Because April is National Poetry Month, I decided to strike out into uncharted territory and review one of my favorite books, Crush.

Crush is a collection of poems by Richard Siken that won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2004. The Yale Series is an awesome competition where new poets under forty can submit a manuscript to be judged. If you win, and agree to the publishing terms, they publish your poems.

Crush arrived on the scene to pretty rave reviews- the introduction by the judge who chose his manuscript is no exception. She, Louise Glück, starts off by saying, “This is a book about panic. The word is never mentioned.” I’ve not been able to find a better way to describe it. The world Siken creates within Crush is chaotic and cruel, with death tucked into every corner. At the same time, I’d say that it’s also about love- at the very least, it’s definitely about desire. I really can’t emphasize enough how much I love this book- I highly, highly recommend that everyone try it out.

Now, I’m going to be totally honest- I don’t really know anything about poetry. I haven’t taken any classes on it, as I mentioned on last Sunday’s podcast, and I don’t know how to analyze it. All I know is that there is something about his poems that I find really touching. They’re raw, undiluted; they’re what I imagine you’d find if you cracked his ribs open and peeled all the layers away to see what he had hidden beneath. Aside from the very visceral reaction that his themes evoke in me, the imagery he uses is also particularly compelling. Violence, guns, cars, motel rooms, the road, two boys, desire, death.

So, the way I first stumbled across Siken was actually Tumblr. I’m a pretty big fan of the show Supernatural, and while I’m not necessarily active in fandom, I do read a lot of fanfiction. This was even more true when I first started watching it around 2010/2011. I kept seeing these gorgeous graphics on my favorite blogs: typically images of Sam and Dean, sometimes with the Impala, with words over them. Sometimes, it was a simple phrase that told an entire story-

Sam and Dean; over them, a line from “Driving, Not Washing”

Other times, it was like a description of a scene or an episode, or a whole plot point-

Sam and Dean; over them, lines from “A Torn-Up Road”

So eventually I just Googled it, and that’s how my own personal love story with Crush began. (Or, if you prefer, my crush on Crush >:) ) I didn’t actually buy a copy until 2015, but I’m glad I did. I’ve read it cover to cover several times.

Crush and Supernatural mash-ups became so popular that fans started asking Siken if he wrote Crush about the show. He did not, of course, as the book was selected to be published in 2004 (re: Yale Series), and Supernatural first aired in late 2005. But that still hasn’t stopped fans from asking. He’s discussed this a little- a lot, actually- in interviews, but to summarize, he says “[…] I think Crush and Supernatural are products of a cultural moment, not products of each other.”

But it’s easy to see why fans often equate the show and the poems- the imagery in Supernatural is very similar to that in Crush. In You Are Jeff, it starts with two brothers, riding motorbikes down a road. Soon after, there is “God in his High Heaven,” and the Devil, who we’ll “pretend is played by two men” (one of whom has dark hair and green eyes, like Dean). Towards the end, it talks about the brothers again, fighting in the dirt on the side of the road. That’s a pretty common theme for Sam and Dean, especially in earlier and middle seasons. They spent a lot of their lives being trained by their father, a military man. In this case, that doesn’t lend itself to great communication. But they sure can kick the crap out of each other.

Then we have Driving, Not Washing. (There be mild spoilers ahead, proceed with caution)

It starts with bloodshed, always bloodshed, always the same
running from something larger than yourself story

Bloodshed is pretty self explanatory- Supernatural started as a sort of monster-of-the-week show, with each episode containing a new creature to hunt and kill. But over the course of the first couple of seasons, we see a bigger plot arc come into play. The demon who killed Sam and Dean’s mom has come back for Sam, and he has big plans for him. Which, obviously, neither Sam nor Dean want any part of.

They’re hurling their bodies down the freeway
to the smell of gasoline,

The most frequent setting in Supernatural is a car- a 1967 Chevy Impala given to Dean by their father. The Impala becomes like home to them, as they spend their lives traveling around America finding monsters to “gank.” Side note: when Oscar and I went to the Boston Comic-Con a couple years ago, we got Dusa a little Impala replica!

Henry’s driving,
and Theodore’s bleeding shotgun into the upholstery,
It’s a road movie,
a double-feature, two boys striking out across America […]

Wounds, often gory and brutal, are an occupational hazard of hunting monsters. Because of the brothers’ lack of funding (killing vampires doesn’t pay all that well, as it turns out!) and occasional notoriety, they often skip the hospital and do it themselves or for each other. And depending on how difficult a hunt is, it’s not uncommon for one of them to lie wounded in the passenger or back seat while the other takes them back to the motel.

and they’re trying to drive you into the ground, to see if anything
walks away.

In season 5, Dean says to Sam, “[…] it’s supposed to be you and me against the world, right?” Sam and Dean get a lot of crap for what they do- the FBI on their tail for mistaken murder charges, angels angry with them for screwing with a divine plan, the demon trying to turn Sam into some sort of demon general. It often seems like various characters are trying to do just that, drive them into the ground, break their bond (sometimes by killing one of them), just to see how they’ll handle it.

There’s also a piece a little earlier that I didn’t quote, which talks about angels. Angels become a huge part of the show, beginning in season three when Castiel becomes a recurring character. Some would even say a main character, but that’s a rant for another day.

Honestly, this barely scratches the surface. It gets even more interesting when you compare the poems with some of the common fic ships of the show- whether is Destiel (Dean and Castiel), Sabriel (Sam and Gabriel), or Wincest (Sam and Dean- which is surprisingly one of the most written about pairings, both on and The poems in Crush are inescapably about desire. Looking at the poems through the lens of a popular fandom pairing can make even more apparent why the book is so well-loved by fans of Supernatural, and why it’s so commonly used in fanart. All in all, I recommend both the book and the show, like, 10,000%.

Don’t even get me started on BBC’s Sherlock and Siken’s second book, War of the Foxes.

More Links

Another great interview with Siken; Siken’s Tumblr; website; and a Tumblr devoted to Siken/Supernatural graphics.



how i learned to stop worrying and love the…

Fanfic is pretty similar to but also really fundamentally different from original fiction. It’s similar in that you’re writing about things using words, but the way you write about them is completely different because you’re using characters and a world that has already been established; you have to make your fanfic fit into that world, or be a plausible offshoot – or you should just write original fic. With original fiction, you’re starting with a blank page in every sense of the word, even though you can obviously draw inspiration and ideas and information from the world around you. And you’re also writing to a completely different audience; generally speaking, people who like the already created world and who want to read more.

“Oh, can I watch?” she said. And Dympna, who never got her hands dirty, could nevertheless name every cylinder and valve that was lying on the floor, and let Maddie have a go painting the new fabric (over the fuselage she’d kicked in) with a mess of plastic goo called “dope” which smelled like pickled onions. After an hour had gone by and Maddie was still there asking what all the parts of the plane were for and what they were called, the mechanics gave her a wire brush and let her help.

Maddie said she always felt very safe, after that, flying in Dympna’s Puss Moth, because she had helped to put its engine back together herself.

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

Writing starts with reading. We learn by example, by reading something and thinking, hey, I could do that – this is why a lot of new writers end up writing really derivative stuff at first; they’re trying to imitate something great they read. Some new writers go straight to fanfiction, which is why there’s a lot of wish-fulfillment-y self-insert fanfiction out there to go along with all the wish-fulfillment-y self-insert original fiction. Early efforts at fanfiction are often pretty simple too. This is the kind of stuff that goes viral to be mocked around the internet – an authorial self-insert goes to Hogwarts and ends up with everyone falling in love with her, etc. Simple=/= bad, by the way – I think this kind of fanfic can be great fun and well-written, and even if it’s not what I personally want to read, someone had a lot of fun writing it, which is good – but that’s a topic for another time. At some point, the new writer starts having more and new ideas of their own, and the rest is history.

Anyway, most fanfiction goes a bit deeper than the stereotypical Mary Sue fic and starts deconstructing the canon world. Even modern day alternate universes, the “what if the characters of Harry Potter were teenagers who worked in a coffee shop”-type stories are doing this – they ask things like: what character traits are intrinsic? What are a result of circumstances? How would things be different or the same with these characters in different circumstances? These are (some of the) questions that I think most fanfiction attempts to answer, whether or not the particular fic does it well. Essentially, it’s literary analysis but way more fun. By writing fanfiction, you can take apart a story, a world, a character, and put them back together. Maybe even put them back together better! This helps with writing in a few ways. First, you learn why authors decide to write things in the way they do, and second, you learn why you write things in the way you do. You learn from where you disagree with the authors, where you think the writing is weak, what you would do differently.

You can learn all this from original fiction too, but I myself think that if you’re going to learn how to build something, first you should learn to take apart a functional model and see how it works. As much as I hate the “training wheels”-style metaphors for fanfiction, I do think that in this way it can be like a sandbox; you get to mess around at will and get better at writing while writing stories about Hermione being awesome.

Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of by the folk.

Henry Jenkins

Just kidding, that’s not actually what he said, it’s a misattribution. Anyway, someone said it, and I completely agree. There’s a view of stories, books, etc., these days – that they belong to someone who owns the rights, to Disney, to the writer themselves. Legally, that’s entirely true, and also plagiarism is bad. But on another level it’s just completely off base of the point of telling stories. Stories change, get retold, misinterpreted, and are rewritten all the time. As they should be; a story is a living thing, like language. And as with language, the only unchanging stories are dead ones.

One tends to think of it as written by total fanboys and fangirls as a kind of worshipful act, but a lot of times you’ll read these stories and it’ll be like ‘What if Star Trek had an openly gay character on the bridge?’ And of course the point is that they don’t, and they wouldn’t, because they don’t have the balls, or they are beholden to their advertisers, or whatever. There’s a powerful critique, almost punk-like anger, being expressed there—which I find fascinating and interesting and cool.”

Lev Grossman

It’s not all about my new age-y feelings on what a story means; fanfiction is also a way of challenging the dominant culture, a culture that prioritizes the narratives of white, cisgender, heterosexual men above all others. Is fandom activism? No. But it can overlap with activism. It can challenge assumptions and start a dialogue. And a lot of people get very upset about people writing straight characters in gay relationships, imagining characters as a different race than their canon one, writing about if a cisgender character were actually trans. There’s a feeling of “get your icky hands off my characters” about this kind of distress, like those of us who belong to marginalized groups should just be happy with what we get. And fanfiction challenges that. And it challenges the “image” of characters like, for example, Captain Kirk as a straight man. Fanfiction asks: what if this man, who is brave, and strong, and smart, and a cultural icon, was actually gay? What if gay characters didn’t just get assigned to the role of sassy friends, villains, and women who get killed before their time? And what if straight men could identify with and admire a gay character without the world ending?

Fanfiction is fulfilling a fundamental need that people have: to see themselves in media, as whole people, and maybe even with a happy ending or two.

No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.

Erin Bow

Ending on a happier note than my eternal rage about every lesbian character ever getting brutally killed off, writing is good! Writing more can only help you get better, so keep doing it. And maybe check out fandom, if you have the time. You might find something you like.