Interview with Richard Siken — April 27, 2015
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. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, two Lannan Residencies, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Christopher Nelson: There are probably too many media today for a single book of poems to be an anthem for a generation, but if it were possible, I think my generation would pick Crush. What was it like writing your second book after the remarkable success of your first?
Richard Siken: I had to come to terms with the ramifications of having made something. I did something to people, or Crush did something to people, and I wondered about what kind of culpability I might have. But tell me a little more about what you mean by anthem.
Nelson: They are our songs of heartbreak and hope. Poets of my generation have a unique reverence for Crush, seemingly universally. It speaks to us at some deep level, at the level of ethos.
Siken: I know that it speaks to people, but ten years later I’m not really clear why. I think the story and subject matter are compelling, and I think the language is good. People have said it’s arresting and relentless, and the line breaks were going against what most poets were doing ten years ago, but I still have no idea why it was this book and not somebody else’s.
To address your question: having this book that did this thing spooked me, and I felt a pressure—whether it was real or not—to address it. I wanted to honor the first book but also see if I couldn’t swing out from under its shadow. I tried a lot of things. I tried being quiet for a while, to let that subject matter settle down, to see what else might bubble up. I tried different craft strategies. I gave myself restrictions: I wouldn’t use the second person, which was a significant part of Crush. I decided to try rhetoric: to share my thinking, not just my feeling. I was worried that since it had been a while—I was no longer nineteen and no longer that kind of desperate—if writing something from emotion would be successful. I hadn’t fallen in love again—so I had nothing to say about that—and my losses were small. I hoped that people would listen to me think through stuff, rather than feel through stuff. I thought that was enough of a shift; it would still be my voice, my images, and my language, but it would go a different way, so it would necessarily be different from Crush.
Nelson: What made Crush so appealing probably can’t be reduced to a single quality—I mean, we’re talking about something ineffable—but you mentioned voice. I think it’s the voice of Crush that people find so alluring. And while it’s a different voice, of course, in War of the Foxes, it’s similar enough that the same effects are happening: feeling haunted, being transported in thought and feeling. I’d like to ask, though, about what you described as writing about thinking instead of feeling. On one level that makes sense to me, but I also have a difficult time separating the two cleanly.
Siken: Sure. I don’t think we can separate them completely, except when we’re doing an autopsy—and this is an autopsy, an interview—but the propulsions in War of the Foxes are rhetorical. They interrogate, they investigate. Crush had a narrative. War of the Foxes builds an argument. On the craft level, it has to do with how many questions and how many declarations. In earlier versions there were too many questions and not enough development. I was propelling forward blindly and leaving no landmarks. I had to adjust the ratio of asking and sharing. Certainly there are multiple gestures and emotional investments in both books, but if we counted the frequency of confessions versus questions, I think we’d immediately see how differently the books move forward.
Nelson: You said that Crush did something to people, and you’ve wondered about your culpability. Now War of the Foxes is clearly concerned with the responsibility of making. Is the poet responsible to ethics?
Siken: Before things become an ethical question, they are a personal bother, a splinter. After Crush, there was something gnawing at me—questions, “Do I want to do that again?” “Do I want to apologize?” It’s funny, Crush came out in the same cultural moment as Alanis Morissette’s first album, which was very angry, so some people jokingly called me the Alanis Morissette of poetry. She had this scathing and beautiful album that did really well, but later she found that her anger was perhaps too easy and she might have been too vain. Her second album apologized for her first album. I didn’t want to apologize. I don’t think there’s anything to apologize for. Crush didn’t know there was going to be a readership; Crush didn’t know there was going to be an audience. And that speaker was so desperately alone. I couldn’t pretend that all of that was still true. I couldn’t write from that place again. I didn’t want to apologize for being nineteen, but also I would never be able to inhabit the place that didn’t know I had already done this thing. So in writing the second book, I was more interested in what making does, what objects do, and why they get so creepy. You know, you build a chair and suddenly there’s a chair, and it spooks us. How did that happen? Did I really do that? Did something in me do that? Or when you make a gun. I don’t think a poem, a book, a chair, or a painting are dangerous in the same way a gun is, so it’s a different kind of responsibility, but still there are things to consider. It was more theoretical for me: what does the author who has a book talk about? I felt I had to consider it.
Nelson: There’s a great moment in the poem “The Language of Birds” that I think is a powerful commentary on making: when the cavemen’s paintings of animals become more powerful than the actual animals, and they can’t undo that. I imagine all artists have a similar bewilderment and awe about being able to re-present a world.
Siken: That poem came early, and really helped to focus my concerns. In another section of the poem, a modern-day painter is also painting an animal. We continue this reiteration. We haven’t gotten away from it. I found that early versions of War of the Foxes didn’t have any nouns because I wasn’t looking at things, and it was really flat; it was didactic and preachy. I made myself take a picture everyday, so that I’d be forced to find one thing worth looking at everyday, and it was really hard. I didn’t even look up what a fox looked like until I had written the title poem, and they’re not what I thought they were, which was really funny. I had looked at paintings of birds, but when I actually started looking at birds, I realized they’re also not what I thought they were. Really, I was just shattering myself into things and searching for nouns that seemed to match. When it came time to polish it up I had to have something that people could see—bricks and stones and the moon and the hayfield; foxes, birds, bunnies, deer.
Let me come back to what you said about ethos. I’m thinking of very early in the first landscape poem—a painting of a man, and the responsibility of painting a man: if you paint a warrior, and you make him handsome, you’re a fascist. And if you make him ugly, you’re saying nothing new. And I was thinking about that because there’s some of my father in the book, and some of my brother, and certainly a lot of me. And I’m not blameless. And my father was not completely evil. And my brother was not completely helpless. And so I didn’t want to paint them as heroes or monsters. I was fine with framing heroes and monsters in the first book; that seemed okay because that was storytelling, but it just seemed really dangerous to argue for a simple duality. I think there’s an ethos there.
Nelson: Your father and my father both passed away a few years ago. People deal with loss in different ways, of course. I’ve written frequently and directly about the passing of my father, as a way to navigate and understand grief and anger. You say that your father’s passing is visible in the new book, but you chose to address it indirectly.
Siken: His passing wasn’t interesting, really. And my grieving was brief and small. The hard part for me was quitting my job and doing daily care, for three years, for a man I didn’t like and who also didn’t like me. So the interesting part about the end of my father’s life was me looking at a version of my own face but older, looking at someone who was evil in exactly the same ways I learned to be evil. He wasn’t completely evil, but he was part evil. He did really bad things, and he enjoyed them; he was a sadist and a narcissist, an abuser. I escaped most of it because I was part of the do-over family. By the time I was born he was forty-five and tired; he had already punished everyone. I mostly got neglect, but I also got the stories of everyone else who had been bruised and broken by him. But, again, it wasn’t his passing that concerned me, it was the fact that all day every day I was with the guy who taught me how to cheat and be mean. It was more about inheritance. What did I inherit, and could I shrug it off or not? I was taught to play unfair and to take what wasn’t mine. And how do I sit with that? My father was not self-aware, and I am self-aware, so even though I have the knee-jerk reaction, I can stop it almost immediately, but I still have the knee-jerk reaction. It isn’t that interesting to say “I had a difficult relationship with my father.” It’s pretty common. I wanted to figure out what to let go of when I let go of him.
I had a poem published in Best American Poetry in 2000, and I decided to show my father a copy because poems of mine were starting to come out, and I thought even if he doesn’t like it, he should know, in case his friends stumble upon it. And he read it and he didn’t say anything, and much later we had dinner and we didn’t talk about it, then much later I was getting ready to leave, and I said, “So what did you think?” And he said, “Have you ever thought of changing your name?” And I thought, “Okay, I’m going to be gentle and honest and not take this as an attack.” So I said, “I think all authors consider changing their names, but I couldn’t come up with anything, so this is the one I’m using.” And he said, “Change your name, so I’m not associated with your filthy project.” I didn’t change my name, but that name thing bubbled up in the poems. In the fables we have a fisherman’s son and a hunter’s son. They don’t have names; they’re named after what their fathers did, even though their fathers aren’t there. I thought that was an interesting thing that happened. It came up naturally and I revised towards it. When I was growing up I was that guy’s son—growing up in a relatively small town where my father was a lawyer who played unfair and had a bad reputation for being difficult and punishing and shaming. He didn’t want to win necessarily; he just wanted to grind people down. If he could make everyone feel bad he would do it—in spite of winning, independent of winning.
But he said such awful stuff for so long that it just turned into barking, and that might be one of the reasons I went into poetry. His language never really had meaning. When I was young I called it barking, and then in college I learned to call it speech acts. His last words to me were, “You don’t deserve to outlive me.” But he’d been saying that for the past year or two, and I was disappointed; I expected something a little more considered. He said I was disobedient; he called me an abomination. And I think the only time I got him to understand a little bit was when he was in assisted living before we moved him to hospice. I was late to visit him; I was ten minutes late, and he said, “I’m so disappointed that you’re ten minutes late.” And I said, “Yeah, you know what? You’re not the only one who’s disappointed in me today, so take a number. And if you think you being disappointed in me matters at all, let me tell you it doesn’t. You’ve always been disappointed, and I stopped considering that around nine or ten. You’re not new to me.” And he went pale. He still thought that I wanted his attention and approval, and it became clear that he was lucky that I came by to bring him what I came by to bring him, that I could just as well do something else.
Yeah, everyone’s disappointed in me all the time, which is fine. I just did a radio interview a couple of days ago. Off the air the interviewer kept saying how willful and stubborn I was, and I didn’t understand what she meant. We hung out a little bit after the show, and she said, “You’re so ferocious.” I don’t think there’s any hate or great energy behind it; I’m just so used to everyone yelling at me and telling me I’m wrong that I ignore it and do my thing. I’m old enough now to not be reactionary about it; I’m old enough now to not fall for it. I said to her, “I buried my lover and my father crippled me, so why do you think this even rates?” Then, of course, she went pale.
There’s a voice in Crush and in War of the Foxes that is approachable and desirable. It didn’t occur to me that I should be ashamed of myself. After awhile, people started showing me how ashamed of myself I should be, but it was too late; I didn’t buy it. And the voice in Crush, the voice in War of the Foxes, the voice in my interviews and essays, and my speaking voice when I’m at dinner—I’m just coming from an honest place with nothing to lose. I said something about suicide at dinner with some people the other day, and they seemed stunned: “Thank you for being so open and deep.” I thought, “Everyone knows about suicide; I’m not even talking about mine. If this is ‘open and deep’ then what kind of lives are you having?” In one of the first interviews I did when Crush came out, the interviewer said, “You must live in a dark and dangerous world. You’re so broken and pessimistic.” And I said, pretty much without guile, “What kind of world do you live in?” I still don’t understand it. I guess I’m naïve in a lot of ways. I just don’t know what they’re talking about. They read the poems and they get it, but then they’re surprised that I know they get it because that’s just how it is: people get sad, people die, people do bad things. It just seems obvious to me. I’m still struggling with that.
Nelson: It makes me think of the poet Li-Young Lee saying, “Poem-making and person-making are the same thing.”
Siken: I have a really strong thing to say about this. I think we’ve taken the arts out of life to such an extent that now these basic human expressions are called “therapy.” There’s art therapy, there’s music therapy, there’s creative writing therapy. People used to just sing. People used to just doodle, or draw, or paint. I think person-building includes expression, which is the poem, which is interior design, which is doodling, which is guitar—it’s anything. We’re calling these basic human needs and expressions “therapy” because we’ve talked ourselves out of believing they’re valid. It really, really bothers me. Of course poem-making is person-making. Learning how to cook is person-making. How could it not be, and why is that a shock?
Nelson: That’s a good question. I suspect part of it results from the commodification of the arts. What’s the value of something if you can’t sell it?
Siken: I think it also has to do with arts education—where are we putting our attention and money? Science is great. I love science, but I think scientists benefit from learning poetry; science is based on analogy and comparison. It should be mandatory—mandatory—that scientists study the humanities, learn how to use figurative language; it makes them better scientists, and it makes them better at talking about their science and their experiments. I think it’s so weird that people don’t see that.
Nelson: When preparing for our conversation I decided that I wanted to mostly avoid comparing Crush and War of the Foxes, but we’ve already done some of that, and my next question sort of demands it. I guess that’s what you mean by the difficulty of “trying to swing out from under Crush’s shadow.” … There’s the musicality of the lyric, and there’s the impassioned speaker of the lyric—traditionally, two of the defining features of the mode. Would you say that with time your poetry has become more lyrical?
Siken: I know that War of the Foxes doesn’t sing the way that Crush was singing. The white space and indentations in Crush helped propel that voice, and in early versions of War of the Foxes, I noticed when I tried to jag my lines and use indentations, it got muddy. I’ve always hated left-justified poems; they seem so lifeless to me. And I realized that this voice was doing a different thing and had to be left-justified or in prose-poem blocks, because the “visualness” and hitching voice I had used before was undermining the argument or the storytelling. And I miss it; I really miss it. These poems are hard to read out; I have to hold my finger on the left margin so I can keep finding my place because my eye comes all the way back to the start. I didn’t do that in Crush. And when it comes to image—I was really trying hard to put in more image, and I think new work will be even more image-driven; painting and forcing myself to take pictures is making image really ring in me. But lyric is my love. I came to poetry through lyric poetry, and I read high lyric poetry because I know I’m going to drift away from it, so I try to get as close as I can. It’s so funny that I love Lyn Hejinian and Gertrude Stein and ended up writing Crush and War of the Foxes; they’re so far away from Lyn Hejinian and Gertrude Stein. But I think if I hadn’t been reading them I’d just be writing essays or short stories. I need to keep being reminded of the music and the image and the burst of emotion that is the lyric.
Nelson: The voice in War of the Foxes seems more authoritative; the sentences are shorter; there are more declarative statements. It’s a voice that’s clearly speaking with more certainty in its positions.
Siken: There are several reasons for that. One is that I used first-person instead of second-person. I’m owning it this time. I was able to deflect it in Crush; even when I was talking about myself I was saying “you,” so there was some wiggle room for me to deny it. Using rhetoric is declaration, so yes, the sentences are shorter here. I’m not spooling and running on voice and high emotion; there’s not high emotion. And after I was done with Crush, which didn’t end well—it isn’t a happy ending; it ends on a dream, which is only a possibility. The last twelve lines of Crush are a lie. Crush didn’t end well, and I certainly didn’t end well at the end of Crush. And I didn’t love again, and it occurred to me that I might not love again. What do I have left to say if I’m never going to be in love? And what came up inside me was, “Don’t kill my friends.” And that seemed to be very solid and very clear. And following from that declaration there was a real confidence. “Why won’t he love me back?” isn’t confident, but “Don’t kill my friends” is super confident. I was absolutely grounded for this book, and I’m glad that it’s not as angry as it could have been. Thinking about having to protect my friends and having to deal with my dad was making me furious.
Nelson: The unexpected juxtaposition of calmness of voice and the violent atmosphere of the book is at once alluring and really unsettling. The world in War of the Foxes is a predatory world. Bad things are happening all around. The world gets carved up; it’s a landscape full of bones and wounds. Violence is a subject of the book, not just something that occasionally happens, but violence as a subject.
Nelson: Why did you want to look at that dark tendency we all have?
Siken: The easy answer is because we live in a time of war, and I have successfully not addressed it, thinking it would go away, and it didn’t go away. I started grad school with the shock and awe of Gulf War One, and I thought, “I’ll just write about love because this will all resolve by the time I’m ready to publish.” And it just doesn’t resolve. And there’s only so much time for you to ignore the biggest thing going on in the world. I didn’t have an angle in for the longest time; I have not been a soldier, and I have not fought, so I didn’t even know how to address it. But then, father again, and suddenly I’m embattled daily. I wanted him to be my enemy; I wanted it to be noble. But he wasn’t my enemy; he was my opponent, and once I figured that out, I had more stuff to say.
Nelson: Can you clarify that distinction—enemy and opponent?
Siken: He wanted to win the game; he didn’t want to kill me. Yet, saying it’s a game makes it seem lighter than it is. He didn’t want to vanquish me; he just wanted to win. But having grown up with him, I had internalized his theory, and a lot of me wanted to vanquish. That was my inheritance. I had to think that through and figure out ways of dropping it.
Nelson: I think one of the thematically important moments is in the title poem, where you write, “You cannot have an opponent if you keep saying yes.” Do you think that some of the force and authority of the voice comes from the necessary stance required to say no?
Siken: It’s funny how it all comes down to yes or no. That’s where war happens—it’s yes and no. My friend Chris said a long time ago that he wanted to learn how to say yes more often, and we made a pact that we would try to say yes as much as we could. “Do you want to come over for dinner?” “Yes.” “Do you want to go hiking?” “Yes.” “Do you want to do this?” “Sure.” “How ‘bout this?” “Never done it, sounds scary, yes.” I wanted to say yes to life. I wanted to say yes as many times as I could so that I wasn’t living in fear. And then every time I was with my father I had to say no, to defend myself. Not just hold my ground—because I’m willing to give up my ground and run, I’m not very possessive of my ground—but just to maintain my personal borders, as the nation-state of me, to stop his constant attacks. It was clear to me as I was saying yes to my friends and always saying no to my father that was an entrance into writing about war and opponent and enemy and fight and border.
My brother said a strange thing when he came out and helped with my father at the end. He said that he’d always seen our father as a tragic figure, and he’d thought of our family as a tragedy, but he was coming to believe more and more that it was melodrama and not tragedy. And I thought of the basic thing that you learn when you’re studying literature: it’s really boring to scream about your cut finger; anyone can scream about a cut finger. But if you whisper about war, it gets chilling. There’s a long list of people who do that—Akhmatova, Milosz, the list goes on and on—people who whispered for effect or whispered because they didn’t want to get caught. I just felt like it was time to whisper.
Nelson: Many of these poems are ostensibly about painting, but like all good poems they are about something else as well. The subject behind the subject, in my reading, is the mind.
Siken: Absolutely. There were a lot of hands in Crush because there was a lot of grabbing and grasping and touching and rupturing. In this one it’s the head. The head turns into thinking, and it gets thrown into the sky and gets thrown on the ground and turns into the moon. So, yeah, pretty consistent in insisting it’s about thinking and saying things like “the life of the body is a tragedy.” That’s the rhetoric again; listen to me think. The poems were supposed to do three things but only do two; I wanted to talk about representation in three ways: I had the first-person poems about painting (so that was a representation); I had the fables, which was storytelling (and that’s a representation); and then I had some strange poems about math. The book was supposed to be longer, and there were supposed to be more math poems, because math is a whole other way we represent the world. But my insistence on what I wanted it to do and the book’s insistence on what it was going to do were different. The math isn’t foregrounded enough that I could say it does these three things, but I think it’s there enough to show. There were a variety of strategies of thinking—tried to tell the story of it, tried to argue the theory of it, tried to show the math of it.
Nelson: Now that you mention it, I do see math as a subtle motif.
Siken: I wish I had made this more clear, but the math people will get it. The poem “Lovesong of the Square Root of Negative One”—the square root of negative one does not exist, but it solves certain intractable problems. And I thought that was exactly what painting and fables did. I was going to make it much more clear that that’s a ghost in the math. It’s a number that is impossible, so it’s the first imaginary number. And an imaginary number solves things like painted soup will help your painted hunger.
Nelson: So is it the mind that needs help? There’s a fascinating moment in the poem “The Language of Birds”—I keep coming back to that poem—where the speaker’s mind has two birds in it, and “One of these birds,” he says, “is not my bird.” Then the birds agree with him—this internal conflict about the degree to which the speaker can self-identify with the mind and the uncertainty about his own thinking. Terrible things happen to the head throughout the book: “The life of the mind is a disappointment,” and “the mind fights the body,” and the head gets cut off many times, and there’s the beautiful painting on the cover of the man walking through a field with his head on fire. I’m intrigued by the motif of inner conflict with the mind, or the mind’s conflict with itself.
Siken: Me too. And that’s where all of this came from.
Nelson: And because it is also a book about war, I’m thinking of micro and macro levels of conflict. There’s a Buddhist maxim that encourages one to change the violence of the world by ending the war within oneself. This is my interpretation—that if we weren’t carrying a war around inside our minds and hearts, we wouldn’t have wars with other people.
Siken: It’s a great, great thought. I just don’t believe it. I wish I could, but the problem is we have bodies, and we have limited resources. So we need laws, we need police, we need all this stuff; we need the ideas of sharing and fairness and worth because there are limited resources. It would be nice if everyone ate. We have what we need to make sure everyone eats, but not everyone eats.
Nelson: It’s true. So what I said is an oversimplification?
Siken: If you’re going to believe that, you have to go all the way to its logical conclusion and say if you give up your desire, if you give up your expectation, if you’re willing to shut down all the war inside you, then you’re also willing to not fight for food. You’re willing to calmly accept that you have no resources, and you’re willing to perish. And if you’re not willing to perish, and you’re not willing to let your friends perish, then there’s the war inside you that then happens everywhere. If you’re not afraid of death then you can do anything. If you’re not afraid of death then you don’t have to fight back when you’re hit. That’s a really, really enlightened place to be. And, you know, if half of us were that enlightened, then that half of us would soon be gone, and the other half would have to start all over again to get enlightened.
Nelson: I love the rhetorical questions in your book. What we are talking about reminds me of one of them: “When you paint / an evil thing, do you invoke it or take away its power?” The relationship between the interior life—the mind—and the external world. And, of course, both poets and painters are interested in this. What would you say is the common—or uncommon—ground that unites poetry and painting?
Siken: In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace really wanted to talk about writing, but writing about writing can get very boring. So instead he talked about tennis, and it worked. It worked just fine. He talked about tennis, and everyone who loves tennis and sports felt included, and everyone who knew about writing said, “Wow, he’s writing about writing. That’s so smart.” I agree, poetry and painting are more closely linked than fiction and tennis, but my investigation of it in War of the Foxes took years, and I only came up with forty-seven pages. And I think it’s something I could spend another twenty years trying to explain and giving examples of. But the heart of it: lyric poetry is music and image, and painting is image, and the brushstrokes make the music. So at its heart, focusing on image, poetry and painting overlap completely. Poetry has sound, and painting has color and texture, but it’s the image that links them.
Nelson: I studied painting as an undergrad. I still remember this insightful moment when I was trying to paint a tree, and I was finding it very difficult. I had the tree in my mind, and I really liked the tree in my mind, but the tree on the canvas didn’t approach the perfection of the tree in my mind. Later that day, I was working on a poem with a tree in it, and I was shocked by how perfect the tree in the poem already was because all I had to do was write “juniper” (or “aspen” or “oak,” whatever it was), and there it was, already technically complete. I didn’t need to have dexterous control over the brush or get the colors mixed right to represent it; the word itself did that.
Siken: Yeah, I was painting birds for a really long time before I actually looked where the wings were attached and what they looked like. As children, we paint trees in a certain way and have the branches go in a certain way, then you go outside and look at a tree and say, “That’s not at all how the branches go.” We end up painting icons of trees and icons of birds rather than trees and birds. But in a poem it’s a symbol anyway, so when you make a symbol—boom—you don’t have to worry about it. But when you’re painting you’ve got to decide: Is it a symbol or is it a thing? Is it a bird or is it a symbol of a bird?
Nelson: There’s a fascinating moment in the poem “Turpentine” where the painting gets burdened by the objects it holds. The painting is personified and is able to suffer. I think our minds are, in some ways, like the painting. The mind can’t help but participate in the creation of reality, and that must be necessarily some kind of burden, like the painting gets burdened by whatever the maker chooses to put in it.
Siken: And the maker gets burdened by realizing he’s betrayed himself and has to look at this thing that was on his mind that he didn’t realize was on his mind. Luckily, though, one doesn’t have to have all these concepts in the head; if you’re honest to the experience, all the metaphors inherent in the experience come out. I think, though, that in revision one has to take out other arguments that are valid as well but just muddy it up, because you can’t talk about everything. It’s too hard to talk about everything. I think when you cut things out that seem to stray, what’s truly resonant will still be there.
I took the head, and I kept thinking about the head, and the head as an image, and I kept trying to turn it and turn it and turn it in each poem so that I could triangulate. So stuff that comes up about the head comes up naturally. I wasn’t necessarily thinking it. But when I was talking about war, there were some things that had to be addressed, and one of them was the war against the self and the necessity of considering the speaker’s death or the speaker’s idea of suicide. That had to come up. It would have been a much flatter book if I hadn’t addressed that, and I don’t address it in a huge way, but the end of the book is that; the speaker is dead. One reading is that the speaker had a premonition about his death, and the other reading is that speaker planned his death. It’s really hard to say if the speaker killed himself or not. I didn’t want to make a statement one way or the other.
Nelson: In my reading, death could have come naturally from the passage of time, as well as from a violent act, which might be ironic, given the violent atmosphere of the book.
Siken: It’s strange that you say “violent act”; I don’t see suicide as a violent act.
Siken: No. And the premonition is the speaker sitting on a park bench in a nice coat and snow is falling down. It’s very peaceful. He’s not bloody, he’s not torn apart; there’s no rupture.
Nelson: True. But if he were to kill himself—isn’t that necessarily violent? He would have to do some violence to his body in order to exit.
Siken: He could take a pill.
Nelson: And that’s a softer violence compared to other ways, yes.
Siken: The body would say it is absolutely a violent act, and the mind would say it’s one of many choices.
Nelson: The end brought up a complication that I found mystifying and pleasurable: the man is dead on the park bench in a peaceful setting—the snow is falling around him—but I didn’t take him as the speaker necessarily. I felt like the painter was just one possible manifestation of the multiple minds in the book.
Siken: For sure: it is the painter in the poem, but he’s the speaker in the painting poems. But let’s call him the painter; the painter dies at the end. What I like about fables is there’s no definitive version—the parts can be moved around. But it was so satisfying for me to say someone has to leave first, there are no other versions of the story. Some versions are absolute; this is the story that never changes: “Someone has to leave first.”
Nelson: I like, too, that the book concludes with such a brief poem; tonally it feels right, after that last fable. And the last line is a broken sentence signaled by the dash. It’s not without its ambiguities though: “Putting down the brush for the last time—”. The maker stops making, yes; but with the multiplicity of identities, I felt like the painter’s death isn’t the only resolution for the complexity of the minds in the book.
Siken: I agree. It would have been really awkward to end with the last fable. I was lucky that I was able to do it in such a short way, and I was lucky that using dashes worked—to click it shut but leave some part of it open. But I think it would be a really unsatisfying end without it, which is funny because it’s the shortest poem I ever wrote.
Nelson: And we have to acknowledge the wonderful temporal dissonance in the fact that the painter is dead on a bench, peacefully surrounded by snow, and then is still painting at the end. There’s enough mystery around the end that we can’t be too certain about it, and that’s very satisfying. … Thank you, Richard, for taking the time to speak with me, and for your beautiful work, thank you.