Kristina Marie Darling is an author and literary critic. Her book Je Suis L’Autre: Essays & Interrogations was named one of the ‘Best Books of 2017’ by The Brooklyn Rail, with her collection Dark Horse: Poems (C&R Press, 2018) receiving a notable review in Publishers Weekly.
Darling currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly, as an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Review of Books, and as a freelance book critic at The New York Times Book Review. In 2019, she was named to the U.S. Fulbright Commission’s roster of Senior Specialists.
Fellow author Erik Martiny interviewed Darling for The London Magazine about her work as an academic, her critical practice and how it informs her literary endeavours as a poet and experimental novelist. Read the interview in full below.
Erik Martiny: For readers not yet familiar with your work, could you tell us a little about your background and how it shapes your writing?
Kristina Marie Darling: For the great majority of my life, I wrote and published with very little formal training in the arts. Though I did pursue a creative writing degree when I was in my thirties, I considered myself to be mostly an academic for many years.
As a young poet, I completed advanced degrees in cultural studies and continental philosophy, as well as a doctorate in poetry criticism. It is this feeling that I was an outsider, an interloper even, that invited a sense of mischief and playfulness into my work. Because I didn’t consider myself a professional poet, the stakes seemed lower, and I could experiment to my heart’s content.
Before matriculating into the M.F.A. program at New York University, I published books entirely in footnotes, as well as books that engaged the printed page as a visual field. My latest book, Dark Horse, takes the form of prose poems, poems with holes in the middle, and police transcripts.
Even after I began to accrue awards and credentials as a poet, rather than as a scholar, I maintained my commitment to innovation in language. It’s this experimentation with form and syntax that can help a poet stand out from the crowd, and garner attention in an overly populous field.
Tell us a little about your origins as a poet. Who are your main influences?
As a scholar, I have long admired the French feminists of the 1960s. These women – Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and their contemporaries – revolutionized scholarly writing. In doing so, they revealed the forms in which we write as being politically charged. Helene Cixous, for example, calls our attention to the ways our life in language is governed by a mostly male, and mostly Western, definition of reason.
After all, the very structure of the sentence assumes a particular kind of causation, given its subject-verb-object structure. In fact, Cixous calls this type of prose – that is, work which performs this limiting definition of reason – “marked writing.” Here, a kind of toxic masculinity manifests within and is imposed onto the undoubtedly intimate work of the imagination. In my own work as a poet, I share her commitment to challenging – and renegotiating – what are exclusionary and outmoded forms of discourse.
I’ve published several essay collections, which represent what I call ‘lyric criticism’. Like Cixous, I’m deeply invested in challenging the presumed correlation between language and logic. With that in mind, I use the tools of poetry – imagery, metaphor, sound, lyricism, and more – to convey theoretical and philosophical arguments and so, the deconstruction of the writers’ work becomes experiential for the reader, as I endeavour to make my argument.
Of the following three female poets who do you feel closer to: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton or Sharon Olds?
These are definitely three of the most visible women poets in today’s literary landscape and I do think all three are geniuses in their own right. But I would challenge any reader to expand his or her reading in women’s poetry beyond those who are cited most frequently.
There is a veritable renaissance of innovative, gratifyingly dense writing by women being published today, and many of the greatest books by women go unread. This is, in part, because of the proliferation of small presses and journals which readers often struggle to navigate. Yet Virginia Konchan astonishes with the lushness and the restraint of her language, Laure Sheck shows us the purposefully difficult text as a feminist endeavour, Allison Benis White offers deeply unsettling definitions of beauty in poetry. There are just too many innovative women writers to name, who have not yet received the recognition they so deserve.
One of your most well-known poems is called ‘Feminism’, a poem in which the term seems to be used somewhat ironically. Can you tell me to what extent feminist concepts have had an impact on your work?
For me, all of language – including the forms we use, as well as the rules of grammar – is politically charged. I think the belief that form is political explains my gravitation to, and ardent championing of, hybrid and experimental literary forms. Adrienne Rich once said that she refused to write in forms that are hostile to women’s voices. From the very beginning, I’ve felt the same way about couplets, tercets, sonnets, and many of the vestiges of the artistic tradition we’ve inherited, and I’m certainly not alone, as recent years have seen a veritable explosion of cross-genre writing, the vast majority of which is by women.
How would you position yourself with regard to surrealism?
For me, what surrealism represents is relinquishing some degree of control over both the artistic process and readerly interpretation, inviting an element of chance as well as spontaneity into the work. I think this is why collaboration appeals to me so much.
Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing alongside Chris Campanioni, the winner of the Best Latino First Book Award; Carol Guess, professor of English at Western Washington University; and John Gallaher, winner of the Levis Prize in poetry.
When collaborating, it is impossible to plan a structure because one never knows what the co-writer will do next. For me, this invites a sense of play into the work, and oftentimes, this invitation extends to the reader as well. Because the collaborative text usually offers more questions than answers, the reader is involved in the imaginative work of the book, and becomes, in essence, a collaborator as well. It is the reader who actualizes the work of the poems, and for this reason, there is very little possibility of control over his or her part in the creative process.
Did you start off writing Dark Horse with the gothic motif of the dopplegänger in mind or did it just emerge as you were writing?
When I began writing Dark Horse, I was fascinated by the way our culture promotes and encourages competition among women, rather than fostering community among them. I do think this is one of the great flaws of any women’s movement that has emerged in recent years.
Even with the conversations surrounding #metoo, you see women becoming bizarrely competitive about the harassment and misconduct they’ve been subjected to (“I’ve been victimized more!” “No, I’ve been victimized more!”), rather than coming together to effect change. In this way, the rhetoric of a deeply flawed society is internalized. This is exactly what those in power want, to divide historically marginalized groups of people against one another, fragmenting the resistance.
Dark Horse is intended to render us suddenly and startlingly aware of the violence that is done to the feminist community through the rhetoric of competition, individualism, and empty superlatives. Though I began writing with the motif in mind, I was surprised by how the image and my own thinking transformed as I wrote. This is one of the great possibilities of poetry, that it can deliver you to a place where you had never set out to go.
Your persona in Dark Horse is repeatedly concerned with ‘faulty’ or ‘flawed’ architecture. This is above all a domestic metaphor for an unstable marriage, but does this preoccupation also reflect anxieties about literary form too?
I’m interested in the ways that architectural choices shape our behaviour in those spaces. There are a number of poets doing fascinating work on these questions of architecture and performativity, among them Virginia Konchan, John Beer, and Catherine Theis. With that in mind, I see my book as part of a larger conversation.
For me, the design of the rooms we inhabit sets a tone for our actions, the level of our formality or informality, and the terms of the relationships that we forge in those architectural spaces. The faulty architecture of Dark Horse’s imaginative landscape cultivates imperfect, untraditional, and deeply unsettling behaviour on the part of its characters, Jane Dark foremost among them.
The word ‘arc’ also recurs. Do you see the narrative arc of Dark Horse as bow-shaped, with a crescendo towards a central climax?
Absolutely! I see the work as a verse novel rather than a poetry collection in the traditional sense. I’m deeply invested in the ways that poetic technique, the texture of language, and experimentation with form can heighten the elements of a traditional narrative. For example, many of the poems in Dark Horse use the page as a visual field, frequently incorporating white space, gaps, dramatic formal shifts, and so on.
I’m intrigued by the ways that form and the presentation of the work on the printed page can cultivate suspense, or, conversely, complicate or call into question what’s going on in the narrative proper. With that in mind, I think poets could learn a great deal from fiction writers, as poets are often so caught up in image-making that they forget that the tools of narrative are available to them too.
I was also struck by your preoccupation with historical events like the burning of Rome or the First World War. That seems relatively unusual in poetry. Do you think poetry should explore historical periods in more depth?
I don’t think that incorporating history in poetry is unusual at all. I’m very much inspired by archival projects, such as Jill Magi’s Threads, Laurie Sheck’s Captivity, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Gillian Conoley’s The Plot Genie, and so on. Poetry offers a unique space where we as writers can jostle the hierarchies that structure the archive and question the master narratives that circulate around its material.
In her feminist epic, Helen in Egypt, H.D. goes so far as to question the way we imagine time, suggesting that linear time is what gives rise to the master narratives of a masculine war culture. If anything, poetry affords a rhetorical space in which we can imagine, and test out, new and different narratives of the histories and the archives that we’ve inherited.
Tell us about your upcoming projects. Are you thinking of branching out into new territory?
Most definitely! I’m working on a surveillance memoir, which considers cyberstalking, surveillance, and female empowerment in the digital age. I’m also working with an agent on a student loan memoir.
Lastly, I have been hard at work on two scholarly books, one of which strives toward a feminist poetics of spectacle. The other is a scholarly study of silence and activism in poetry, forthcoming from Clemson University Press.
Interview by Erik Martiny
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