I’ve been around fandom communities long enough to recognize patterns. I see repeated song lyrics (which make me smile or grimace, depending on my mood), and I start to recognize standard quotes that spark fanfiction or fanart, and usually make it into fic titles. I’ve found some lovely poems and strange lyricists thanks to epigraphs in fanfic—Daphne Gottleib, Rupi Kaur, Iain Thomas, Lucy Wainwright, Rainer Maria Rilke, Golden Shoulders, Li-Young Lee, Christa Reinig, Meghan Privitello, Ocean Vuong. Among all of these varied sources, Richard Siken comes up often enough for me to remember his name and recognize his poems.
He’s a beautiful poet. He says things plainly sometimes, and he touches on moments that I never thought about but feel so universal when I realize something about grief that will keep me up at night. Like when he said, “Eventually something you love is going to be taken away. And then you will fall to the floor crying. And then, however much later, it is finally happening to you: you’re falling to the floor crying thinking, ‘I am falling to the floor crying,’ but there’s an element of the ridiculous to it — you knew it would happen and, even worse, while you’re on the floor crying you look at the place where the wall meets the floor and you realize you didn’t paint it very well.” I think about that moment sometimes, which hasn’t happend to me yet but will. I can’t stop that moment, or a moment like it, from reaching me someday. Siken knows.
He writes lonely poems that speak to the lonely and yearning. He apologizes for existing while never denying he exists, like when he said, “Hello, darling. Sorry about that. Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we lived here, sorry about the scene at the bottom of the stairwell and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud.” Siken knows what it is to speak and break a fragile moment, a fragile trust, a beautiful relationship now in pieces. I’m afraid of learning what that will be like, but I can see the shelf of my many loves teeter sometimes. Words are important and dangerous.
A lot of Siken’s poems are extremely applicable to yearning gay melodrama headcanons. He has beautiful, sharp lines that are ready for people who want to write fanfiction about men who love men but can’t quite find the words to express it (Slow Burn, 60k). He said, “You’re in a car with a beautiful boy, and he won’t tell you that he loves you, but he loves you. And you feel like you’ve done something terrible, like robbed a liquor store, or swallowed pills, or shoveled yourself a grave in the dirt, and you’re tired. You’re in a car with a beautiful boy, and you’re trying not to tell him that you love him, and you’re trying to choke down the feeling, and you’re trembling, but he reaches over and he touches you, like a prayer for which no words exist, and you feel your heart taking root in your body, like you’ve discovered something you didn’t even have a name for.”
A lot of his poems are quoted in the beginning or ends of fanfiction, or are quoted as part of gifsets from shows or movies. He has poems for Pining or One-Sided or Unrequited, like when Siken said, “He was pointing at the moon, but I was looking at his hand.” He has poems for Internalized X-Phobia, like when he said, “How much can you change and get away with it, before you turn into someone else, before it's some kind of murder?” He has poems for Hurt/Comfort or Hurt No Comfort or Whump, like when he said, “Sorry about the blood in your mouth. I wish it was mine. I couldn't get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time.” He has poems for Co-Dependence or Separation Anxiety, like when he said, “Everyone needs a place. It shouldn't be inside of someone else.”
I learned today that in March of 2019, Siken had a stroke that left him confused and partially paralyzed. He’s forgotten much of his life past 2017, and apparently his outbursts when he was first coming out of his stroke meant that the people who were with him during those times are now gone from his life. That was a painful sentence to read.
Until I saw his GoFundMe for medical and care expenses, I didn’t know he was a contemporary. I didn’t know he was real. He’s felt like a penname to me for so long, surreal as Billy Collins for straightforward poetry that slapped my heart with its intensity and specificity. He was a poem-man that was kind of a cliche in fandom to me. But he’s a real man with glasses and a shaved head and he’s squint-glaring in all his pictures like he doesn’t enjoy his smile in photographs. He lives in Tucson, AZ. As with any other time I learn someone or something I find interesting is in Tucson, AZ, I wondered if I could go visit Jana and incidentally visit him (I also want to see Meredith McClaren and the Bad Dragon warehouse someday).
I went down a rabbit hole, trying to learn about him, and it was a short research session because there isn’t much about him online. He’s won awards, had a few books of poetry published. His Wikipedia page is brief. His website is gone. He has a Facebook and has only posted a handful of times in the past two years. His GoFundMe is still running, but hasn’t seen a donation in 28 days. It surpassed its goal. It’s over $31,000, gathered over two years. That doesn’t seem like enough to live on. His most recent poem is called ‘Real Estate’ and was published in 2020. He wasn’t sure if he would write again. I saw the poem on Tumblr months ago and loved it and reblogged it. I didn’t know it was his first poem since his stroke.
Enjoying people’s work without knowing the author is fine. It’s not always how I want to go about my reading experiences. I like knowing context. I’m nosy. Siken is now on the list of people I will worry about, because I don’t pray. While I saw his words a little too often sometimes in fandom, he is a poet who can write a beautiful, tight synopsis for some very human experiences. And that can be good in fic and good as a poem and good in an of itself, as words from a lonely and confused man who put out a call on his Facebook asking if people had any memories to give him from the times he can’t remember. I hope he got some answers.