April 21, 2015

Richard Siken

Poetry as our second language
Richard Siken has received high praise from fellow poets such as Louise Glück, as well as critics at the New York Times, and has won numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize and the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. It has been 10 years since the publication of his first collection, and his second collection, War of the Foxes, is beautifully wrought and well worth the wait. We asked Siken a few questions about his writing process, the focus of his new collection, the role of poetry and more.
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Richard Siken has received high praise from fellow poets such as Louise Glück, as well as critics at the New York Times, and has won numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize and the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. It has been 10 years since the publication of his first collection, and his sophomore collection, War of the Foxes, is beautifully wrought and well worth the wait. We asked Siken a few questions about his writing process, the focus of his new collection, the role of poetry and more. 

This is your first collection since 2005’s Crush. How has your writing process changed since then?
My process hasn’t changed, but my concerns are different. Crush was focused on romantic love. After Crush was published, it occurred to me that I might never love again—an awful thought, but it was possible—and if I didn’t love again, would I have anything left to say about myself or the world? It turns out, I did. Instead of asking, “Why won’t he love me back?” I started saying, “Don’t kill my friends.”

This collection includes many poems that center on painting or utilize painterly language. How has your painting influenced your writing?
It hasn’t. In War of the Foxes, I wanted to show the difficulties of representation. A bird and a painting of a bird are different, just as an event and the story of an event are different. It’s not that painting influenced my writing, it’s that it became the subject matter of my writing.

Crush has come to be revered as a kind of cult classic among readers. How has its success shaped the way you approach your work?
I’m reminded that I’ve made something and I’m “responsible” for it in some way. I was surprised that so many people wanted to know if it was “true”—whatever that means—instead of letting it evoke emotion. If anything, this insistence on wanting to know the truth compelled me to start writing about the lie of representation and how singing shouldn’t be held accountable to the rules of journalism.

In past interviews, you’ve expressed concern and frustration over “the frequency in which explanation is demanded from art.” In our modern, information-fueled world, why is it important for art and poetry to remain nebulous in meaning?
Oh no! I never meant that at all. Nebulous is an awful word. Poetry and visual art are full of meaning, often very clear, focused and deliberate meaning. What frustrates me is that people want to know—and bluntly ask—what my childhood was like, what medications I might be taking, and if maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with me that makes me unlovable. They think they need this backstory, this explanation, if they are going to approach my poems or consider them valid.

You can stop a song every few beats to analyze its structure—which can be useful for understanding it in one way—but you can also listen to the song all the way through and have the experience. It sounds obvious when I apply this idea to a song, but it seems that dissection the default approach for poetry and visual art. It’s an autopsy, which is fine, except it offers very little, and it does so at the expense of all the living parts.

Are there certain poets or collections that you find yourself continually coming back to, for solace or inspiration?
Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian. Deep lyric and pure play. Astounding.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I have a nice desk. It used to be someone’s dining room table.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have received?
Read what you hate. It’s easy to read what you love, it’s easy to get discouraged when you compare yourself to your all-time favorites, but when you read what you hate, you can feel your aesthetic starting to bristle, you can see, again, the necessity of your work.

Aside from poetry, filmmaking, painting and photography, are there any other artistic mediums you would like to explore in the future?
I am building chairs. And I am trying to figure out how to design a bigger desk.

What do you believe is the role of poetry today?
The role has never changed. Poetry is an example of how to be human. And I believe poetry is the language of the imagination. And we need larger imaginations. Figurative language reframes problems and offers previously unseen solutions. It challenges as well as delights. Poetry should be everyone’s second language.

What advice would you offer to those who may feel intimidated by poetry, but would like to start reading it?
Poets use the materials of conversation for not-conversation—for singing and playing around, and storytelling—and this makes people angry and confused. I think poetry has too often been presented as a puzzle that needs to be solved to get to a deeper meaning. There can be deep meaning and surface meaning and sideways meaning, beautiful lying and sudden honesty, risk and tension and complicating frictions, and, quite frankly, joy inside a poem. It isn’t supposed to be intimidating, it’s supposed to be electrifying. If a poem makes you feel stupid, it’s probably a bad poem.

 

Author photo courtesy of Copper Canyon Press.

Get the Book

War of the Foxes

War of the Foxes

By Richard Siken
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN 9781556594779

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