Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, a Lambda Literary Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, Indiana Review and Forklift, Ohio, as well as in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2000 and Legitimate Dangers. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, a Lannan Foundation residency, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His second book, War of the Foxes, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2015.
Q: Tell me about your forthcoming book, War of the Foxes.
RS: The poems in War of the Foxes address the problems of representation in three arenas: painting, fable, and math. All three attempt to make languages out of symbols, representations used to describe the world. And all three succeed and fail in different ways. I wanted to explore the Socratic Method of question and answer, the Scientific Method of hypothesis and measurement, and the Poetic Method of association and analogy.
Q: Your first book, Crush, was published in 2005, and readers have been eagerly awaiting your second collection. Why was it important to take a long breath between the two books? What does time make possible for the artistic process?
RS: For months after I finished Crush, I felt like I had nothing left to say. Or even a way of saying it. I had talked myself out completely. I began painting again, not vey well, but since my paintings were never very good, and there was no hope of making them good, I was liberated from the pressure of an audience. I became silent. I squeezed the tubes and pushed the colors around. I did have more to say, I just couldn’t -- at the time -- say it with words. This was a crystallizing moment, and led to the lines:
Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.
Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway.
The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful.
As for time making things possible, and the long breath between books, I can’t say anything useful. Writing and publishing are different. I write when I want to, I share when I want to. They rarely match up and they have -- for me -- very little relationship to calendar time. I wish I had a better answer. I thought these poems were worth reading and I was ready to share them.
Q: What drew you to the prose poem as a literary form when writing this collection? What’s possible for you in prose that’s not possible in lineated verse?
RS: In Crush, I used the second person extensively, in an attempt to make the reader complicit in the situations of the poems. I didn’t want to repeat that strategy, so I was left with first- and third-person: I and He. The fables are in the third-person. They have characters doing actions. They have multiple speakers. It was too confusing to break the lines as well.
There are many reasons to break a line. For me, a line break makes a friction between the unit of a line and the unit of the sentence. The fables had enough friction and complexity. When the earlier drafts were lineated, is was an layer of distraction that added nothing interesting. I think -- I hope -- that the fables use enough of the other strategies of poetry to satisfy.
There are lineated poems in the book as well. Since they move forward with a single lyric “I” instead of multiple voices, I found that the line breaks were useful to pace the thinking and the saying.
Q: How did your life as a reader inform this new collection? Would you situate War of the Foxes in the context of different literary influences than you would your first book?Why or why not?
RS: That question would take years to answer. I like theories and criticism and schools and influences -- and it’s important to know if you’re on a branch of art that bears fruit -- but really I don’t want to know the answer regarding my own work. I can talk seriously and with investment about anyone else’s work, but I’d rather someone else place mine in a larger context. The Pre-Raphaelite painters, god bless ‘em, didn’t know that Raphael would come along and they would be named and placed in history retroactively. There’s a charm to the injustice of it. How astouunding it would be, to be considered something that lead forward into innovation and greatness, rather than being a rung in a predictable ladder. It sounds grandiose, of course, but why not shoot the moon? Especially if the idea gets you out of bed when nothing else will.
Q: What else should readers know about your forthcoming book? What do they have to look forward to?
Oooof. Another impossible question. So, a story instead:
Several years ago my father’s health began to rapidly and then his wife died. We had been estranged for over 25 years, even though we live in the same town. I was faced with a problem: did I want the opportunity to punish him or did I want the opportunity to keep striving to be the man I want to be. I ended up moving in with him and giving him daily care. Was he my enemy? No. What was he? My opponent. We disagreed, we argued, we held our ground stubbornly. And so, another crystallizing moment:
You cannot have an opponent if you keep saying yes.
And yes, even years later and I was still really really deeply angry. He was an awful person and he taught me how to be awful person. But everyone has problematic relations with their parents. I couldn’t produce, or even imagine a first-person lyric “I” that would able to sing this or talk about it in any interesting way. So I turned to strategies of fable:
The hunter sinks his arrows into the trees and then paints the targets around them. The trees imagine they are deer. The deer imagine they are safe. The arrows: they have no imagination.
All night the wind blows through the trees. It makes a sound.
The hunter’s son watches the hunter. The hunter paints more rings on his glasses. Everything is a target, says the hunter. No matter where you look. The hunter’s son says nothing, and closes his eyes.