Poet Of The Week

Robert Siek

     July 20–26, 2015

Robert Siek is the author of the poetry collection Purpose and Devil Piss (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and the chapbook Clubbed Kid (New School University, 2002). He also curates the quarterly poetry reading series Newfangled at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division and works at a large publishing house in Manhattan.

Author photo by Stephen Karagan

Close Encounters

Some summer days close to noon, the hour or two that follow,
a circular section of a backyard appears landing-pad eerie,
grass flattened like this was a campsite, what tents did,
bodies inside them. And there once was a pool here,
above ground, filled and chlorinated, water in motion,
splashes over rails, a pot stirred too fast, children swimming
follow-the-leader close to walls, around nonstop—whirlpool.
Pros at this, having learned to swim, days of tossed upward
by dads starting to lose shape, gain weight, and their exercise
of lifting sons and daughters until biceps burn, how high
do you want to go—the launch of blue-collar arms,
bent to straight out, the up there over water,
wearing a red-and-white striped life jacket,
skydive without a parachute, how high
does fifty pounds travel, a half-second
memory, the effect sought on trampolines
years later at gymnastics class, that quest
for gold, whatever the future holds, the arms out
and mouth wide open, missteps on fell dead trees
over deep rushing rivers, slip and land lost, head fully
underwater. It’s another good day on summer vacation,
the grass green, and great aunts with hair in rollers,
wearing sunglasses and a one-piece bathing suit,
watch from a folding lounge chair, back up,
rubbing baby oil on chest, arms, and legs.
And the older kids swim in circles, a grandmother yells,
“Be careful!” from a window, recalling her son-in-law
dislocating her granddaughter’s shoulder
when he lifted her too fast, hand in hand,
rough palms of a blue-collar worker,
the patience of a summer day, can’t get that sweaty
T-shirt off in one motion, then up the deck staircase he built
with a niece’s husband with a background in carpentry.
The great aunt lights a cigarette, reclining far from poolside,
closer to the chain-link fence, the neighbors and their actions.
Some summer afternoons, wind felt on a less humid day
where an above ground pool once stood behind
a two-family house, bodies inside it, where
someone else’s family once lived, something
eerie about this spot in the grass, flattened
like a flying saucer landed here,
then carried them all away.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was wondering whether or not the people who now live in the two-family house where my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin lived during my childhood and teens ever stood in the backyard and considered the past of that place. I don’t know if I believe the energy of past experiences remains to haunt a place, but people have imaginations that they can get caught up in. Every place has a past; it’s a powerful and frightening thing to think about. I wanted to capture those feelings of encountering this, of getting caught up in it. Each person’s history is thought to disappear with each death of a family member, with each move to somewhere more affordable, with the time that passes from when he or she last stepped foot where the majority of his or her childhood took place, but it’s kind of comforting to imagine that pieces of one’s history were left behind, that someone else can feel them. I pictured the backyard behind that two-family house, where an above-ground pool once stood (it was disassembled and trashed not long before everyone moved out), and I envisioned someone standing there; the eerie feeling took over.

What are you working on right now?

I have no set schedule or plans when it comes to my writing. The way my style of writing poetry is organic and simply allowed to happen as it comes, that’s really how the act of writing a poem comes as well. I feel like my work is forced when I sit down, look at the computer screen, and say, “What shall I write about today?” So these days I’ve been writing a new poem approximately every two weeks, every so often more than one. Then I’ll hit periods where I have nothing for a month or two, but I’ve been more consistent the past three or four months. When I’ve written enough poems that I am satisfied with, I’ll start piecing them together as the manuscript of my second book. Most likely I will title this collection We Go Seasonal.

What’s a good day for you?

I live for days that allow for me to sleep in late, then take the day slowly, eating cereal and drinking coffee while watching television. Then whether or not I have plans that day and I’m either on the subway heading somewhere or home dusting the living room or washing dishes, something hits me and I start tapping away on the Notes app of my iPhone, unable to stop.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I’ve lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for a little over five years now. Prior to that I lived in Manhattan for three years and then Astoria, Queens, for five; I moved to Bushwick to live with my boyfriend. I always thought that maybe one day it might be cool to move to Brooklyn and then it happened. Bushwick was, and still is, a welcomed change from Astoria. I needed to be around more activity, a place where I can walk to a performance space, a bar, or a stranger’s backyard to see some unknown bands play; a gallery in a renovated warehouse for a poetry reading where I can see some art as well; an event called Bushwig where I can watch endless drag performances and then dance the night away, and so forth, and so forth.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

Here are three: riding the subway home strung out at 7 or 8 AM from an unknown part of Brooklyn where I just slept with some older Australian painter I met at a gay bar who kept asking me if I wanted to play with him and whom I started to fear might kill me after having rough sex; going to Larry Tee’s electroclash party Berliniansburg at a place called Luxx in Williamsburg in the initial years of gentrification and thinking that it was the best party I had been to in years (I then went as often as possible until it ended); and attending an arts festival party at an abandoned church across the street from my home and feeling like a child at an amusement park with each painting I looked at, band that played, room explored, and interaction with various pieces of installation art.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

I know this isn’t very original, but when I think “Brooklyn poet,” I think of Walt Whitman. I haven’t read much from him in years, but I know that his work inspired me during my college years where my voice first began to develop beyond the crap I wrote through my teens. Encountering his free verse made me realize that I could do whatever the hell I wanted to on the page; I could let go of the intense rhyming structures I had previously been working in. As for living Brooklyn poets, I’m loving many of the younger poets out there these days, such as Ricky Laurentiis, Wo Chan, Morgan Parker, Jameson Fitzpatrick, and the list goes on. They’re all doing exciting things with their work, taking it to another level.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

There’s this small used bookstore in my neighborhood, where I bring books purged from my collection and occasionally shop. I just love all these old books stacked, shelved and ordered to go through. I had to look it up online; the store is called Human Relations.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Honestly I do most of my reading and writing on the subway—the J, N, Q and L trains mostly. I don’t care to go to a specific public space to read or write; if it’s not happening on the subway then it’s happening at home. One of these days I have to sit on the tiny deck in my tiny Bushwick backyard and read or write. My fairly new neighbor planted grass back there, which has made it much more inviting than the mulch that previously covered the ground. If it’s not too hot, I may enjoy doing that.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

I like going to the Brooklyn Museum when there’s an exhibit I want to see. I also like this bar called Happyfun Hideaway that is very close to my home. I like seeing shows at places like Silent Barn or the Cobra Club. I like the experience of seeing a movie at Nitehawk Cinema. I’ve also been to plenty of fun/interesting parties at Secret Project Robot in Bushwick.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

R.J. Gibson’s chapbook You Could Learn a Lot is probably the most recent awesome book of poems I’ve read. I think the intensity of the poems in this small collection is what made it such a memorable read. His style and the content of the poems seemed tailor made for my taste, so that tends to make it easier to like a collection. I have much catching up to do with the many poetry collections I’ve bought in the past two years, but some standouts of those I read were Aaron Smith’s Appetite, Amanda Smeltz’s Imperial Bender and David Trinidad’s Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate each breath,
And what I share with you in this zoo,
For every walk toward me as good as a walk toward you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

After gymnastics class, the ride home with my father,
I’m tired legs, dugout sore, aged Brooklyn Dodger,
the close to home, sidewalk, steps, leaning on a car jack,
he sings wrong words to doo-wop, stops and says, “Rob.”
It’s trees we drive past, my coach in underwear, the sin,
ink pushed on paper, every word spelled correctly with a pen,
times I wondered if I did no wrong when considering my dad’s love.
Thirty years later, where I live is a shithole, what he saw of Brooklyn;
he said so because he loves me, and then as now, it’s just no biggie.

Why Brooklyn?

After living in Manhattan and Queens, I find that Brooklyn is my favorite borough yet. My mother grew up in the Bronx, and we’ve visited a fair amount of relatives still residing there during my childhood and teens, so I feel like that was enough experience with that borough, plus it would be a longer commute from there to where I work in Midtown. Staten Island simply is not an option because I don’t want to drive a car to get around, and I don’t foresee ever moving back to New Jersey where I was born and raised. For now I plan on staying put in Brooklyn because so far, so good.