Smile Politely

Getting Lit with Richard Siken

Everyone knows there’s a few rules when it comes to interviews: Don’t talk too much. Don’t assume the Dalai Lama likes the Steely Dan song “Bodhisattva.”  Don’t ask great poets how they got so good. Do ask them how they spend their Saturday nights. Lucky for us, Richard Siken will be spending his in Champaign-Urbana. He’ll be reading at Mike N Molly’s at 6PM as part of the Pygmalion Literary Festival.

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. His second poetry collection is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2015.


Smile Politely: Writing poetry is hard work. Good poetry, anyway. With some collections it’s obvious that a clever mind is toiling away at a poem’s construction, wrenching it around to “fit.” Your first book, Crush, doesn’t fall in this category. The execution feels effortless and instinctual, which is obviously the hardest work of all. Question is, how does the work come? When? Where?

Richard Siken: I think there’s always wrenching. I’m glad you think my wrenching is invisible. It’s important to try to hide the stitching and the seams. As for how the work comes about? Investigation. Always and wherever. In the attempt to figure, to render.

SP: A few years ago you did a series of interviews with poets concerning the things they collect. Your turn. Old notebooks? Vintage thimbles? What do you collect?

Siken: I wanted to collect silverware — I like the forms and the shine — but I’ve moved too many times, often suddenly, and now everything I own fits in a car. I’ve parceled out my library among friends, so I can still visit and borrow my books.

SP: It’s no fun for the interviewee to answer what the nature of their newest work is. So, in lieu: if your new book, War of the Foxes (forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2015), were an animal, what would it be? (Feel free to elaborate, and don’t say fox.)

Siken: The tenacious honey badger does not quit. He just does not. He will get into that honey log and eat it all up. He gets stung in the face and swells all up but he does not stop. He is not kind and he does not care and it looks like he is dancing but it is bee venom.

SP: Whose writing/art is important to you right now? What’s on the nightstand?

Siken: Language poets and abstract painters. I need to remember to sing, not just argue.

SP: What’s a question you wish we’d asked?

Siken:  In the title poem of your forthcoming book there is a moment when fishsticks talk. What’s up with that? Answer: I needed more than one voice, so I animated the landscape.


You can come see and hear Richard Siken at Mike ‘N Molly’s this Saturday, September 27th, at 6 p.m. And remember to sing and not just argue.

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