I've been saying "doubt" when I mean "play"

Mandy Grathwohl: "Enjoyability can't be the only goal of literature"—would you expand on this?

Richard Siken: Sometimes I wonder if I've wasted my life. I know I'm not alone in this. The other night, I overheard someone else say it: I've wasted my life. The response they got? There's no right way to do it. It was a comforting thing to hear. I think it's the same with writing: there's no right way to do it. I already know what I have to say and how I would say it. I want to hear other voices, other versions. It's not enough to know your three favorite desserts. It's not enough to know your seventh favorite dessert. We should be confronted with things we never considered putting in our mouths.

And enjoyability can't be the only goal of life, either. My mom just went into hospice. She's dying. I don't like the feelings that I'm feeling—sadness, anger, fear, relief, guilt—they're contradictory, and sometimes they overlap. It's confusing, sometimes paralyzing, and certainly not enjoyable. The options are: pay attention or don't.

I feel like there's more to say about it. I feel like I should be able to explain, for pages, with certainty, but I can't. I come from a place of doubt. I think doubt informs my poetry, my editorial style, and my discomfort with the cultural moment. I feel like we're being encouraged to become righteous and absolute in our convictions. I don't see how there can be any room for compassion or development if we abandon our doubt.

Grathwohl: What is your relationship with the concept of doubt?

Siken: Doubt is fundamental to any sense of playfulness or experimentation. We could call it uncertainty. If I climb that tree, will I be able to see the river? If I put bacon in it, will it be better? Is this form the best choice for the poem? Doubt allows us the freedom to paint without blueprints, or start a poem without knowing how it will end. Fear can make us forget about play. It's important to defend yourself, it's important to make calls during business hours, but play is a sideways thinking that solves problems linear thinking can't. We're living in a moment of great and necessary advocacy. We shouldn't, we can't, abandon our advocacy, but there has to be room for not-knowing. Not-knowing is the energetic force that propels invention and discovery. I don't mind being afraid for real reasons, but I wonder if we're diminishing and weaponizing ourselves against a vague and pervasive gloom. I've been saying "anxiety" when I mean "excitement." I've been saying "doubt" when I mean "play." This is a sloppiness I'm not happy with. It's a fundamental struggle, keeping our engines clean, recalibrating, but we have to do it. It makes no sense to limit our strategies when facing such important work.

- Richard Siken, in conversation with Mandy Grathwohl over at The Matador Review. You can read the whole thing here.

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