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.
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.
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.
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.

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