An Interview with Kristina Marie Darling
Kate Partridge: Both the Preface and the Epilogue of your new book, Fortress, are artful erasures of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which contextualizes the text within a discussion of not only pain, but the bodily manifestations of emotion. I’m particularly taken by these lines: “when she falls in love/ physical pain does not simply resist language/ but actively destroys it.” Why did you select this process of erasure, and this text, to frame the book?
Kristina Marie Darling: That's a great question. I started working on the erasure parts of the book after I had just undergone a great disappointment in my life. I was surprised by how I could sense this pain, this melancholy in every bone of my body. I became very interested in the ways that emotional pain and physical pain intersect, blur into one another. For obvious reasons, I was drawn to Scarry's book, and erasure seemed like an appropriate form for expressing grief. Language, and the narratives that we use to lend unity to our experience of the world, becomes fragmented, disconnected, incongruous. I also inspired by procedural erasures like Yedda Morrison's Darkness (in which people are erased from Conrad's Heart of Darkness) and Ronald Johnson's Radi Os (in which religion is erased from Milton's Paradise Lost). With that in mind, I tried to erase suffering from the book. What was left? The "small blue thread," "the fragile arc," "hands placed on a piano recovering a song as though it were another form of breathing."
KP: In an interview with Justin Bigos of The American Literary Review, you describe the balance between associative logic and reader expectation that comes into play when working with formal elements readers associate with other genres, such as footnotes and appendices. Fortress utilizes footnotes throughout Books 1, 2, and 3; can you elaborate on why you chose this form and how it interacts with the process of association?
KMD: I'm drawn to footnotes because they allow me to create a text that is driven by associative dream-like logic, one that has many voices within it, a text that finds beauty in this fragmentation of voice and reason. But at the same time, footnotes offer a way of giving these fragments a sense of structure. In many ways, the form offers an opportunity to build a narrative arc from the remnants of voice, logic, and other texts one has encountered. For me, this balance between fragmentation and structure is crucial. All too often, gorgeously fractured texts fail to create a sense of momentum, a progression, because they are almost too airy, too fragmentary. Additionally, the footnotes allow the reader to encounter this fragmentation in the guise of structure, allowing one to surprise the reader, and hopefully expand their sense of what is possible within a literary text.
KP: It’s hard to imagine, looking at the way you’ve laid out the poems, that the concept of white space is not significant to this work. The book itself is wider than usual (a square), and the major forms also rely heavily on breaks and absences. How do you see the white space interacting with the text of the poems and the book as an object?
KMD: I'm very interested in white space as a means by which to convey grief. In her book Black Sun, Kristeva writes that the melancholic subject, the individual who has suffered loss, also suffers a loss of language. Words lose their meaning, and the connection between signifier and signified becomes altogether tenuous. For me, erasure and white space are a creative way of engaging Kristeva's argument, exploring its implications for the creation of narrative. I hope that my use of white space not only mirrors and enacts the melancholia that Kristeva describes, but also suggests that narrative can reemerge from these fragments of language that we are left with after grief, however spare and ordinary.
KP: The poems draw on a number of motifs that readers will have existing relationships with, especially as they relate to myth: gardening, the fortress, opiates. The danger of this, of course, is the confusion of familiarity with banality, yet the book clearly seeks to resist the standard interpretations of these symbols and re-contextualize them within a new love. What do you hope to gain by referring so overtly to existing literary traditions, and what is your purpose in recovering them?
KMD: As I worked on Fortress, I was very much intrigued by Romantic poetry, particularly the landscapes that are depicted: desiccated fields, dead poppies, iron gates, and so on. Yet these gothic pastorals frequently appear in work by fairly canonical male poets (Keats, Shelley, etc.). I wanted to create a feminist interpretation of this landscape, to explore what it would mean for a female protagonist to inhabit it, to see a female character navigate it. I suppose you could say that Fortress is an attempt to feminize a landscape that has been coded as male by the literature that we have inherited.
KP: The poems in Fortress frequently return to the theme of distance—emotional, in the lovers’ distance; intellectual, in the objectivity of the etymologies and allusions; the striking existence of distance within the body and across the landscape. How would you describe the role of distance in these poems?
KMD: That's a very thought-provoking reading of the text. Thank you for your insight. As I drafted the book, I was particularly interested in the ways in which distance gives rise to a strange closeness. When a book invites us to actively imagine, speculate, and create meaning, the reader is brought into closer proximity to the text, actualizing it through their imaginative work. In many ways, any kind of aesthetic distance is merely an invitation. I'm intrigued by the ways in which distance functions to bring author and reader, wholeness and fragmentation, and self and other closer together.
KP: This manuscript reminds me of the work of poets like C.D. Wright and Susan Howe in some of its content and especially the way that it requires readers to form connections between several dominant threads—a particular type of interaction that I find very engaging. What writers or influences were you conscious of when you were constructing this work?
KMD: You're absolutely right that my book strives to push the reader to assume a more active role. And I love Susan Howe and C.D. Wright. I'm deeply invested in the idea that a text should be a collaboration between reader and writer, in which the reader actualizes the text through his or her imaginative work. This gives rise to a multiplicity, a proliferation of possible meanings. In this respect, the modernist poets (H.D., Stein, Mina Loy, Marianne Moore...) were very influential for me. With Modernism we see the first turn away from the Romantic notion of authorship, in which the author actively gives meaning to an audience who passively receives it. I hope that my poetry continues to invite the reader to assume a collaborative role, to participate actively in the process of creating meaning from the work.
KP: As an explicitly inclusive feminist press, we are always interested in how writers think of their work engaging in issues of social justice. Is Fortress a feminist text?
KMD: Absolutely. For me, there is nothing more masculine than the definitions of logic, legibility and coherence that govern our use of narrative and the space of the printed page. I hope that Fortress presents an alternative definition of narrative not as a complete thing that is given, but as something that is constantly in flux as various readers encounter it. This feminist take on narrative comes across most clearly in the book's fragmentation and bold use of white space, the invitation to the reader to participate in the text. Moreover, I hope that Fortress reminds us that the page is not merely a vehicle for delivering content, but rather, it is a visual field, a canvas. And I hope that the book continues to expand what is possible within our existing definitions of legibility, logic, and coherence. I want to show that it is possible to exist outside of received narrative modes and still be understood. Sometimes we must exist outside of received forms, and invent new ones, in order to be communicate ideas that don't fit neatly within existing modes of thinking and writing.
KP: What new projects are you working on?
KMD: I'm working on another erasure project in collaboration with my friend, photographer, costumer, and fashion designer Max Avi Kaplan. The book is a feminist erasure of/rewriting of/reframing of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which reframes the narrative from Lo's perspective. Max's stunning photographs explore themes of (dis)embodiment within the book. I hope you'll check it out! The collection will be released by Negative Capability Press in 2015.
I also edit a feminist press, Noctuary Press, which publishes hybrid genre writing by women. Upcoming titles include books by Carrie Olivia Adams, Emma Bolden, and Julie Marie Wade. I hope you'll visit our website for our most current offerings.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.