Sunday, December 21, 2014

Full Gaskins & Siek Interview, Part 2

Here is the second part of the full interview between me and the poet Christopher Gaskins, in which we discussed our first full-length poetry collections, Boys Have Been . . . and Purpose and Devil Piss, with each other.

Interview Between Poets Christopher Gaskins and Robert Siek, Part 2

Christopher Gaskins: I also had some other questions. Is the title “Like Clockwork” ironic, since your father waking you up at 4 a.m. was a break from the norm?

Robert Siek: Yes, it’s ironic, but I also want it to bring to mind the way the human body works, which is quite clockwork, and further mirror the workings of a house, which is a metaphor used in the poem.

CG: Why do you and your boyfriend laugh at Plath’s emphasis on the word “bastard” in “Fresh Air”?

RS: It’s just funny. She sounds so forceful and stern in recordings of her reading “Daddy.” Her reading voice was so demanding it borders on being empowering and camp, almost like she’s stomping her foot or cracking a whip while saying it. I guess I just have a sick sense of humor.

CG: Ha! Ha! I’ve heard Plath read “Daddy” as well, and I agree completely! It is a bit over the top, and I’ve always loved the intensity of how she emphasizes “bastard” as though she really, really means it, dammit! I too try to bring an intensity to certain words, or phrases, in my poetry, which I notice in your poetry as well. Perhaps we’re both stomping our feet and cracking a whip!
     In “Dreaming It,” is the idea of astral projecting a metaphor for transcending one’s gayness, which Tim after a certain point could no longer do?

RS: Not really. I actually did meet someone in my teens who said he could astral project. And he did turn out to be gay and become a homeless heroin addict.

CG: In “Photo in the Silver Bedroom,” is Steff’s one eye blue and the other eye red, or did I misread that?

RS: It’s a photo. There’s red eye in one of her eyes. This was before red-eye correction options on photo editing programs.

CG: I’ve also been annoyed by a level of illiteracy in dating websites, and agree with you that “every word is important, and correct usage of punctuation / counts for something,” which isn’t really a question, but I just wanted to share that.

RS: Ha ha ha. Well it bothered me enough to mention it in a poem. I’m glad we’re on the same page with that.

CG: Is the leaf blower in “Leaf Blower” a metaphor for clearing/cleaning up your life?

RS: I never actually thought about that. It just fit into the poem, but perhaps I had that in mind on a subconscious level. I did actually charge a leaf blower for my father’s birthday present one year when I was very down and out.

CG: In “No Standing,” is there meaning in the usage and sequence of first one balloon that reads “Happy Birthday” and then a second one that reads “Congratulations”?

RS: Yes, the Happy Birthday message accompanies the initial surprise of the first kiss between the two men in the poem being electrifying and a positive, almost out-of-body experience for the voice of the poem. Then the Congratulations message is a follow-up when the kiss is over and the voice knows that this is a good thing and is definitely going to lead to more good things.

CG: Is “Bandstand Boys, Football Players, and Greasers” all told in a flashback where you (as the narrator) are in the sixties? Do all three parts take place in the sixties? Or is the setting in current time, but with references to the sixties, and if so, what meaning is there in this?

RS: The narrator in the poem starts listening to a collection of songs from ’60s girl groups, and that sparks the fantasies described in each part of the poem. On a surface level the poem is an exploration of fantasies and where they can take a person. But I like the idea of taking these innocent scenarios and squeezing them through a Tom of Finland filter and fucking things up.
     So let’s talk more about your book, Boys Have Been . . .
     I viewed the experience described in “Stephen’s Body” as something life changing—the discovery of something new, awakening to one’s sexuality. For me, the last three lines set the rest of the book in motion. Do you agree with that notion? Is that why you chose to make this the first poem in the book? “Damnation deflating with a reluctant hiss, a wrinkling of purpose" is superb, and I love that the idea of “purpose” plays a role early on in your book, as obviously the title of my book puts the word in the reader’s mind from the get-go.

CG: Yes, that is what the poem is about and that is why I chose to begin the book with this poem. It is meant to set the rest of the collection in motion. It establishes a “coming out” awareness in the form of a physical/sexual encounter that also establishes a “purpose” in the speaker’s mind, a goal that he is on the voyage to reach, which he does at the end.

RS: In “Dancing Alone with Darren” there is a frenzied feeling, a struggle. Is the voice of the poem trying to seduce another man into dancing closer, into feeling the passion of the moment? I picture one man making greater effort to seduce a reluctant participant, until finally the “snap of air” between them is broken and the two come even closer together.

CG: No, actually. I wanted the poem to be just vague enough to have more than one interpretation, but my intention was to depict the speaker and another man slow dancing, very close, very intimately and seductively, but with that hint of danger in the sense that it may not last as a relationship and then with a break-up at the end, with the end of the dance representing the man leaving. The poem was meant to convey the speaker’s awareness, if only in hindsight, of the warning signs and how he was “beguiled.” Maybe the encounter with this man was too intimate, too perfect, or too romantic to last, because it doesn’t. The end comes as suddenly as the end of a dance.
 
RS:
I noticed that the fire and volcanic imagery first appear in “Sexed,” but do not return until later in the book. Having read the entire book, I know that you use lava and scalding and other forms of burning imagery in a fair amount of the poems, kind of symbolizing destruction through anger and lust, burning up with both. There is “lava hot chocolate inside of my igloo-hard hermetic heart” in “Cold,” which I read as a mixture of lust and a desire that it leads to love, the voice of the poem declaring, “my love a coal and two hands groping the bare ice walls.” In “Hot Ass,” the whole last third includes coal and fire imagery, the pair of men igniting into flames after one turns over the coals of the other’s skin and in “yellows and oranges” they meet.  

CG: The opposition of cold vs. hot, of ice vs. fire in all its variations is intentional. For me, in the voyage of self-discovery/acceptance that my collection is (albeit in terms of a speaker who is navigating through a mosaic of male-to-male experiences), there is the battle between cold and hot. The speaker knows he is nervous, self-conscious, scared, holding back in fear of getting hurt, wanting to let others in but not necessarily knowing how; he often keeps others at bay even in intimate situations. There is the constant search for the flame that will melt all the ice once and forever, but even as the speaker encounters various forms of “fire” there is always another layer of “cold” and the battle continues until the end of the book, as seen in the last series “For Steve,” in particular the poem “In Bed, At Last.”  It’s also a full circle because Boys Have Been . . . starts out with a poem about falling in love (and losing it) and then ends with a poem about being in love (and keeping it). The ending of the book is not about conforming to society or finding Mr. Right, but about landing safely on the shore after traveling through the waters of gay relationships (of every kind), or maybe even surviving the waters of gay love/lust. This opposition and battle of cold vs. hot as a theme appears in many of my poems, even as the subject of the poem itself.     

RS: Back to “Sexed” I love the hesitation being divided “into equal cut pieces, into leg silhouettes at right angle shapes, a weightless egress.” There is this relief that often takes place in your poems, momentary, a crossing of lines—

CG: There are a lot of lines being crossed in Boys Have Been . . ., lines that have figuratively been drawn in the sand—not always by me—and then crossed either by me or someone else.  Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes not. 

RS: And then he enters you, this serpent Satan figure, the voice of the poem struggling against what he wants and what he’s always been taught is wrong. You’ve taken the Garden of Eden imagery and used it differently than what I did in my poem “Purpose and Devil Piss,” where I compare myself with Adam, as being a new person, ready for anything this new world has to offer. In your poem, you are the garden and the evil, or what you perceive is evil, is gaining ground and slithering in deep, but the reader gets the sense from the poem that this is okay, because you are “closer to breath, exhaling Pompeii,” which is a tremendous release. Is my interpretation of this poem on the mark? Was this what you intended? 

CG: Yes, that was what I intended, but let me also clarify and add to that. This poem is about the speaker’s first time being a bottom, about being uptight and scared about doing it, but at the same time excited about it and wanting it, about wanting to obey the “laws of God” but also wanting to give into the temptation to “know everything” which is represented by Satan as the serpent. This serpent is phallic, so the symbolism of the poem is meant to depict the speaker in all his relative innocence being seduced and his lover entering him, a lover who is experienced. Even though it is initially terrifying, the relief you picked up on is intended. The sigh that is exhaled and described as Pompeii also represents the speaker’s orgasm. It ends up being a fear that is conquered and destroyed, and an experience that is exhilarating. I hope all of that came through as well when you read it.

RS: Yes, that definitely came through. Not to worry.
But this struggle never seems to entirely disappear through the rest of the book, despite leading a life of casual sex with other men and seeking Mr. Right. Do you also agree that there is a constant struggle but that it transforms through the book, that this voice of the poems is consistently the same voice who is a person seeking self-acceptance and learning through multiple hardships and heartbreaks, life’s lessons in love, that it is possible to be okay with one’s self without being in love, part of some romanticized relationship? Was he always trying to fill a void, as in the first section of “For David,” through these various men who one after the other broke his heart? 

CG: Yes, the voice of the book is consistently the same voice, a speaker who develops and evolves as he journeys through and explores the gay world looking for “self-acceptance and learning through multiple hardships and heartbreaks,” as you put it. At times it may seem that the speaker is trying to fill a void, but that’s only after a particularly bad break-up. For me, he’s trying to solve a riddle, or reach a goal, to get to that “place” where he feels he should be, both literally and figuratively, a “place” with no more restlessness, no more confusion, no more questioning. It’s a “place” where he understands both himself and the gay world he is a part of. He has attained insight.

RS: Also, it wasn’t until I read the second section of “For Steve,” where you discuss the fire he set, how he “sparked desire and shattered the cold,” that I realized that you use more “cold” and “ice” imagery earlier on in the collection. There’s the dialogue in the third section of “For Dave,” in which Dave admits that his friends and mother find the voice of the poem to be “distant and cold” and in the seventh section of “For Dave,” the voice is left whole “like plush / stuffed animals filled with snow” and the voice’s “hands are cold.” Are these connected? Did you write one with the other in mind, or is this just a coincidence?

CG: I did not write “For Steve” with “For David” in mind, or vice-versa.  But as I explained before, the theme of hot vs. cold is a common one in my poems. Here it is a coincidence, but on a sub-conscious level it’s intentional I guess.

RS:Violet” is a favorite of mine. There is anger again but this time aimed at the voice of the poem in a more direct manner. The idea of punishment is front row here, the thought of the voice of the poem finding some sort of pleasure in being beaten, of being a “bull’s eye whirlpooling down,” evidenced by the “plaster-lipped smile, the bloom, implosion of masochist’s love.” The last four lines leave the reader questioning this person’s true self, his “expression’s unknown depths.” Is this really okay because it's love? As long as I’m loved I can take the beating?

CG: I intended this title to hint at the word “violent.” On his journey of self-discovery, the speaker is experiencing for the first time this type of love, where the lover abuses the beloved (the speaker), and aside from the perversity of feeling wanted as the object of these “affections,” he also enjoys it for the novelty of it, not really sure how he feels about it. The fact that the speaker’s expressions have “unknown depths” represents how he doesn’t know where his limit is, or in other words where the bottom of these depths is, and how much he is willing to take, or even if he wants this kind of love at all. As the speaker moves on to other romances following this poem, it is evident (hopefully) that this kind of love is not what the speaker is looking for, and that having discovered one of his limits, he is on a mission to find what his other limits are (as detailed in subsequent poems), in the sense that these limits together might help him define who he is, as well as help him figure out what he is looking for by discovering what he doesn’t like/want along the way.
 
RS:
I found “For Louis” to be the start of a different kind of loss, the constant search for love despite challenges and then finding one's self alone after ruining relationships, being a serpent slithering over this person obsessed over in dreams. Everyone has played this role, been the suitor who tries and tries but gets nowhere, eventually seeking acceptance, discovering his or her faults in the situation, and going through a sort or rebirth once the obsession has lifted, “this limb of love, nicknamed ‘Louis.’” I like that the voice recognizes the opportunity to use this experience as fuel for a poem, and that this will be the first of many. Is this actually the first “For . . .” poem of those in the collection that you wrote first? Did you have others in mind when writing this one, or you just ended up writing one after the other over time because that’s simply what came out? 

CG: Yes, actually, it gave me the idea to write poems in a series and was the first one I did.  While in a particular experience, or relationship, I write poems as I go and then put them together to chronicle the entire experience from start to finish.
 
RS:
In “The Last Time I Loved Him,” later in the book, the poem works through another failed relationship, exposing another man who became distant, pulled away, and left the voice alone, filled with something “hotter than lava before it has cooled and hardened.” What exactly is “it,” this thing that “survives like death, unraveling hate”? Without knowing exactly what it is, the imagery surrounding it stills feeds the reader and allows for a familiar sense of something human. Does the reader really need to have an exact idea of what “it” is?

CG: Not necessarily, but I want the reader to be able to figure out what the “it” is and I think that the poem as a whole is the clue, rather than any certain lines. If there is more than one possible interpretation of what this “it” could be, and that interpretation works for the reader, then that’s still valid. I’m okay with that. But for me, the “it” that I meant is love, in that “it” = the love I had for him.

RS: The poem “Sunday Night Out in the East Village” is one of my favorite poems in the collection, definitely for the manner in which it was written and the incredible imagery displayed, such as the “arms like waves that crashed in silence” and “We were breathing humidity, / this steam we created . . . we looked around us and it fogged our vision.” And then the last four lines just bring the entire thing to a dark, fiery, and subtle explosion of an ending. I thought, yes, that’s how it goes in those places, those scenarios in the gay underground sex world. I love that it was complete abandon in this piece; the voice of the poem wanted sex—period—and he was going to get it, becoming one with the waves of other men and their “cocks and lava,” their hairline trails leading “toward Mt. Vesuvius,” and admitting to being “erect, about to erupt and scald the mouth of this man who has come here to engulf the flames.” Obviously from what I just quoted, you have again used lava and fire and even a volcano. In this case, I believe the lava is pure lust, as it fuels “each sudden impulsive fellatio”—it’s a gut hunger for sex, for getting off with a stranger.

CG: Yes, the lava is pure lust as well as representing an orgasm.

RS: And the “Mt. Vesuvius” is obviously a collective cock, as you also mention how the voice of the poem is about to erupt and “scald the mouth” of another man. I’ve also noticed at this point that you repeat the image of the hairline that extends on many men from the navel down to the pubic hair. There are other instances in your poems that you use that image as a directional, and again there is also “slithering” happening: this time being the sweat running down backs “like elongating tongues.” Is the repetition of these images through many of the poems in the book on purpose? Was there use intentional or was this something that occurred subconsciously, much in the same way that I’ve focused so much on death, fear of death, and danger in my poems?

CG: Ok, you caught me red-handed! I must confess that the repeating image of a man’s “happy trail” is intentional, and very much so. On one hand, it’s one of my favorite places on a man’s body and the image is always with me in my imagination; it’s definitely a turn-on. On the other hand, it’s usage is figurative in that this “happy trail” is a path that hopefully leads to sexual gratification first, and then leads to emotional gratification; in other words, like that old saying of how falling into bed leads to falling into love. Also, the “happy trail” is very seductive, hinting at something exciting that is hidden and unknown, especially in someone I’ve just met or someone I don’t know. It points the direction in which treasure is buried beneath clothing. The “slithering” imagery is unintentional, however, but I do like the onomatopoeia of the word “slither” and it fits so well with many of the ideas or feelings I’m trying to convey in my poems. 

RS: I also feel that “Sunday Night Out in the East Village” is almost an expansion upon what you’ve created in the poem “The Men at The Metro.” Although I wonder since “The Men at The Metro” appears earlier in the book, was it actually written earlier, as there is more hesitation and self-consciousness happening in this poem?

CG: Yes.

RS: Being the voice of the poem is “at the edge of fornication,” I’m imagining that his location is a bit more sexualized and geared toward casual sex in the open as opposed to picking someone up and going home with him for sex. I may be misinterpreting that.  

CG: My intention, in “The Men at The Metro,” was to portray the speaker being aware of the sexual overtones and possibilities that exist in gay clubs, or at least consciously recognizing this as an accepted fact, while at the same time knowing that he is not yet a part of all this or even ready to be a part of these sexual aspects of nightclubbing, that his “trial by fire” isn’t over and that he will at some point be faced with this challenge/experience. The speaker is learning by experience in the book, not by knowledge alone. By the time we get to “Sunday Night Out in the East Village,” the speaker has gained enough experience and momentum that he is ready to face this final challenge, as it is one of the last ones he must experience (which is why it is toward the end of the book).  

RS: Either way, there is still more hesitation, like a runway on which these men must run down to make it to the total orgy of hands, mouths, sweat, ejaculation, and so forth that we find in “Sunday Night.” To me it makes sense that this poem would be earlier. Note that the “carpets / are strewn like hair below the navel”—again the image of the happy trail. And then we have “Men belong here, boiling within their own debris of eyes and  / grins, / accidental erections”; the boiling is reminiscent of the many other instances of heat and fire appearing in your work, but the statement “Men belong here” is something I feel goes along with the idea that the voice of the poem is not entirely comfortable with being part of this. This reminds me of the idea of their being “Christopher and his kind,” which comes from the last section of the poem “For Hiram.” This usage of “his kind” also appears in the poem “For Jason,” in which the last section is titled “Jason and His Kind” and it says that in his dreams, “Jason, / his kind, / are fucking and fucking me.” In “For Hiram” the “his kind” that is spoken of seems to be the deviant homosexual, the voice of the poem deciding that Hiram is not of the ranks of men who are “fucking and fucking” each other but never making true connections beyond a momentary release and filling of a void, which is the same thing as those men who belong at The Metro. I’m wondering if “his kind” is a play on Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind,” which I also use in my poem “Purpose and Devil Piss,” when I say that “I catch one out of four watching this kind living it”; the voice of the poem being an effeminate gay man reading a novel on a subway train and thinking and looking around in between the reading and discovering yet another man, who he assumes is straight, looking at him like he’s a monster, or a Manson girl with an X carved into her forehead. But where I’m using this image sort of as an empowerment, in a similar way that Sexton used it, I feel like it’s being used in your poems as a scarlet letter, something one shouldn’t really be proud of, or something the voice of the poems was working on getting more comfortable with and finding absolute acceptance of. There is acceptance here because there’s really no fighting it but it seems like this discomfort with being of “his kind” comes and goes in the poems and that maybe the answer is finding the love of his life, that man who will respect him and treat him right, and fully embracing that romanticized story of settling down and spending the rest of our lives together, becoming just like everyone else—all the straight people heading to the chapel. Do you agree with all of this or am I way off?

CG: Yes, it is a nod to Anne Sexton, whom I’ve read, as well as a nod to Christopher Isherwood “Christopher and his Kind” with “kind” = homosexual, the ones “fucking and fucking” each other (to start with, see my comment earlier about my intentions regarding how my book ends and what I meant). These ideas you’ve mentioned are there, and more or less intentional, however with Jason “his kind” is the homosexual who plays games and ends up hurting anyone who falls for him, in a sense “fucking” him over as well as “fucking” him. With Hiram, it was more about the speaker feeling that it was obvious he’s gay, and that maybe this is what frightened Hiram away.  In addition to having a crush on Hiram, the speaker had been hoping to initiate him into the gay world, take him under his wing and introduce him to its possibilities.  Thus, the literal teacher-student, as well as the mentor-learner, experience is one of the many man-to-man experiences the speaker has throughout the course of the book.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Newfangled 4 Photos & Jonathan, Issue 7

I'm finally posting photos of Newfangled 4 that I took from the Bureau of General Services--Queer Division's Facebook page. The event happened way back in early November but I got damn sick for like two weeks from mid-November through Thanksgiving. So anyway, here were are. This Newfangled seemed to be the most crowded one yet, which is fantastic. And it was an intense evening all around. I started things off reading Walta Borawski's poem "Cheers, Cheers for Old Cha Cha Ass"--one of the best poems ever! If you've never read any of Borawski's work, you must check it out, although his books are probably out of print and hard to find, I'm sure it's possible to find used copies online. Some of his poems are also anthologized in books that are still in print. Anyway, here is a photo of me reading the poem, in which I look a bit disturbed:


And then the first reader of the evening was Nick Comilla, a fellow graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the New School. Of course he just got his MFA last year and I got mine way back in 1999. Nick was taking slugs off a bottle of whisky he had in his pocket during his reading. I can identify with needing a stiff one before getting up in front of a crowd to read; the whole thing seemed fitting, and he did a kick-ass job.


Nick Comilla

And here's a photo of some of the crowd from that evening. It was a full house, as the BGSQD put it on their FB page:


The second reader of the evening was Jameson Fitzpatrick. It was a delight to finally meet Jameson in person. He had previously written a small review of my book for Next magazine, so it was nice to thank him for that in person. And he's already had poems published in Poetry magazine. Watch out world. Of course I accidentally introduced him as Adam to one of the owners of the Bureau, confusing his name with Adam Fitzgerald. I immediately apologized, and Jameson informed me that it happens all the time. I definitely said the correct name when I introduced him later that evening. And then he slayed the crowd.


Jameson Fitzpatrick

And the final reader of the evening was Christopher Soto, who was also a total delight to meet in person. Christopher got up there and continued to slay the crowd. My head was completely blown off. 


Christopher Soto

If you missed Newfangled 4, I recommend following these three fellows and seeing them read wherever that may be. There was a reason I asked each of them to read that evening, and they made it very clear why the invites were much deserved. It was a fantastic way to end the series for 2014.

I am planning on continuing Newfangled in 2015. I am already planning the fifth reading for February. I'll announce it once I confirm my third reader for the event. 

And now in another direction, Issue 7 of the queer male short-fiction journal Jonathan by Sibling Rivalry Press and edited by Raymond Luczak was released on December 18. I actually have a short story, titled "Lunch," in this new issue of the journal. I don't write much fiction, so it was exciting to get the story published and a nice way round out my publications for 2014. Here are the front and back of the cover. You can see the other writers who share the pages of this issue with me listed on the back cover. Go to http://siblingrivalrypress.bigcartel.com/product/jonathan-issue-07-a-journal-of-queer-male-fiction to order a copy. 



Monday, December 08, 2014

The Full Siek & Gaskins Interview, Part 1

So back on 10/28/14, an extremely edited version of an interview I did with fellow Sibling Rivalry Press poet Christopher Gaskins about our first full-length collections of poetry, Purpose and Devil Piss and Boys Have Been . . ., was published on Lambda Literary here: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/10/28/in-conversation-christopher-gaskins-and-robert-siek/. Now I'm finally getting around to posting the first chunk of the full unedited interview we did via e-mail over a three- to four-month period of time that ended up being twenty-two pages long. The edited down interview for the Lambda site was four pages. Crazy, right? Well, I figured after all of the work Christopher and I did on the full version, it may as well appear somewhere in its entirety. And since my feet are killing me from standing around at a holiday party thrown by the large publishing house in Manhattan where I am employed, I'm going to just get to the first part of the interview and call it a night. So here it is, part one:


Interview Between Poets Christopher Gaskins and Robert Siek

Christopher Gaskins: I noticed a theme/motif in your poems of “danger” and “death” (implied or actual), and here are some examples in the first few poems:
  • the kindergarten teacher being killed in The Brood that you and your father are watching in the movie theater, and when you’re sitting alone in the van “Dad told me / to keep the doors locked” implies danger (“1979”)
  • the junkie willing to do anything to score some more heroin, with an overdose not only likely at some point, but also likely (“Dreaming It”)
  • the heavy-duty partying that is “oh so toxic,” which also implies an overdose as being likely (“Photo in the Silver Bedroom”)
  • there’s also a language of death with phrases like “poltergeist parade” and “killing my brains cells” (“Plastic Bags and Coated Leashes”)
  • again with a language of death in “why a second cup / of coffee can be fatal. I feel daring, so I have a fourth” as well as an implication that “Mike from Purchasing” would rather live safely than dangerously (“Party Pooper”)
  • a war implies death and danger, as seen in the tension-filled last line “I’m embarrassed to look up / like a Confederate soldier fleeing the North” (“The Battle of . . .”)
  • the fear of death and the possible danger of your father being ill like “his heart attack seven weeks ago” (“Like Clockwork”)
  • there are implications of death with references to suicidal poets “Ms. Sexton, Sylvia” and Memorial Day is in remembrance of fallen war heroes, and the poem “Daddy” deals with her father’s death and wishing she could have murdered him, and the title could even allude to a need to release and let go of stale “dead” air (“Fresh Air”)
  • there’s the “bad dream—an SUV / making a U-turn . . . / you smash into the side and explode” (“Good Wording and Perfect Punctuation”)
  • there’s the connection between making out in a car and a near-drowning experience that you are reliving during the kiss, as well as the last line about committing suicide by jumping off of a bridge (“No Standing”)
  • there’s the mention of Ian’s death one summer (“Leaf Blower”)
And it goes on from there. My questions to you is, is this intentional or not, and what meanings does this theme/motif of “death” and “danger” have in the larger context of your book/poems?


Robert Siek: All of the poems that you listed as examples of the “death/danger” theme/motif were written months to years apart, so I can say that there was never a plan on a whole-scale basis to incorporate that theme in the majority of my poems. And honestly I’ve never thought about my usage of those types of themes, at least not on a conscious level. I definitely see your point and the running theme, but I really didn’t make these decisions intentionally. I’m kind of weirded out by this surfacing. It makes me wonder where it comes from. I was a goth punk in high school and have always been a horror-movie fan, if you couldn’t tell. I guess I’ve always been a bit obsessed with death as well, having read some existentialist authors in middle school and then deciding I was an atheist at twelve or thirteen years old. (Since nineteen, I’ve been more of an agnostic.) And then of course I also toyed with death through my own drug usage through my teens up to my midtwenties, and I also found going home with strangers for sex to be exciting because of the possibility of danger. I know I never wanted anything horrible to happen in any of these situations but I guess that’s where the excitement came in, sort of like living my own little horror movie. I guess these images to me are just more intense and come across with more feeling and punch. I want to blow the reader’s head off if at all possible, so whatever it takes. I suppose that’s why some teachers during my undergrad and grad work often referred to my work as being over the top (in a good way), and I suppose that hasn’t changed much.


CG: I also notice a lot of references to films and music, with many film and song titles showing up in the poems. What meaning is there in this? What do these film and song titles represent, or what larger purpose (if any) do they serve?

RS: Growing up my father took me to see many, many movies with him—mostly horror, sci-fi, and action stuff—and I watched a lot of television, besides reading a lot from a young age. My mother wouldn’t go see these movies and for some reason my older brother usually didn’t join us. He wasn’t as wild about the horror stuff as I was. I think my father unintentionally trained me to not fear horror movies but to find some sick joy in them. Anyway, I still watch tons of movies and television, so I suppose these pop references are just there for the taking. I find myself often influenced by film and television, which is probably evident in many of the poems. If I’m affected in any way by a movie, such as The Happening or The Color Purple, they are bound to make appearances or completely encompass a poem, as in “Alternative Ending” and “Bad Girl Gone Good.” And I’m a rabid John Waters fan, so scenes from his films occasionally make guest appearances, such as the character Lulu from Polyester or Divine in Pink Flamingoes. As for music and songs, I feel like my discovering New Wave and punk music in eighth grade kind of saved me, meaning it gave me somewhere else to focus my energies besides my loneliness and despair, and it was also another thing in life that provided enjoyment. I was a sad kid, often made fun of through grammar school and high school—from my peers poking fun at the way I walked to them calling me things like “fag,” “sissy,” or “homo.” My love for music and then the persona it allowed me to take on, the dressed in all-black goth kid, caused peers to call me “freak” more often than “fag” and also allowed me to venture into some of the seedier sides of what New York City had to offer in 1989 into the ’90s. My love for music has stuck with me into adulthood. At the time that I wrote the poems “Alternative Ending” and “Being There” in which I discuss how the music is kind of a reason to stick around and see what happens (not give up on life), I was going through some stressful and emotional times. I guess music will continue to be a savior to some degree. And there really is no meaning or larger purpose to using movie and song titles or images from movies and songs in my poems, other than that they are important in my world and take up much of my head space. I simply enjoy using them in my poems.


CG: Music is a major part of my life as well. I often have a certain kind of music playing, or certain songs playing, while I’m writing poems. I find that music puts me “in the zone” and allows me to tap into that inner voice, it shifts me into a particular frame of mind/emotional state and then the poetry comes much easier. It’s like music removes the roadblock so that poems can come through. I also notice that I reference musical artists in some of my poems, such as Enya and Sade (who I sometimes listen to while I’m writing), and that certain poems were inspired by how a certain song made me feel, or what ideas it put in my head. For example, Sunscreem’s song “Exodus” (rollo’s mix) inspired me to write “Exeunt” and those two will always be connected in my mind; whenever I’m reading “Exeunt,” I hear the thundering house grooves of that song playing in my head, empowering me even as I acknowledge that I’ve been played. Have any of your poems been similarly affected/inspired by music, either certain artists or certain songs?


RS: Yes, definitely. I used to listen to more mellow music at a very low volume while writing, and often it would be anything from Antony and the Johnsons playing from my computer, which is probably why songs by them are outright mentioned in two poems and the music spoken of in the poem “Being There.” Antony’s music is so gorgeous, whether the song is positive or absolutely heartbreaking. The same way that I want to take my reader on an emotional roller coaster, I want music to do the same for me. Antony has always succeeded at that for me. There are other artists who do this as well, but I suppose I find Antony’s music to be the most inspiring. Lately I write poems on the Notes app on my iPhone while riding the subway, during which I have music playing into my ears from my iPod and I kind of just block that music out—so it doesn’t matter what I’m listening to. But when I later sit down at my home computer to revise and tweak a poem I wrote on my iPhone, I don’t play music and need it silent. When I’m revising I concentrate more on the rhythm, so outside music tends to distract me from getting it right.


CG: Another theme/motif I noticed was the idea of real vs. artificial, as see in the following examples:
  • the real of being alone in the van vs. the artificial danger of the horror films (“1979”)
  • the real of you and Tim (and your mutual attraction) being gay vs. the artificial of messing around with the ex-girlfriend, or even the real of the ex-girlfriend vs. the artificiality of a “fake girl” on your lap in the form of Tim as Frankenfurter (“Dreaming It”)
  • the real of people at a nightclub vs. the artificial of appearing as “mannequins,” or even the real of the danger of drug use vs. the artificial of everything’s a party (“Photo in the Silver Bedroom”)
  • the real of people walking by outside vs. the artificial of the “hung clothing” passing around in a “synthetic conga line, the human-length bags” (Plastic Bags and Coated Leashes)
  • the real of your gayness vs. Mike from Purchasing’s artificial manliness which might be hiding his suppressed homosexuality, or even you not being real and being artificial with the “deeper than usual tone of voice” (“Party Pooper”)
  • the real of you and the temp in the office vs. the artificial of being in the civil war, especially at the end with the reference to feeling like soldiers (“The Battle of . . .”)
And it goes on from there. Again, my question is whether or not this is intentional, and what meanings it has in the larger context of your book/poems?

RS: The theme of real vs. artificial in many of my poems was definitely not intentional. I never really consider my other poems when writing a new poem. Every poem for me is a stand-alone. So it’s really just coincidental or my subconscious coming through. This also spooks me out. I suppose since much of my life was spent hiding my true self from family, mostly my parents, and other authority figures, it’s found its way into my work. Despite my peers calling me a “fag” or “sissy” since a young age, I still fought my sexual feelings toward guys once I started going through puberty. You’d think I would have just accepted it and said, “Yes, you’re right. I like cock,” but no, it was so frowned upon and made fun of in society, on TV, at family gatherings, that I had no interest in being one of those people that were so taboo and evil. So I got good grades and drew pictures and roller skated around town.
     And then even in my teens, going out to nightclubs in New York City, and being around many raging homosexuals, I still couldn’t bring myself to accepting who I was. And then I finally came out to myself and all of my friends during my first year of college, when I was eighteen, and then I started going out to clubs even more often and dressing up in insane outfits such as torn-up button down shirts with fake blood all over them and dead-face makeup or full-length stretchy black dresses and white furry rings on my head or sheets and laundry bags wrapped around and worn as skirts. I always snuck these outfits to friends’ homes and got ready to go out there, and then I’d sneak in at 5:00 in the morning having changed in the car. I was hiding that from my parents. I was living a whole alternate reality where people did drugs and had sex wherever they wanted in these large nightclubs and where there was a strange hierarchy of freaks down to the visiting club goers out for a good time. I think living years of my life like that kind of distorted my perception of the world, but I honestly feel so far removed from that at this point in my life, I’m kind of shocked to see that it still exists somewhat in my work.
     There’s also the defense mechanisms I created from a young age, either ignoring major threats completely as though I was blind and deaf or getting to a breaking point and lashing out in hostile ways usually verbally but occasionally physically. I basically grew to hate the human race in general from a young age. I’ve mostly gotten over that as an adult, but sometimes it’s still a challenge for me to overcome my misanthropic side and remember that I’m just the same as all of the people out there and around me that I find so irritating time to time. That struggle probably comes through as real vs. artificial, like what I perceive as being a big deal or bad behavior displayed by another person is really minimal and far off the radar for most other people. I guess it all comes down to human behavior, mine and that of others around me. We’re all self-conscious to some degree, and that in itself creates a constant of real vs. artificial in everyday life; that should lessen as a person gets older and understands him or herself better and the world he or she lives in—but unfortunately that’s not always the case. I obsess over human behavior in my work, so this just another part of the big picture to me.


CG: I also obsess over human behavior, both in real life and in my poems, although for me it’s more in terms of how it relates to myself, either directly or indirectly. I compare how I am with how others are, am always reevaluating myself as a person, constantly trying to evolve into a better version of who I am. I think this process of self-discovery and self-improvement is apparent in my poems, especially considering that the poems in Boys Have Been . . . are more or less arranged in chronological order, I tell them as they happened. I think you also said, or implied, that the poems in Purpose and Devil Piss are arranged chronologically, or are they arranged some other way?


RS: For the most part the poems in my book are in chronological order of when they were written. The poem “1979” should have been somewhere in the middle of the book but I made it the first poem because I felt it made a fitting start to the collection. And then the second poem, “Dreaming It,” should have been five or six poems later in the book but I felt it fit better following “1979.” Beyond those two changes to the order, the poems are pretty much in the order they were written over the previous thirteen or fourteen years. One poem in the book, the third one, “Photo in the Silver Bedroom,” is actually from seventeen years ago, but was heavily revised about ten or so years ago.


CG: There also seems to be other characters in each poem that serve some type of purpose, such as in contrasting that character to you at any given point in the poem, in order to reveal a deeper meaning. For example: In “Like Clockwork” there is the contrast of your father waking you up at 4:00 because of possible/potential danger with a heart attack, which contrasts with you going out of the norm and participating in a one-night stand, which also implies possible/potential danger in that this guy could’ve been crazy, violent, etc. What purpose does the temp serve in “The Battle of . . .” or Mike from Purchasing in “Party Pooper”? Why are they included?
     I’m wondering if this is something you’re consciously aware of doing and if not, what meaning there is in this. Does this also help create an overall pattern to the poems, linking one poem to another? Am I reading too deeply into it all?


RS: My poetry is typically narrative; therefore other people get pulled in as characters. How these other characters in the poems are used varies depending on the significance of their roles in the overall aim of the poem. I do often compare and contrast myself, or the voice of the poem, to others; it’s really just a part of what I do. I struggle with being a member of society at times, having to share my space with all these other people who I come into contact with regularly. Often I find myself questioning what I’m observing, the behavior of others, and how it compares to myself, what I would do differently or the same. It’s kind of an obsession of mine, which is probably clear to any reader of my work. In my daily attempt to understand other people and therefore myself, I observe, question, rage, smile, and write it all down. Not everything I write about regarding other people is PC or even “nice,” but it’s my raw reactions going through the tumbler of my mind and coming out as art, like a frozen margarita—sometimes with salt, sometimes without. (I don’t even drink alcohol anymore, but I couldn’t resist using that metaphor.) I’ve often been told by others while in undergrad and grad school that I should write about what I know, so there you go—I took their advice and blew it up. So this tactic in my work is definitely conscious; how it unravels is not always conscious. I suppose there is an overall pattern to my poems to a degree but that’s not intentional—it’s probably more of a natural occurrence. And no, I don’t think you’re reading too deeply into this, but it might be simpler than how you’re perceiving it.


CG: I also wanted to ask you about “1979”—is it a sort of coming-out story, veiled in metaphor/symbolism? For example, worrying that if anyone found out you were gay, they would turn on you like the “mutant-face midgets” in the film? Also, keeping “the doors locked” so no one can ever suspect or find out? Toward the end, it talks about how “locked doors never really made a difference” because people always find out our secrets (that we’re gay) and often we are met with violence, which people can’t deny happens as though “horror movies / didn’t exist.” And in the end, you finally “crawl up front behind the driver’s seat, hiding from nothing” and ready to come out, yet the dog is the only witness to this coming out. Am I way off on my interpretation of this poem, or did I hit a bull’s eye?


RS: When I wrote “1979,” I started with my memories of watching The Brood and Phantasm when I was four or five years old and then it just led to the experience of being left in my father’s work van while he went into the racetrack to place his bets. My goal was to cause the reader to feel some type of strong emotion upon reaching the end of the poem. As far as my intentions upon writing this poem are concerned, your interpretation is way off. Since the scenes depicted in the poem are taken directly from my childhood, actually having happened, maybe not remembered accurately, it’s difficult for me to even say that perhaps it was a coming-out story I created on a subconscious level.


CG: Hmmm. You may have been writing consciously about those memories, but since you wrote the poem as an adult, do you think it might be an unconscious thing? And again, I could be reading too deeply into it, but that interpretation jumped out at me when I read it, but that could just be my perception and not your intention. I did want to ask, though, what type of strong emotion did you want the reader to feel upon reaching the end of the poem?


RS: I really can’t say that this poem was even intended to be a coming-out story on an unconscious level since I wrote it with such strong conscious ideas of what effect I wanted it to make on the reader, all having to do with a father leaving his child with the family dog in a van parked in a racetrack parking lot at night. I wanted the reader to feel uncomfortable and to recall times that he or she felt unsafe in this world as a child or even still as an adult, to also wonder what things caused any comfort or relief from the feelings of fear and helplessness. In the case of the child in the poem, it was knowing that the dog was there and happy to be with the boy. But regardless of the dog being there, there is a sense that anything can happen, that danger is everywhere, whether a child is fully aware of it or not. The scene in the poem speaks to those dangers, known and unknown. Regardless of the dog’s protective presence, anything was still possible, any danger ready to cause harm.


CG: I also noticed some similarities between some of our poems. For example:
  • “Photo in the Silver Bedroom” connected to my poem “The Beautiful Freak”
  • In “No Standing,” you have balloon imagery which I include in “For Louis” and “One Night Stand” and your poem “No Standing” connected to my poem 4th Night with Patrick”

RS: Hmm, I didn’t initially see the connection between “Photo in the Silver Bedroom” and your poem “The Beautiful Freak,” but having reread it, I can see what you mean, with the rundown of clothing and expressions and a passing interaction between two people in a nightclub atmosphere. And they both kind of end on a “night is still young” tone; although I do feel that your poem is more sexual, as there is the possibility of sex, lust between the two people in the poem. In my poem it’s two friends just sitting there high, kind of doing the same thing that they always do at the Tunnel, believing that this is a good time, that it is what partying is all about, when really the scene is quite dismal and stagnant, thanks to the drugs and monotony of the whole thing. I guess that repetitive theme is in your poem as well when you look at it in the context of the entire collection; here is yet another guy who looks good upon first sight but will he end up being just sex or something more.
     And yes, I did note your use of the helium balloon imagery in “For Louis” and the balloon face in “One Night Stand.” I liked the metaphor of me as a helium balloon to create a floating sensation from a spot-on end-of-the date kiss in a car parked in a spot with a No Standing sign. Plus they always seem so indestructible, taking forever to come down from the ceiling, like that initial recognition that you think you’ve found “the one” upon connecting through that electrifying first kiss. And “4th Night with Patrick” is definitely reminiscent of my “No Standing” poem considering the build up of passion and the release—all happening in cars. Of course mine focuses on a first kiss with someone whereas yours goes to giving head and shooting loads in the backseat, which actually reminds me of my poem “Chat Rooms”—a poem about a sexual encounter in a car with a stranger met online. There are different dynamics happening in the poems, but yes, they all start in similar places.