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In celebration of the one-year anniversary of the release of each of their first books of poetry, Boys Have Been… and Purpose and Devil Piss, poets Christopher Gaskins and Robert Siek have a discussion about their collections, focusing on the themes and styles in their work.
A native Floridian, Christopher Gaskins moved to New York City in 1999 looking for the hustle and bustle he’d always heard so much about, but he eventually came to his senses and returned home in the summer of 2012. He currently lives in Orlando, where he teaches high school English. His poems have appeared in such journals as The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Ganymede, Open Minds Quarterly, Darkling, Pearl, Chroma, and in the anthologies Sanctified and Gay City, vol. 2. His first full-length collection of poetry is Boys Have Been… (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013).
Robert Siek lives in Brooklyn and works at a large publishing house in Manhattan. He is the author of the poetry collection Purpose and Devil Piss (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and the chapbook Clubbed Kid (New School University, 2002). His poetry has most recently appeared in The Good Men Project, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and VACZINE, as well as the anthology Between: New Gay Poetry. Sometimes he blogs at hideandsiek.blogspot.com.
Christopher Gaskins: I noticed a theme/motif in your poems of “danger” and “death” (implied or actual). 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 more heroin, with an overdose likely at some point (“Dreaming It”); there’s also a language of death with phrases like “poltergeist parade” and “killing my brains cells” (“Plastic Bags and Coated Leashes”); 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 the poem “Daddy” deals with Plath’s father’s death and wishing she could have murdered him (“Fresh Air”). And it goes on from there. My questions to you are, 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 you listed as examples of the “death/danger” theme/motif were written months to years apart, so there was never a plan on a whole-scale basis to incorporate those themes, at least not on a conscious level. I’m kind of weirded out by this surfacing. It makes me wonder where it comes from. I guess I’ve always been a bit obsessed with death, having read existentialist authors in middle school and then deciding I was an atheist at twelve or thirteen years old. (Since nineteen, I’ve been more agnostic.) And then I also toyed with death through my own drug usage through my teens to my mid-twenties, and I 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 but I guess that’s where the excitement came in, sort of like my own little horror movie. This stuff is just more intense and comes across with more punch.
Gaskins: 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?
Siek: Growing up, my father took me to see many, many movies—mostly horror, sci-fi—and I think he unintentionally trained me to not fear horror movies and to find some sick joy in them. I suppose pop references are just there for the taking. If I’m affected in any way by a movie, it can make an appearance or completely encompass a poem. And I’m a rabid John Waters fan, so bits of his films occasionally show up. As for music, my discovery of New Wave in eighth grade saved me; it gave me somewhere else to focus my energies besides my loneliness and despair. My love for music and the persona I took on, the dressed-in-all-black goth kid, caused peers to call me “freak” more often than “fag” and caused me to see seedier sides of New York City. My love for music stuck with me. There really is no larger purpose to using movies and songs in my poems, other than their importance in my world and the head space they fill.
Gaskins: Another theme I noticed in your book was the idea of real vs. artificial. Again, is this intentional, and what meanings does it have in the larger context of your poems?
Siek: That was also not intentional. I suppose years of hiding my true self from family found its way into my work. Despite peers calling me fag since a young age, I still fought sexual feelings toward guys during adolescence. You’d think I would have accepted it and said, “Yes, you’re right. I like cock”; 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, drew pictures, and roller-skated around town. I finally came out to myself and friends during my first year of college. Then I began going to nightclubs more often and dressing in insane outfits. I lived part-time in an alternate reality—drugs and sex everywhere and a strange hierarchy of freaks down to the visiting club goers out for fun. I think living like that 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 in my work. There are also defense mechanisms and a hatred toward people created at a young age. I’ve mostly gotten over those, but occasionally still struggle. That probably comes through as real vs. artificial, like what I perceive as bad behavior displayed by another is really minimal to most people. It comes down to human behavior. We’re all self-conscious to a degree, and that in itself creates a constant of real vs. artificial in everyday life. I obsess over human behavior in my work.
Gaskins: 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.
Siek: Let’s talk more about your book. 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? Is that why you made it the first poem in the book?
Gaskins: 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.
Siek: I noticed that fire/volcanic imagery first appear in “Sexed,” but do not return until later in the book. I know you use lava, scalding, and other burning imagery in a fair amount of the poems. 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. What can you say about this?
Gaskins: 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.
Siek: The poem “Sunday Night Out in the East Village” is a favorite of mine, definitely for the manner in which it was written and the incredible imagery, 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 the last four lines just bring the entire thing to a dark, fiery, and subtle explosion. I thought, yes, that’s how it goes in those places, in the gay underground sex world. I love the complete abandon in this piece: the want of sex—period—the going to get it, becoming one with waves of other men, 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.” Again, lava, fire, and a volcano. In this case, I believe the lava is pure lust, as it fuels “each sudden impulsive fellatio.”
Gaskins: Yes, the lava is pure lust as well as representing an orgasm.
Siek: 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 noticed at this point that you repeat the image of the hairline that extends on many men from the navel to the pubic hair. There are other instances in your poems that you use that image as a directional. There is “slithering” happening: this time the sweat running down backs “like elongating tongues.” Is the repetition of images through many of the poems in the book on purpose?
Gaskins: 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.
Siek: Why did you choose to end the collection with “How Obvious, Then”?
Gaskins: Again, my collection is a story arc of sorts. It’s a speaker’s journey through the world of male-to-male experiences. Like most of us, he is searching for love and every kind of peace and happiness that comes with finding it. While figuratively at a starting line at the age of “twenty-two,” he falls “in love” and from there self-navigates through a variety of situations and interacts with the many types of characters that people the gay world, eventually arriving at his destination, where love may be a “reworded truth” but is still mutually acknowledged “in these early morning hours.” He’s learned a lot about himself and who he is, as well as what the gay world has to offer, both good and bad, and appreciates landing safely in the harbor.