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Callie Siskel on 'Two Minds', her new poetry collection about love and loss

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A poem for National Poetry Month.

CALLIE SISKEL: "Mirror Image." (Reading) When he was alive, we rode the elevator. I recall his reflection in the brass doors more easily than his body next to mine. Absence is not absolute, it's insidious - it leaves us the mirror image. My face, for example, my brother's, his stance.

SIMON: Callie Siskel joins us from Los Angeles. She's the author of "Arctic Revival," winner of the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship and has a new book of poems that touch on loss, going on, growing up and making loss a part of living. Her highly anticipated first full-length collection of poems is "Two Minds," and she joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

SISKEL: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Of course, a lot of people would remember your father, wouldn't they?

SISKEL: Yes. Yes, they would. My father was a film critic, Gene Siskel. And this book is dedicated to him and his memory.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you remember him as a poet, in images, phrases? What comes back to you?

SISKEL: I remember his presence. I remember how he looked at the world and how he engaged me as his daughter and as a person. I remember his playfulness, his humor and, yeah, just what it was like to have an incredible father.

SIMON: Yeah. How old were you when he left you?

SISKEL: I was 12.

SIMON: You write a line that I agree with, but I'm not sure what it means. Absence is not absolute, it's insidious.

SISKEL: Yeah. I think the word absence suggests gone in a final sense, right? But the goneness keeps recurring, it keeps haunting and it morphs and reappears. And that's what I mean by insidious. There's no such thing as absence full stop.

SIMON: When did you start writing poems with an idea that poetry might become your life?

SISKEL: Probably not until graduate school, because that first degree I got, my master's, really instilled in me a sense of professionalism and confidence. But I always loved poetry. And as soon as my dad died, I was looking for a medium to express myself, and poetry was sort of my natural move.

SIMON: How so? Help us understand that.

SISKEL: I think that poetry has this ability to put you into contact with whomever you want to speak to. And there's no sense of needing to plot anything. There's no - there's just a very quick way to access what you want to access in a poem.

SIMON: May I ask you about your mother?

SISKEL: Yeah.

SIMON: You have a line in a poem that goes, all my life I've watched her make couples out of everything, even the napkin rings. Do you have more of an understanding now of what she went through?

SISKEL: I do. As I approach the age she was when my dad died and as I now have a daughter myself, as of last year, I'm seeing things more and more from her perspective. My mom is a beautiful romantic, and that line about seeing couples everywhere speaks to that. She loved my father so much.

SIMON: May I ask you to read from your poem "Cocktail Hour"?

SISKEL: Yes, of course. "Cocktail Hour." (Reading) On nights, my mother's boyfriend stayed over. I would come home from school and find his Reeboks straightened on the welcome mat. I'd shrug my bag off in my room and walk toward the kitchen, find a pot percolating with meat sauce, a wooden spoon half soaked in orange liquid resting on the lid. I'd know where they were, taking their time drinking clear cocktails inside the living room. There I'd announce myself, tall, indignant as a man inside the doorway, as if I were my father coming home early, hungry for dinner.

SIMON: Oh, my God. I mean, that's rough stuff because you - I'm sorry, I feel sorry for the guy.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: And I feel sorry for your mother, you know? She loved your father and - but he's gone. And then...

SISKEL: Yeah. I think this poem is less about faulting her and more about finding a way to bring my father back to me. Part of writing this book for me is claiming my father for myself, rearticulating our relationship. And entering the house as him is a metaphor for that.

SIMON: Yeah. Your father notably loved "Saturday Night Fever."

SISKEL: Yes.

SIMON: The John Travolta film. Let's set the scene a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAYIN' ALIVE")

BEE GEES: (Singing) The New York Times' effect on man. Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother, you're staying alive, staying alive.

SIMON: Your father loved this film so much, he bought John Travolta's suit, right?

SISKEL: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Let me ask you to read from your poem "Transparent Man."

SISKEL: OK. (Reading) My father saw the movie 17 times and bought that suit, the exact one, at auction. I asked my mother why he kept it shut in cedar hanging on a rack with all our winter coats and not inside his closet, where later I buried my face inside his jackets. Why didn't we display it? That's not who he was, my mother said. Besides, it almost stood up by itself. It had to. No one ever tried it on. Once, I opened the garment bag and peered inside to see a different actor, one who seemed to play my father, full of light. A young, transparent man dressed up in white.

SIMON: Wow. You know, I read your poems, oh, and it reminded me of something, now having lost both of my parents. I wish we could have known our parents when they were as young as we were.

SISKEL: Yeah, exactly, as a young man.

SIMON: I mean, we'd understand them better, wouldn't we?

SISKEL: Yeah. I feel that, you know, my dad himself lost both of his parents when he was very young, before the age of 9. And not only have I always wanted to talk to my dad about loss and losing him, which is of course paradoxical, but also about what it's like to lose a parent. That's something I would have wanted to have.

SIMON: Callie Siskel. Her book of poems, "Two Minds." Thank you so much for being with us.

SISKEL: Thank you so much for having me. This was wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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