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Nerve-Wracked Love

A profile of Richard Siken.
In Crush, Richard Siken writes his way into an unforgettable zone of loss and panic. A winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, Siken talks to writer Nell Casey about his book’s long gestation and the poems he wants to write in the future.
Richard Siken is poised and ready to pounce. He is talking about a new kind of poetry, more optimistic and compassionate, moving forward from the insistent sadness of his first book, Crush. He is thinking about a different life, one with a community of writers and conversations about language, perhaps as a teacher at a university. He is leaping forth in conversation when the words, or the meanings they offer, seem off mark. “If you think the world is a golden place made out of love, then the book is ‘grim,’” he countered when I used the adjective to describe the despair and murderous images that appear in his poetry. “If you think that life is brutal and short, then the book is uplifting. I don’t know if it’s grim. I think it’s true.”

The 39-year-old poet is wise to be considering his options. Crush, chosen by former poet laureate Louise Glück in 2004 for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize, was also recently nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. These are two of the highest honors in the poetry world. With a single book, then, Siken has achieved more than many writers do in the span of a career.

Siken’s debut collection, 15 years in the making, hurls the reader into a world of nerve-wracked love—relationships haunted by obsession and futility—expressed with such eloquence as to make the pain of it strangely alluring. With sophisticated wordplay and provocative shifts between first and second person, Siken expresses a frustration with earthbound details and bodily confinement. He effectively juxtaposes holy wishes with mundane images—making them both seem beautiful by some strange lyrical alchemy—throwing love in with the sock drawer.

Siken takes keen advantage of the fragmented structure of poetry, where the fits and starts of thought and meaning add up to much more than if the author ever tried to explain himself in full. Take, for example, his lead poem, “Scheherazade”:
Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
Until they forget that they are horses.
It’s not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere,
it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,
how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple
to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
we’re inconsolable.
Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we’ll never get used to it.
This poem, one of the gentlest in the collection, sets up the first of three sections in the book. Each section, Siken explains, moves us through the speaker’s relationship with death. In the first, he views death romantically and with longing; in the second, he understands it as a reality; in the third, the speaker “has been shot,” says Siken, “and is possibly dying against his will.” As it turns out, Siken is not merely working through death as an abstract fear. Although he is quick to point out that his book is not autobiographical, and he is not the speaker, he does allow that the 1991 death of his boyfriend influenced his work. “It made the book a little more about elegy,” he says, “and I guess a little more desperate because everything seemed fragile and temporary.”

Alternatively, Siken gives this explanation for the structure of the book: “The first part is man against man, the second is man against God, the third is God, the director of the movie, in a helicopter trying to give advice and finding that no one is listening.” This also gives a good sense of the flashes of Fellini-like absurdism that appear on occasion in the poetry, offering dark humor amid the wreckage. From “Dirty Valentine”:
There’s a part in the movie
where you can see right through the acting,
where you can tell that I’m about to burst into tears
right before I burst into tears
and flee to the slimy moonlit riverbed
canopied with devastated clouds.
We’re shooting the scene where I swallow your heart and you make me
spit it up again. I swallow your heart and it crawls
right out of my mouth.
The tone is always pitched at a shriek, though, and Siken aimed for that. He began to write some of the poetry included in Crush when he was in his 20s, and later decided to preserve the mood of that age. “I wanted to talk about reckless, romantic love, and that has immaturity to it,” he explains. “There comes a point where it gets silly or you can’t get invested in it or you’ve had so many experiences or so many comforts, it doesn’t seem as terribly tragic.” Fortunately, Siken brings the wisdom and restraint of his elder self to the ardor of his youth, which keeps the book, with the exception of one or two moments, from becoming melodramatic. “Everything that isn’t urgent falls away in revision,” Siken explains. “I can refine [the writing] so that it becomes kind of a wallop.” In her introduction to the book, Glück aptly compares the work to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, in that both writers are able to “restore to poetry that sense of crucial moment and crucial utterance which may indeed be the great genius of the form.”

His success has made him want to “play”—maybe go to a book party or shake hands with Jack Gilbert (one of his longtime heroes, and now one of his competitors, as Gilbert is also nominated for an NBCC award this year). Yet Siken is not convinced that it is possible to have a career as a poet. Poetry, he believes, is made possible only by a supplemental income. “Poets aren’t rock stars. I’m not sure they should be. Poetry rattles you, and it’s hard to pay for that,” he offers. “I’d hate to see poetry commodified. It keeps it safe and sacred.”

Siken has supported himself for the last 16 years with a job as a social worker caring for developmentally disabled adults. He received a B.A. in psychology from the University of Arizona before attending the graduate program for poetry there. Siken still lives in Arizona, working two 20-hour shifts on weekends in order to have his weeks to himself. He uses that time to write as well as edit Spork, a literary magazine he founded with friend Drew Burk in 2001, in addition to making regular entries on his blog (birdswillpeckyou.blogspot.com), which includes not only his writing but his art too. Playful watercolor images—one of a bluebird, for example, and one of a man with a cucumber sandwich—accompany his quirky stories.

Perhaps his sobering work as a social worker, along with his rugged sense of survival as a writer, keeps Siken from dreaming beyond a certain scope. “[My success] may mean more ease in future publication and that’s encouraging,” he says. “But I didn’t get a raise at work. I didn’t get a discount on rent. I didn’t get more gas mileage. It is what it is and it’s only part of what I do.”

He is able to part with expectation in a more philosophical way as well. “Someone that I remember wrote Crush, like an old friend that I don’t talk to anymore. The author is gone and the book is out in the public realm,” he says. “I have to let that Richard Siken go every day if I want to adapt and move forward.”

And it is on that note that he leaves Crush and looks toward his next project. “After the revelations in Crush, after the last declarative [in the final poem “Snow and Dirty Rain”], ‘We are all going forward. None of us are going back,’ the speaker has to write from a place where that has been internalized, being close to death and surviving death,” Siken explains. “There is less room for whininess or self-pity. There have been successes. And I’ve had successes. I can’t write ‘poor me, poor me’ anymore.” And so, in an act as mysterious as poetry itself, another Richard Siken emerges.


  • Writer and editor Nell Casey has written for Slate, the New York TimesSalonElle, and Glamour, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.


Nerve-Wracked Love

A profile of Richard Siken.


  • Writer and editor Nell Casey has written for Slate, the New York TimesSalonElle, and Glamour, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

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