In the summer of 2013, I first came across Kristina Marie Darling’s work after picking up X Marks the Dress: A Registry, a poetry collection that Darling co-authored with Carol Guess. The book is a master class in hybrid forms and literary collaborations, exploring same-sex marriage through complexly drawn fictional characters. At the time, I was already a fan of Guess’s work, but Kristina Marie Darling was a new, compelling, and essential feminist voice I hadn’t encountered before.
When reviewing Darling’s extraordinary creative output, one can’t help but be inspired—not only by her originality as a writer, but also by her generous literary citizenship. In addition to her extensive work as a literary critic and teacher, Darling has authored twenty-seven collections of poetry and hybrid prose. She has been awarded numerous writing fellowships, including a Yaddo residency and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy at Rome, among many others. Darling also serves as a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly, a book critic at the New York Times, and Editor-in-Chief of both Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly.
After five years of many serendipitous meetings on and off the page, I finally had a chance to talk with Kristina about the literary life, collaborative writing, and the power of experimental forms.
The Rumpus: Of all the writers I know and know of, you are by far the most prolific—so, I’d like to begin by asking what a day in the life of Kristina Marie Darling looks like: How do you balance generating and revising new material with the responsibilities of authorship (e.g. circulating your work, giving readings and interviews)? Further, how do you balance your own writing with your work as an editor, reviewer, teacher, and advocate for the writing of others?
Kristina Marie Darling: One of the most common misconceptions among writers is that curatorial work, and being part of a community in general, takes time away from one’s own creative practice. I’ve found that the opposite is true—participating in a community, editing magazines, reading submissions, and seeing what other writers are working on, feeds my creative work like nothing else. For example, when I first started my small press, Noctuary Press, as a grad student at SUNY Buffalo, I decided to focus the publishing project’s efforts on bringing visibility to writing by women that exists across, in spite of, and beyond genre boundaries. At the time, I thought hybrid writing by women was one thing—that it behaved in a particular way on the printed page. But as I curated the press’s offerings, I saw, for the first time, the multiplicity and diversity inherent in women’s experimental prose writing. Reading and advocating for poetry by other women expanded my sense of what is possible in my own creative writing. I can’t tell you how many times I read a manuscript submission, or assessed a review copy, and said to myself, “I didn’t know a writer could do that!” or “I didn’t realize it was possible to inhabit language in such a way!”
For me, the writings of others are the starting point for a conversation, and all of poetry is an inherently dialogic act. Which reminds me—there’s a wonderful book by Adriana Cavarero called For More Than One Voice: A Philosophy of Vocal Expression. In this book, she argues that it’s impossible to speak without something to respond to. She says that all of speech is a communal endeavor, as we’re always drawing inspiration from, appropriating from, and inhabiting a shared cultural imagination, a common repertoire of images, archetypes, and rhetorics. I believe this is true, that the voice is a social construct, and the words of others live with us even in our most solitary moments.
With poetry especially, we’re always refining, revising, and expanding what is possible within the tradition we’ve inherited. The great modernist poetry Marianne Moore coined the term “conversity” to describe the inherently dialogic nature of poetry. For her, the function of a literary journal was to host a dialogue between like-minded creative practitioners, to offer a forum for responding to and deconstructing the work of others.
Within my own creative practice, there would be complete silence without the presence of a larger community and without the work of curation and criticism. And these, too, are essentially creative endeavors, as much so as writing a poem, an essay, or a story.
Rumpus: Was there a formative moment or text you encountered that helped you recognize yourself as a writer?
Darling: I’ve been hesitant to speak truthfully about why my career as a prose writer has been so prolific, and that’s because so much of my writing—especially my work as a critic and an essayist—comes from a place of absolute trauma. We are living in a time when the people we once considered role models are constantly being exposed as abusers of the women, non-binary, and emerging writers in our community. From my early twenties onward, I found myself in many, many abusive situations with male poets—too many, in fact, to count.
When I was in my late twenties, I had a mentor whom I cherished as a poet and as a human being. My boyfriend at the time called to warn me about him, but I didn’t listen. We, as women in academia, are trained to place an unhealthy level of emphasis on pleasing mentor figures, and when the situation with him inevitably turned abusive, I didn’t have the emotional tools to properly deal with it. Because he and I had collaborated, and he was the one who saw all of my drafts, I couldn’t write poetry anymore, as it was a site of trauma, abjection, and violation. For about a year, I felt as though my voice had been taken from me. During this time, literary and cultural criticism became a way of staying connected to an artistic community, the community that my abuser tried so hard to isolate me from. We as poets tend to underestimate the power of book reviews and essays to build friendships and foster understanding, instead framing them as mere service, a thing one does until one has a book of one’s own. But poetry criticism is so much more than that—for me, it became a form of activism, advocacy, and resistance.
Rumpus: Thank you, Kristina, for your honesty and for your refusal to be silent. At this moment in time, what would you say is the most personally satisfying project you have written, across any genre? What made it so? Also, could you take us through the process of how that initial idea was shepherded from writing project to ultimately being published?
Darling: The most satisfying projects are without a doubt the ones that are collaborative in nature. When I was a grad student at SUNY Buffalo, Carol Guess, a professor at Western Washington University, took a chance on writing with me. We decided that she would take the voice of the husband, and I’d be the voice of the wife, and we’d write back and forth to each other. The book became X Marks the Dress: A Registry, which, in the end, was nothing like what we had imagined at the outset. The husband realized he was really a woman six pages into the collection, and the collaboration became a marriage equality book as well as a critique of the familiar cultural institution. I love collaboration because it invites spontaneity into my writing practice and challenges me to think fast, to work intuitively in ways I often don’t when writing alone. And of course, creating alongside someone whose style is much different from one’s own is fabulous because it prompts me to think through my own aesthetic, to consider why I write the way I do. Carol’s background is actually in fiction, and I learned a lot about narrative, especially building narrative within fragmented, fractured, or hybrid forms.
Carol and I had a blast writing X Marks the Dress, but publishing and promoting it was a different process—equally fun, and equally collaborative, just much different than the writing itself. We sent to four publishers, and Gold Wake Press was the first one we heard back from. They accepted it based on our track record and commitment to literary citizenship, in addition to the merits of the work itself. We were thrilled that our manuscript was accepted, and our fellow authors at GWP were a great resource. GWP is more than anything a community, and the authors support each other. We traded reviews with our fellow writers, a process that I loved because it exposed me to work that’s much different from my own, and gave me an opportunity to think through those poets’ approach to craft. We also did interviews in experimental formats—response poems, homages, collaborative conversations, and erasures.
What I learned from this process was that all of writing is collaborative, and book publicity and promotion are no different. There are many poets who believe the work should speak for itself, and I respect this approach, but it’s important to bear in mind that being a poet is being in a community.
Rumpus: Not only are you one of the most prolific and community-oriented writers I know, you are also one of the savviest at applying for and securing literary residencies—both within the US and around the world. I’m curious to learn a bit more about your relationship to the concepts of “place” and “home” and in particular, how where you are influences what you write. To begin, perhaps I should ask: Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or places) shape you as a writer? How have subsequent places you’ve lived enhanced and altered your writing’s content and form? Do you have a favorite place to write?
Darling: I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in the Midwest. When I attended an artist residency for the first time, it was a life-changing experience for me. To be in a place where creative expression is the norm, where artists are the majority and where they are held accountable for making work—this transformed my thinking about what it means to be a practicing artist. For me, part of the work of making art is conversation, dialogue, and exchange. It’s having one’s boundaries pushed and challenged and being made to think through one’s own aesthetic after encountering art that’s wildly divergent from one’s own. Over the years, artist residencies have afforded an opportunity to interface with other writers, as well as artists outside the boundaries of my chosen discipline, and creative practitioners from around the world. And these conversations have offered the greatest rewards—and challenges—when attempting to articulate and justify my own artistic practice.
Additionally, it was as a result of a conversation with Max Avi Kaplan at the Vermont Studio Center, and the ensuing text and image project, that I became interested in the dialogue between photography and poetry. My latest book, The Disappointment Acts, which is forthcoming from C&R Press in 2019, documents my travels to various art centers in North America and around the world, including the Hawthornden Castle Retreat for Writers, the American Academy in Rome, Fundacion Valparaiso, Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, and my absolute favorite place to write, which is Yaddo. The images, culled from several years on the road, become a way of gesturing at the limitations of language, and they often appear when I’ve reached the threshold of what can be said in poetry. After all, the work’s primary concern is communication over great distances, and the relationship between language, desire, and the imagination. The book, through the interplay of text and image, attempts to give form and substance to what is nearly unsayable between myself and the people I know and cherish.
Rumpus: Without knowing more than what you’ve revealed here, I find myself already curious about, and drawn to, the title of your upcoming work: The Disappointment Acts. Perhaps the answer will touch back to your earlier discussion of abuse and betrayed trust, but what has been disappointing for you about the literary life? How have you faced down those disappointments?
Darling: For the most part, traveling the world as an artist-in-residence is a bright existence. But sometimes the real world, with its injustices, uncertainties, and abuses of power, intrudes upon what I might have otherwise remembered as my life’s most luminous moments. I will never forget being on a flight from Rome’s Fiumicino airport after spending a month at the American Academy in Rome. I was there to complete research as I finished a terminal degree and was on my way back to upstate New York. It was soon after I landed that my abuser found out that I had won an academic fellowship at another college and would have (God forbid) another male mentor.
In the weeks that followed, my days were marked by shouting matches with him, which actually got me kicked out of the Saratoga Springs Starbucks, ultimatums, and a warning from the graduate school for what they described as my “academic advisement issues.” I refused his advances, set clear boundaries, and as a result, he refused to sign off on the paperwork for my graduation after I had taken out over $80,000 in student loans.
What tore my heart out was this: I write the way I do because I had read his work as a young poet. To find out that I had based my feminist practice on his poetry, writing that ultimately served his abuse of the emerging, non-binary, and women practitioners in our community, was initially too much for me to bear.
The Disappointment Acts is in part about him, but also, it was my first opportunity to write in a way that was completely separate from his aesthetic. I began engaging textual difficulty as a feminist gesture, and it was empowering to think through the construction of the linguistic outsider as a political gesture, to decide who was— and who wasn’t—allowed entry into the imaginative world that I had created. What I love most about language is this: it’s a hypothetical testing ground, where we can think through (and witness, and help bring about) the changes we want to see in the world.
Rumpus: Was there an encounter with a text that made you feel empowered to break silence about your life? Any occasion when you were first “split open” as a reader—and future writer—of necessary truths?
Darling: When I was introduced to experimental forms as a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo, it changed my life. This was the first time I had read poems in the form of footnotes, paragraphs, erasures, visual works, prose and verse hybrids, text and image projects, and so on. These new (to me) forms were liberating, because some thoughts cannot be conveyed in traditional forms of writing. They warrant a different kind of vessel, one that is as revolutionary as the ideas it bears into the world.
Another reason this was life-changing: academic writing, the writing I was so accustomed to, operates primarily by exclusion. Women’s lived experience, aestheticized language, and moments of beauty supposedly have no place in an academic essay. It is a form that gives rise to silence, however verbose its texts may be. I began to finally understand the gender politics that govern language and its forms and became deeply invested in questioning them. The work of Jenny Boully, Kim Gek Lin Short, Kate Durbin, Kristy Bowen, and Simone Muench showed me that poetry is a place for dialogue, not silence and exclusion. It was Laurie Sheck’s writing, though, that helped me see how fractured forms, and fragmented writing, are really an opportunity. As a writer, you can place different types of language—archival, personal, lyrical, and even found language—in tension with one another. It was the first time I saw that experimental forms allow the space between things to become charged, complex, and meaningful again. They allow that silence to finally speak.
Rumpus: Let me ask you this: Sometimes, when talking to people in my life who aren’t writers or aren’t specifically interested in literature, I find it hard to explain what I do—what I read, write, and teach, let alone why it matters. I’ve been told my literary passions are elitist because nobody “reads that stuff” outside the Academy, and that I should focus on writing that “everyone can enjoy.” Have you ever encountered similar responses after sharing your vocation? As someone who has experienced exclusion in the realm of academic writing, how do we justify hybrid and experimental writing to people who regard these forms as exclusionary?
Darling: As a creative practitioner working in hybrid and experimental forms, it’s also something I consider all the time in my own work. So here’s what I think: We are used to language operating in a specific way, with rules and hierarchies, with implicit judgments about the value of what’s being spoken about. This is because language—that is, language as we know it—also enacts a very particular type of reasoning, a logic that derives from a predominantly male, and predominantly Western, philosophical tradition. In order for a sentence or a paragraph to make sense within this conceptual schema, it has to perform these familiar structures of rationality and causation. The great feminist philosopher Helene Cixous calls this type of prose ”marked writing,” as we see a kind of toxic masculinity making its presence known even in the realms of art, storytelling, and the imagination.
For me, this philosophical tradition, comprised of a lineage of male thinkers, who decide what makes sense and what doesn’t—this is what’s exclusionary. When we read innovative texts, we simply aren’t used to language and writing that makes its own rules. But this is what’s great about forms like the lyric essay, prose poetry, and anything hybrid. They function as a hypothetical testing ground, where we can think through (and witness) the changes we want to see in language. And if you ask me, there is no better place to begin building a more just society than its very foundations: the rules of language itself.