John Siddique, British poet, essayist, author


Imagine thirst without knowing water.
And you ask me what freedom means.
Imagine love without love.

Some things are unthinkable,
until one day the unthinkable is here.
Imagine thirst without knowing water.

Some things we assume just are as they are,
no action is taken to make or sustain them.
Imagine love without love.

It is fear that eats the heart: fear and
endless talk, and not risking a step.
Imagine thirst without knowing water.

Fold away your beautiful thoughts.
Talk away curiosity, chatter away truth.
Imagine love without love.

Imagine believing in the whispers,
the screams and the gossip. Dancing to a tune
with no song to sing inside you.
Imagine love without love.

~”Thirst,” John Siddique, from Full Blood, 2011




I worry every time I see her it may be
the last time. My mother is 74 this year,
that age when, if she doesn’t answer
the phone, my stomach backspins.


Today I massaged her hands with moisturiser,
with drops of lavender mixed in it. Her arthritis
is really bad in her left hand. The thumb
closing over the palm. Her middle finger
thick ropey gristle beneath tissue transparent skin.


This is the first time we’ve done such a thing
Mother objects at first, but begins to enjoy
my fingers pressing her fingers; the muscle-root
in her forearm, the small marbles that roll
across the muscle.


Often these days we dance to Abba or Queen,
quick two minute waltzes on her green cat-haired
rug that’s always crooked. She’s not been touched
much in her life. I die if a day goes by without a love.


She never hugged us once we’d stopped being small
My sisters and I are knotty trees in
mum’s garden. Now I try to feed and care
for her with lavender oil and hands, hoping
some of the love I taught myself will soak
into her fingers, and backflow into
her body, through the fibres she has grown
over her untouched desire.

~© 2005, John Siddique
From: The Prize
Publisher: The Rialto, Norwich, 2005


Deanna Phoenix Selene: John, I read your work and am struck by the honesty and courage of the stories you tell. Each of them intensely personal. Can writing poetry be dangerous? Has it ever been difficult for you to return to the rest of your life after penning a particularly powerful piece?

John Siddique: I wouldn’t say difficult, because my life feels so incredibly rich and varied through having written for such a long time, though I think sometimes that I have to be careful to not become like Borges and get lost in the library of my own making. When I wrote, “Every Atomin Full Blood, I knew I’d written something I’d been trying to say for over twenty years, and that I’d nailed it; that took me a while to pull out from.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is the artist’s responsibility to reconnect us with desire, dream, curiosity, remind us to not be satisfied with a safe but bloodless existence? Does art, like love, keep us fully alive?

John Siddique: No one lives a bloodless existence; not really. Everything that is repressed eventually finds a way out, even if it is only in the deepest of unremembered dreams. Though I’d rather it was with honesty, acceptance, a bold step, forgiveness and joy. Otherwise we tend to get all twisted up. Art, like love, does keep us alive; and, like love, it has the power to return us to our humanity when nothing else can.

Like everyone else, I too have days where the only thing that has keeps me alive is the sound of a voice in a particular song, or a line of text in a poem. Though I guess if we’re busy trying to show a particular ego-face to the world, then we are not supposed to admit to the fragility or the enormity of human life.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Have you found that in composing a poem, you are giving yourself a second chance at discovering meaning, beauty, hope, where you might not have noticed it at first?

John Siddique: The first purpose for me has always been to simply bear witness with curiosity. I was born asking too many questions, and no matter what life has thrown at me so far, I seem to always come back to a place of curiosity and wanting to understand who and what we are as human beings. Poetry seems to be the best vehicle for me to follow the basic questions of our existence and continuance. Like Hemingway, Olds, Whitman, Neruda and the other members of my larger artistic family, I believe that art is to be real and true, even if fiction is the only way to be so.

I have not just had second chances because of poetry: I’ve had a whole different life than the one that was laid out for me. One of the major threads in my writing has been my relationship with my father. The fact that I have barely seen him since I was six years old meant that there was a period of over twenty years with no idea of him at all; that is, until I started writing about him in my late twenties. He’s in each of my books in some form, and I have learned so much about him through allowing him to exist. I’ve had to re-imagine him through the fragments I knew, to make the poems and stories, and I’ve had to question what I know. Most of my information about my father came from my mother who has always maintained that she hated dad. The great ‘What If?’ allowed me to discover that he loved my mum, even though she didn’t love him. I have discovered that he actually did love me, and I’ve been privileged to have walked next to him in the writings, so that I feel I have had a father.



John Siddique B&W

John Siddique B&W



Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are there some themes or subjects you deliberately have avoided writing about?

John Siddique: No, I’m afraid I’m the kind of person who walks towards all the things we shouldn’t write or talk about. I do get into a lot of trouble for this, both personally and professionally. When I came to the US in 2009, for my British Council Residency in Los Angeles, I had a lovely few hours with Homeland Security because of my, shall we say, ‘questioning nature,’ and my desire to see what we’re not supposed to see, and then to talk those things in my books. The two officers were decent people I must say, but to sit there with them going through copies of my books looking for clues was very funny. Or rather it is now that I’m not in their interview room.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: There are some topics you have forced yourself to explore for the very reason that they made you so uncomfortable to have to think about?

John Siddique: “The Knife” in Full Blood is probably the furthest I have gone with that. I try to sometimes use my own experiences to explore universal elements that are in all our lives. Though in this case I may have bitten off more than I could chew. It is a five-part sequence about a night when I was young, walking back home after taking my girlfriend to the bus. I realized I was being followed by racist skinheads–they infested our town in those days, back in the 1980’s. I knew they were going to beat me to death if they got hold of me. I wanted to try and write it so that the reader got a genuine experience of being followed, surrounded and being under that kind of threat. I wanted to know the nature of violence, and I wanted to do so without ever being preachy, pitying or sentimental. I wanted to write it from the inside, as real and true as possible. Unfortunately, I managed to succeed in my mission, resulting in me never being able to read the poem out loud at readings, even though it often gets requested. I did try twice: The first time, the audience started crying, and the second time, I got so upset at the thing waking up inside me again, that I was sick backstage and mentally and spiritually knocked-out for days. I usually try to write about the beauty of what it means to be human, especially the beauty that is right in front of us but we pretend we don’t see, but in this case it was a journey into true darkness.


John Siddique-Cover Full Blood 1


Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you have any suggestions for those who would like to integrate more of a poetic vision into their life?

John Siddique: I think more than anything we have to be in love with life, our lives, not in a sentimental faking Pollyanna way, but gently, boldly, and, on days when we are not, we have to allow the tenderness and power of the city, the mountain, nature, of other people going about their lives to penetrate us.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is the most unexpected place you have ever felt poetry?

John Siddique: I have been so blessed that language has taken me to so many places, I find it hard to say. I know that as immigrants, my parents had no power in their lives, felt no feeling of belonging, even though they worked their asses off. This language, and being able to use it as I do, has taken me around the world, and more simply, given me a way to live in it. As long as I have my notebook and pen, a cup of black coffee, I can be dropped anywhere and I’ll find a way.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Have you ever been, as the writer Kim Rosen so powerfully puts it, “saved by a poem”?

John Siddique: Yes indeed, many times. Most particularly by Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”
and by e. e. cummings’s “somewhere i have never travelled” But I’m not going to say how or why; I’d prefer readers of this interview to take a look at those poems and look at the gifts of their own lives after reading them.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

~”Wild Geese,” from New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver


“somewhere i have never travelled”

somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which I cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though I have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, I and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(I do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

~ e. e. cummings

*               *               *

 John Siddique Full Blood Cover

Further Notes:

John Siddique is the bestselling author of such books of poetry as Full Blood and Recital: An Almanac.

His children’s collection, Don’t Wear It On Your Head, Don’t Stick It Down Your Pants: Poems for Young People was shortlisted for the CLPE Poetry Award.   

His poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Granta, The Guardian, Poetry Review, The Rialto and on BBC Radio 4.

Siddique has worked with The British Council, PEN, The Arvon Foundation, The Poetry Society and London 2012. He is the former British Council Writer-in-Residence at California State University, Los Angeles, and has been awarded the title of Honorary Creative Writing Fellow by Leicester University in recognition of his contribution to literature.

Connect with the author:
Twitter @johnsiddique






Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.


  1. parrish lantern on November 28, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Thirst is probably my favourite poem at this current moment & have an inordinate fondness for Cummings’s poetry

  2. parrish lantern on November 28, 2012 at 12:11 am

    This is possibly my favourite E.E. Cummings’s poem, so thought I’d return the favour & add it here.
    Buffalo Bill ‘s
    who used to                     
    ride a watersmooth-silver                        stallionand break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat                                                                                                                        Jesus
    he was a handsome man                                                            and what i want to know ishow do you like your blueeyed boy
    Mister Death

  3. Julia Marie on November 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Thirst ~ “Imagine thirst without knowing water” “Imagine love without love” Thank you for sharing this. Hit me right here where the wild lilies grow. Beautiful…

  4. Caroline kindy on November 29, 2012 at 4:06 am

    A great interview

  5. John Siddique on November 29, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    I just wanted to stop by and say thanks to Deanna & Combustus for your generosity of spirit in getting behind my work. I also wanted to say hello and thank you to Combustus readers for taking your time in reading and your discernment and interest.


  6. Rehan on November 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Beautiful and insightful interview. The cut falls, once again, to poets to set the world to rights. Those poems, read again felt like a healing balm, probably me just being my crazy self but something in them today has reminded me of Donne’s compass analogy can’t quite work out the connection (to my mind). I’ll go away and read that too again.

  7. Julie Rose on December 7, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    you are an inspiration John! thank you

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