A Conversation with Richard Siken
BY THOMAS HOBOHM
Richard Siken is a poet, painter, and filmmaker. His book Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, selected by Louise Glück, a Lambda Literary Award, a Thom Gunn Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other books are War of the Foxes (Copper Canyon Press, 2015) and I Do Know Some Things (forthcoming, Copper Canyon Press, 2024). Siken is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Lannan Fellowships, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Thomas Hobohm: Your return to X (formerly Twitter) in July was precipitated by the crash of the Richard Siken bot (@sikenpoems), an account which regularly tweeted out short snippets of your poetry. You said in a post on X, “I just jumped in because the sikenbot went down,” and since then you’ve become a power user of the platform—after not being active on social media for years. My first question is: Why now? Could you speak to how you went from posting excerpts of your work to engaging directly with your fans?
Richard Siken: The bot was a good excuse to engage again. I finally, after years, have new work. I was just going to post links to poems and a few quotes from my notebooks, but people asked questions so I answered some. I tried to funnel them into questions about poetry, but many spilled over into other topics. I decided to give my best, honest answers. Some of the questions were meant to mess with me—what do you think of hard-boiled eggs and the color orange?—but I decided to answer them honestly as well: hard-boiled eggs are good in spinach salads and the color orange is sadder than the color tangerine. Sometimes it’s just a matter of them not knowing how to ask. I remember not knowing how to ask. I try to answer what they’re really asking or nudge the conversation into something useful and interesting.
TH: Where do you find the energy to answer so many questions every day?
RS: I came out a few months before AIDS hit hard. The generation above me was decimated. The potential role models and guides I might have had were wiped out. The people who were going to protect me were eliminated. We’re still recovering from that. I’m only getting the attention I’m getting because I survived. The attention was supposed to be spread out across a vibrant community. I try to be as attentive and careful as I can, because we’re still recovering from the loss. Sometimes I get sloppy or frustrated or glib, but I try to be available and tender.
TH: I’m moved. Everything is so tenuous. You’ve reminded me how lucky I am—how lucky we all are—to have guides like you. Personally, I’ve found myself returning to your work again and again. The first time I fell in love, and then, predictably, after my first breakup. Struggling to write, to clock in, to get out of bed in the morning. Whenever I’ve needed guidance, basically. The word guidance makes me think of the novel Guide, by Dennis Cooper, and how you said, in a post on X, “Dennis Cooper is my Richard Siken.” As a Dennis Cooper stan myself, I’m curious how you first discovered his work, and what it means to you? Has it given you guidance, personally or artistically?
RS: Somehow I found Closer. I read Closer and Frisk back to back. Then I found his poems. There was something raw and unapologetic about his writing that I hadn’t seen before. He sidestepped all the shame and criticism that might be used to attack the work and just spoke hard things in hard ways about where he was and how he thought. I was thunderstruck. It was transgressive. It even felt wrong, in a way. It was liberating. And the quality of the writing is stellar. I hear quotes of his rise up in my head all the time. In fact, in the hospital, right after my stroke, I was trying to explain what was happening to me, what I was feeling, and all I could say was, “like trails in the air left by people on fire,” which is one of his lines.
TH: That’s a beautiful line. How has your stroke, and the recovery process, affected your artistic practice?
RS: The fundamental power of poetry is the friction between the sentence and the line. The sentence is a unit of meaning. When you break it, you get two or more units of meaning that exist simultaneously with the original meaning. No other form of writing has this quality. Since we’re not really writing in traditional forms anymore, it’s even more important to find ways of saying and writing that make shapes, support voice and music and rhythm, and help build architectures. Even if the forms are organic and specific to a single poem, the form is crucial. When I had my stroke, I lost my sense of line. I lost my music. A line break makes a hitch in the breath, a small crack in the meaning. I was trying to piece things back together and the line break was making it harder, not easier. I had to abandon it.
TH: So how would you describe the form you’re using now?
RS: My new book is seventy-seven prose poems. Each page is a small box that tries to hold the content. I also lost my guile and poker face from the stroke. I couldn’t lie and I didn’t have a filter. The artifice was gone. I was saying things without metaphor, which was shocking and uncomfortable. I was speaking in the first-person, not making the reader complicit with the second-person or using the third-person to throw my voice. And most terrifying for me: the content was autobiographical. All of this forced me to lean on new craft strategies. I use associative leaps significantly now, to keep the poems moving and make interesting hinges. All the poems look the same. I needed strategies to make them sound different. I varied my sentences and used punctuation in a much more intentional way. I used the colon and the semicolon to make the connections I never had to make before. I limited the dash and the fragment. I have a rhythm but the music—the lyric—isn’t there in the way it was before. I want to return to it when I can. I want it to return.
TH: I see. It sounds like the form (or lack thereof) of the prose poem has given you the space to write in a way you haven’t before. In a way that you needed. If I may, I’d like to return to your activity on X for a bit. I just realized that this is a meta-interview, of sorts, because you’ve been participating in a massive, distributed interview with your fans over X, and I’m interviewing you about that interview. On X, you’ve readily provided a stream of humor and wisdom, but occasionally you are also cast in the role of a therapist, which can be an emotionally taxing position to be in. Does the collective heartbreak of your fans weigh on you? And if so, how do you manage it?
RS: It was hard enough to find community before Covid, and then we were locked down for a few years. They’re trying to make human contact. The boundaries aren’t as firm as they used to be. Sometimes I have to ask them to call a friend or a professional, when they seem to be in crisis. I don’t talk about politics or religion. I won’t have discussions where I could possibly get between kids and their parents. They want to be heard. They want information about becoming resilient and self-sufficient. They want advice about love and heartache. Once, at a reading, during the Q & A, someone in the audience asked what I thought about death. At first, I was put off and uncomfortable, but these are the questions we expect the poets to have the answers to. But it’s weird and troublesome. I’m not a professional. I’m not a therapist. I’m not sure if I want to be an uncle, or an advice columnist, or a search engine. I’m still not sure what to redirect it into.
TH: People have always turned to poetry for guidance, but social media has enabled them to directly ask you, among other poets, for advice. Do you see your posts on X as part and parcel of your poetic project? Are your replies an elaboration of what you communicate in your poetry, or a wholly separate thing?
RS: The posts aren’t part of any project or practice. It was recent, sudden, and unexpected. It might influence something, turn into something, but it could also devolve quickly. I forget where I got the quote, but “Every system open to freedom is open to degeneracy.” The freedom and wildness and anonymity is letting threats leak in, is letting trolls hijack conversations. The direct access lets things get unruly and I think neither end of the conversation quite knows what to do with the access. And tone is hard to guess sometimes. And jokes and irony get lost and people get offended. And younger people are used to sharing everything, asking anything. They get really riled up when I decline to answer a question.
TH: I’ve noticed that too. On X, people keep asking you variants of the question: “I like this popular thing. Do you like it too?” To me, questions like these imply that you are only interesting, as a person, insofar as you reveal what music, television shows, movies, etc., you consume. How do you feel about the way fans of your work project their taste onto you? Why do you think that people want their favorite poet to validate their taste?
RS: They want the validation. There are also a lot of questions about which fandom is better than another. A lot of them don’t even know I’m a poet. They just see their friends interacting with a “famous” person.
TH: That makes sense. Context is often lost on X. When that happens, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s tragic. Over the years, your work has been adopted by various fandoms. How do you feel about it?
RS: Oof. Context is getting lost everywhere these days. As for fandoms, my twentieth century intention was to make a place where I could articulate my thoughts and feelings. I thought it would be a place where the reader and I could meet. That’s no longer the way storytelling works. Now readers enlarge the places an author has made, include themselves in this larger space, and meet with each other without the author. At first I found it disconcerting. I think it’s odd that some fans have altered the male/male dynamic of my poems and posted their new, reimagined male/female versions. More than odd. It actually makes me uncomfortable. But I’ve sung male/female songs as if they were male/male, so I guess I understand it and do it myself. I hope readers find meaning in my work. Even if that meaning slides away from my intention. I think, though, there’s a point where revision of my poems — which really is very different — slides too far away from the original text. At that point, I think my work should be considered an influence, if considered at all. I’m not writing to provide others an opportunity to radically translate my inner life into something unrecognizable.
TH: Have you noticed anything about which of your poems, or posts, tend to gain traction, and which don’t?
RS: Links to new poems get the most views, then quotes from new poems. The answers to “How do I…” questions, about life or poetry, get the majority of attention and follow-up comments/questions. The thing I like the most is when I get clipped or shouldered in just the right way and I surprise myself. When someone said “I’d die for Richard Siken if he asked me to.” I wrote “Live for him instead.” It was popular but not really that interesting. Someone else said “I’d go to war for Richard Siken” and for whatever reason, I replied “We are not going to war, we are going to the club. Put on your good shoes.” I think that’s my favorite exchange so far.
TH: Oh, I love that! I’d wear my tallest platform heels. And that’s such a queer way to respond to the imagery of “going to war.” How has the role of queer poetry (or queer art in general) shifted over the years you’ve been writing?
RS: It’s changed in so many ways. Crush came out in a very specific cultural moment. The fear of blood that we had from AIDS had begun to transform into the fetishization of blood in vampire stories. Crush landed between AIDS and Twilight. We’ve gone from “gay and lesbian” to LGBTQIA+. Drag has been normalized. We’ve got representation in all mediums. We’ve got gay marriage. But there is some significant pushback currently, so we have to hold our ground. We have to resist shame and censorship. We have to stay strong and fabulous. I remember being the first gay that someone met. I remember being seen as a threat and an abomination. Now I’m just another gay man doing his thing.
TH: We’ve come so far, and it’s critical that we hold on to that progress. Part of that is the everyday work of taking care of ourselves. You’ve talked on X about the necessity of having a “balanced life” as an artist. What do you think about the “starving artist” narrative—the idea that artists should sacrifice their well-being for the sake of their art?
RS: The concept of the starving artist has been misunderstood. You can choose time or you can choose money. You can want less or make more. You can get a used car and work four days a week, or take a longer vacation. Some people think you’re starving if you buy a shirt from a thrift store. The concept of “want less / make more” is the concept of a balanced life, not a life of extreme practice and abject poverty. You shouldn’t sacrifice your well-being for your art, you should sacrifice your expensive tastes. Buy a new tube of paint and eat a sack lunch. Art isn’t fueled by trauma, it’s fueled by curiosity. Unfortunately, we’re most curious when our backs are against the wall and we desperately need a solution. You can look for a solution when you’re feeling fine. It can be an exploration instead of a knee-jerk reaction. Another misunderstanding about the starving artist: you don’t have to make art all the time. You can lie fallow and feed your head. There’s a necessary balance between transmitting and receiving. You can think about art while you are doing the dishes.
TH: How have other aspects of your own life nourished your writing?
RS: You have to fill the tank. You have to move your body and get out and look at things. You have to talk to people and eat strange food, travel if you can, watch movies with subtitles, listen to music outside of your habits, go to art galleries and concerts, do things you’re bad at. You have to challenge yourself, keep learning new things, participate. And all of these things fall under the umbrella of “Stay curious.” And you have to have fun. My housemate is being fussy with me today because I am talking to the dogs in Spanish about how my father fought in the clone wars. Sometimes I am ridiculous, but sometimes he is joyless.
TH: Speaking of your housemate, I’d like to talk a little about the poems Adroit is publishing alongside this interview, both of which open with the line: “My housemate’s girlfriend has a kid who stays with us half the week.” One of the first things that struck me about these poems is their frank, vivid language. Yet, they are still quite mysterious—case in point, I don’t know for certain whether the kid is six, ten, or even sixteen. How important is the element of mystery to your work? To these poems in particular?
RS: The more frank they are, the more mysterious they have to be.
TH: What are some of the techniques you use to develop, or illuminate, mystery? Does it come naturally?
RS: I’m saying simple things, often in simple sentences, so it has to move and flex. I’m working in the space between the sentences. The connections for me still are loose. I wanted to make the most of that. The poems track but not quite. I don’t show all my math. I don’t share all the steps of thought I used to build the story or the syllogism.
TH: You often use anaphora to connect the sentences in your work, to great effect. In “Parataxis,” sentences two through five all begin with “He,” pulling the reader in and developing the rhythm of the poem. How do you balance repetition of this sort with your desire for novelty and movement?
RS: I’m playing with the list poem, really, but pushing on it. I’m circling and building up, to get an escape velocity that can take me into the places I want to go or didn’t expect to go. The repetition holds one end still, so the other end can whip around and still stay tethered.
TH: I was also fascinated by the title, “Parataxis.” It recalls parapraxis, the psychoanalytic term for a mistake in speech resulting from unconscious interference. The intrusion of the unconscious into (supposedly) conscious speech: a “Freudian slip.” Does your poetry speak to, or from, the unconscious?
RS: I liked the idea of parataxis. The kid in the poem and I share a wall. Our bedrooms, our lives, are adjacent and juxtaposed. And both of us connect things by smashing things together, sometimes with no other connection than that we smashed them together. I love the concept of parapraxis. I didn’t know the term. I go on gut. I stay out of my own way if I can. I definitely speak from the unconscious.
TH: Do you ever come into conflict with your gut? During the revision process, for example?
RS: It’s more like my gut is right but where it took me doesn’t work for the poem.
TH: How do you know what works and what doesn’t?
RS: Here are some things that don’t work: It bores me. Someone else said it better. I’ve already said it better. I’m trying to prove something. It’s flat and unsurprising. It sounds clunky. It’s melodramatic or spiteful. It’s too easy to misinterpret. It doesn’t sound like me. It continues but doesn’t develop. It was only for me and not for publication. It’s the glimmery failure that leads to new work but isn’t yet new work.
TH: On the subject of your new work, the end of “Dinosaur” has been haunting me. “Once you look something in the face it starts to want things.” In your poetry, do you try to look things in the face?
RS: It’s a paradox. I look at the world with serious scrutiny, but the reason I’m a poet and not a performer is that I want to slide it under your door and run away. In “Dinosaur,” I don’t look the kid in the face. In the next poem I have to. The kid in the two poems was a surprise. It’s the first time I ever felt myself in a parental role or wrote about it. There’s a great tension—and mystery—in the relationship. I don’t want to be responsible but he keeps coming into the kitchen and asking me questions when I’m cooking.
TH: On X, you’re in a similar position, serving as a mentor for the young people who ask you questions there. The last thing I’d like to ask about is where you see that going. Do you have any ideas for what to “redirect it into,” as you said earlier?
RS: As it is now, it isn’t sustainable as a format. I have to scale up or scale down. After I post links to all my new poems and share all the good quotes from my notebooks, there will be nothing left to share. It’ll be a chat show. I’m not sure that would be interesting or something I’d want to do. Dennis Cooper has a blog—denniscooperblog.com—and it’s amazing. He’s whip-smart. He talks about art and culture. Somehow he manages to post a fully researched essay almost every day, with links to media and a section where he answers questions from everyone who asks. I’m in awe. I’m not smart enough to do it. I wouldn’t mind doing something like it, though. I’d love to build or inhabit a venue where I could support and discuss other writers and writing in general, a place where I could showcase and advocate for the things I love. Actually, that sounds a lot like a chat show.