavy.”
But, if you can link the face in The Worm King’s Lullaby (the painting) to one of the speakers in “The Worm King’s Lullaby” (the poem) and the model in the poem “Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light” and the painter in “The Field of Rooms and Halls” with the (un-included in any book) story of Fryderyk Zajac in the Fairy Tale Review, with the clue that Zajac translates as rabbit, I will buy you eleven donuts, which is a reference to a line in the poem “Ghost, Zero, Suitcase, and the Moon,” that says “Numbers larger than ten / are no longer human: they fly from the hand into / the imaginary sky we call hypothesis.”
PM: You have poems in both Crush and War of the Foxes where the speakers ask the reader to imagine a scenario, or place the reader in a hypothetical situation, or use a rhetorical strategy that has the pitch of allegory or fable. In other interviews you’ve mentioned allegory in reference to your work. Do you remember what initially necessitated writing in an allegorical mode? What does this mode provide for you as a writer?
RS: I’m interested in the way we gather knowledge. The Socratic method—rhetoric: questioning and debating—has been crucial to our understanding. The scientific method—hypothesizing, testing, measuring—has also been crucial. And then there’s the artistic method—evoking, provoking, suggesting—which is just as crucial but consistently underused. These are both the modes, as well as the subjects, of the poems.
I used rhetoric for half the poems and allegory for the other half, in an attempt to show a doubled striving for understanding. The book is simultaneously a story and an argument. The intent was to show that the thinking and telling might be pushing toward something larger than confession.
My father died while I was writing this book, but the book isn’t about him. There’s a condescending tone I hear when people say “Writing is so therapeutic! How wonderful that you could take your pain and make something out of it!” But writing isn’t therapy. Painting isn’t therapy. Music isn’t therapy. Living well is therapy. We’ve taken the arts out of living, and now we only leak them back when people tell us we’re sick. It’s almost impossible to convince anyone that you can make something when you’re healthy, or just because you want to.
PM: Do your interests in Socratic and scientific methodology conflict with artistic preoccupations such as storytelling, “lying and singing”?
RS: No. As long as we understand which method we’re using, and for which venue, then each works to its own purpose. Don’t lie on the stand, don’t tell the truth at a cocktail party, don’t debate when you should be measuring, and don’t worry about anything anything anything when you are singing.
PM: Can you say more about your discomfort with answering questions that require an explanation of your poems?
RS: When the high-school girl emailed me and asked me to list 15 significant events from my life so she could understand my poetry for her English paper, I told her it didn’t matter and it wouldn’t help. And I think I might have suggested that she and her teacher had offended poetry, and that I was not a newspaperman, and that they might have better luck trying to feel things instead of think them. She got really mad and said something about my tone, and how now she’d probably get a B.
The desire for explanation runs deep—it’s at the root of being human—but the frequency with which explanation is demanded from art confuses me. Ask an architect what she “meant” when she designed that doorway and I think you’ll see the same look of confusion.
And even after the assumptions that “you are the work” and “the work is true” are redirected, another assumption surfaces: “the work has a meaning that is more important than the experience of the work.” And even when “explain” is replaced with “analyze,” the results are still unsatisfying to most. It’s an autopsy, which is fine, except it offers very little, and it does so at the expense of all the living parts. Or, if it is satisfying, it’s satisfying in the way that throwing a lamp against the wall is satisfying, which can make the lamp-maker uncomfortable.
PM: Is there a mode or form you’ve employed in your new work which has allowed you to sidestep (or address) the reader’s assumption that your poetry is true, that “you are the work”?
RS: I needed more room in this book, I needed more voices, so I animated the landscape and let everything speak. There were lines that sounded dead in a first-person speaker’s voice. I wanted to ask, “Am I still the man I wanted to be?” But that’s a weak, meek, nostalgic, sentimental question. Instead, I let something else address the question: “The fish in the fishsticks think to themselves, This is not what we meant to be.” The gesture produces a more satisfying moment.
PM: Are you able to characterize the speakers of your poems, if not “you”?
RS: Yes, and your question is the answer—if the speakers aren’t me, then they must be characters—but I’ll talk about the how of it.
I had hoped that using the second person in Crush would complicate the speaker, make him suspect in his authority, that it would push the weight of the poem onto the reader and make the reader complicit. It worked a little bit, and conflating the “you”s made an interesting friction. I liked the strategy but felt I couldn’t keep leaning on it.
In War of the Foxes, I used a first-person narrator who doubles himself immediately into man and rendered man, and then multiplies into troops of rendered men. I also used many third-person characters: including birds, bunnies, numerals, paint, fire, and the moon. In these poems the trees are trees, that is their character, although they can imagine they are deer. Maybe you are a tree, or a bird in a tree. Maybe not. Great literature is about the reader, not the writer.
PM: The speaker in the opening poem “The Way Light Reflects” is “faithful to the paint.” What are you faithful to as a poet?
RS: I am faithful to the sentence for the duration of the sentence.
PM: Can you elaborate on that as well?
RS: I guess, more explicitly, I mean “I am kissing you while I am kissing you.” After I kiss you I might kiss you again or wander off. But while I am kissing you, I am really really kissing you with alls I gots in me, truly.
PM: Does your writing process include conversing with old poems? I notice a recurrence of, or variations on, lines and images from Crush.
RS: Yes—old poems to new poems, as well as new poems to each other and to the paintings, essays, and films as well: the pears in the poem “The Mystery of the Pears” can be seen in the film Why, and the text for the film Why was initially published as an essay in an anthology on teaching.
When I finished Crush, I still hadn’t figured out what to do with my hands. I kept thinking about it. In Crush, in the poem “Unfinished Duet,” hands turn into birds and fly away, and the last line asserts that “Eventually the birds must land.” In War of the Foxes, the birds land everywhere, especially in the poem “The Language of the Birds,” which is concerned with the usefulness of the hand that paints the bird.
PM: You have explained how ekphrastic poems have “both interested and repelled” you. Are there other approaches that you’ve recognized as problematic, but have been able to work with in ways that suit your sensibility?
RS: I was, for a long time, repelled by left-justified poems. Crush got some attention for its line breaks and multiple indentations. For that book, it was important to float the lines and stress the phrases to match the hitched and relentless voice of the speaker. Always returning to the left margin felt like always falling to the ground and starting over. Letting the eye return only partially, letting the eye fall back only to an indented line and then move forward again, was propulsive.
The speakers in War of the Foxes are just as intent but less desperate. Indented lines in these poems were distracting. I wanted to follow the thinking and telling, so I had to sacrifice some of the singing. So, left-justified poems and prose poems. Hopefully the line breaks are still interesting.
PM: As a reader of poetry, what are you most critical or suspicious of?
RS: I used to be both critical and suspicious, but I’m wary of those attitudes now. Work I’ve initially dismissed has, over time or when revisited, turned out to be vital, crucial. As a teacher, I know it’s important to advocate for the work you love, as well as expose yourself, and others, to work that confounds. And as an editor I always worry, when rejecting work, that it was beyond my understanding or ahead of its time. We should know why we’re recommending books to friends, but we should also strongly consider our reluctance when deciding to not recommend a book.
I’d like to see poetry become as integral and common to life as music is. It would be nice to be able to enjoy a poem for a while—like a summer hit on the radio—in addition to enjoying a poem as an important, lasting work. I’d like to see poetry treated more like television. I admit, it sounds odd, but I’d love to see it understood as something available and enjoyable. It is. We should.
PM: Does poetry have a responsibility or efficacy? What do you believe is the highest potential for poetry?
RS: Poetry challenges and delights. That’s its efficacy. It’s a way of thinking. It’s the language of the imagination, and we need larger imaginations if we’re going to survive this.
PM: When you step back and look at your new body of work, what do you see?
RS: I like the assumptions that I could step back, or that I would want to, or that I would look at it if I could, or that I would want to tell you about it. I suppose we’re so accustomed to forensic autopsies, leaked documents, and the behind-the-scenes exposés that this sounds like a reasonable question.
But maybe it is. I know poets eager to address the question. I also know artists that won’t answer and won’t say why. You’re interviewing a writer, I understand that, but I get jumpy when I feel the questions slide toward “Please explain the work.” The question could be heard as “Could you give us an angle of approach into the work?”—which really is a generous opportunity to put the work inside the framework of history and culture—but mostly when I get the “What do you see?” question, the desired response is “I am very proud of myself.”
I made a thing. It works or it doesn’t, but it’s all you get. You don’t need everything. You think you want more but you really don’t. I won’t tell you what I see. I won’t tell you how I want you to feel about it. I won’t tell you where it came from.
Richard Siken is a poet, painter, filmmaker, and an editor at Spork Press. He is a recipient of two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, two Lannan Residency Fellowships, and a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Peter Mishler is a poet and educator living in Syracuse, New York.