The Poet Laureate of Fan Fiction

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Interviews by Fans
Title: The Poet Laureate of Fan Fiction
Interviewer: Adam Carlson
Interviewee: Richard Siken
Date(s): June 19, 2015
Medium: online
Fandom(s): Sherlock (TV) and Supernatural
External Links: The Poet Laureate of Fan Fiction - The Awl, Archived version
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The Poet Laureate of Fan Fiction is a 2015 interview with Richard Siken.

Some Topics Discussed

  • dangers of overly sexualizing character relationships, the cycle this may fall into
  • the pluses and minuses of having one's work transformed
  • the nature and power of fanfiction
  • the relationships between readers and the creations they read
  • Supernatural and Sherlock (TV) fans and fanworks
  • the power of words, and the dangers of getting them wrong
  • his work translated into fannish worlds
  • soup

Introduction

In April, the poet Richard Siken released his second book, War of the Foxes—ten years after Crush, his award-winning debut, which Louise Glück wrote restored “to poetry that sense of crucial moment and crucial utterance which may indeed be the great genius of the form.”

But many fans of the television show Supernatural, which tells the story of the tempestuous relationship between two demon-fighting brothers, thought that Crush was about their favorite characters fucking. The result has been a lot of slash fiction—and other fan works—that appropriate Siken’s poetry, particularly as Tumblr has become the center of fandom, and fandom has become the center of Tumblr. More recently, Siken has become prominent in Sherlock fandom in a similar way: two men, mysteries, fucking. Siken has gotten into it, too, recently creating his own Tumblr and Sherlock slash.

I invited Siken to talk about all of this, and also the new book. We spent the next three weeks trading emails.

Excerpts

I remember seeing slash here and there, but I suppose the Supernatural community was my first encounter with a group of people building a mythos outside of a show, parallel to a show. I got really interested when they began pulling lines from Crush. And now the Sherlock fandom is pulling lines from Crush (and occasionally War of the Foxes) for their prompts and memes.
My 20th-century intention was to make a place where I could articulate my thoughts and feelings. I thought it would be a place where the reader and I could meet. That’s no longer the way storytelling works. Now readers enlarge the places an author has made, include themselves in this larger space, and meet with each other without the author.

At first I found it disconcerting. I think it’s odd that some fans have altered the male/male dynamic of my poems and posted their new, reimagined male/female versions on their blogs. More than odd. It actually makes me uncomfortable. But I’ve sung male/female songs as if they were male/male, so I guess I understand it and do it myself.

I hope readers find meaning in my work. Even if that meaning slides away from my intention. I think, though, there’s a point where revision of my poems—which really is very different—slides too far away from the original text. At that point, I think my work should be considered an influence, if considered at all. I’m not writing to provide others an opportunity to radically translate my inner life into something unrecognizable.
In the driest language possible, I would say that fan fiction successfully undermines the traditional American heteronormative dynamic in ways that can’t be undone. In wetter language, fan fiction sexualizes. It’s transgressive because it suggests the possibility of the erotic. It’s political, because it complicates power structures. And it’s personal, because it grants permission for range of previously unacceptable expressions and interactions. I think my poems enact a space for complicated, multivalent relationships. I think that’s the draw.
A good line is a good line. A good line well placed is an experience. That was the goal: an experience, a larger unit, enough space to move, to hold propulsions, to let the intentionally unsaid things shimmer in the highly charged spaces between the lines. I crafted poems—units made out of lines placed in a specific order—and the poems have disappeared. My loveseats have been broken into chairs, into matchsticks.

So how do we respect an original work while we aggregate around it? I was speaking with a friend the other night, and she said her favorite line of mine was “I couldn’t get the boy to kill me, but I wore his sweater for the longest time.” But that’s not the line. I wrote the word jacket, not sweater. A very different connotation—and connotation is important in poetry—because jacket can be considered as a thicker skin (among other things) in a way that sweater cannot. She was being sloppy, but still—words matter or they don’t. If they matter, don’t change them. If they don’t, then why bother praising the line?

Each modification dilutes. Each distortion cheapens the work, cripples it, erases it. Whether it’s done in sloppiness, or out of a desire to claim and internalize the work, or with intentional malice, it still amounts to a falsification. We have to be careful, when we build around an existing work, that we don’t ruin it.