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: 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.

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