Tupelo Press Editor-in-Chief Kristina Marie Darling on A Feminist Poetics of Spectacle [INTERVIEW]

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty-six books. Her work has been recognized with multiple residencies, fellowships, and grants, including an an artist-in-residence position at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris; six residencies at the American Academy in Rome, and an artist-in-residence position with the Andorran Ministry of Culture. She was recognized with the Dan Liberthson Prize from the Academy of American Poets, which she received on three separate occasions, among many other awards and honors. Kristina serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press & Tupelo Quarterly. Kristina’s latest book, “Look to your Left: A Feminist Poetics of Spectacle” was recently published by The University of Akron Press. Below are excerpts from her interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: Before diving into your collection of essays on poetics, why do you love poetry?

Kristina Marie Darling: “My background is as a scholar and a philosopher. Before starting my poetry studies, I did a master’s in Continental Philosophy at the University of Missouri. What was so disconcerting to me about scholarly writing was that the ideas were so provocative and interesting, but the writing style was stifling. I came over to poetry after being admitted to SUNY Buffalo for Literary Theory and Psychoanalysis. I was intrigued by the unique possibilities of performative language for making theoretical claims and for constructing scholarly arguments. I am excited by the possibilities of performative language and experimental forms as a way of intervening into existing scholarly conversations. I think that it’s more powerful if the reader can have a visceral experience and watch ideas unfold before them on the page rather than being confined by these scholarly forms. Most of my poetry has some element of literary criticism in it, but I think the possibilities of poetry for conveying critical and theoretical claims are so incredible.” 

James: In your essay on Victoria Chang, you include a quote about poetry being marginalized in our culture. Perhaps that is true, and in most bookstores poetry books are overwhelmed by other genres, but I’ve found at the open mics I hold monthly that a majority of poets at the mic are reciting publicly for the first time, and come from all backgrounds and ages. Is part of the perception of poetry and poets being marginalized a side effect of sharing poetry being such a vulnerable act? 

Kristina: “The vulnerability of poetry is one part of it. I’m a former labor rights journalist and the way that we think about and value labor contributes to the perception of poetry being a marginalized art. When we think about language, there are certain types of language that we tend to value and grant authority to over other types of language. For example, scientific language would be at the very top of the list. The more subjective types of language, like poetry  and autobiography, tend to be granted less legitimacy. I think that that really plays into how writers are compensated for their work. Writers of poetry and autobiography rarely see advances whereas it’s much different with other forms of writing. I would go so far as to say a broken system with respect to labor and valuation fuels what is a misconception about poetry.”

James: The critical importance of language, of grammar, in societal power structures, is woven into multiple essays. In “The Literary Text as Performance & Spectacle” you quote Julia Kristeva: “a revolution in the social order begins in poetic language.” Is this opportunity for revolution in part because poets have so much power over words, grammar, and form in expressing ideas? Why do you believe poetry has such power to shape civilization? 

Kristina: “The French feminist theorists of the 1960s were so interesting in how they deployed the conventionally received academic forms of writing as a form of power. We see someone like Julia Kristeva with a revolution in poetic language, where she is taking the received scholarly forms and using them to present something unconventional and unanticipated. At the same time, she is lending legitimacy to those ideas. There’s also Luce Irigaray, who appropriated from male critics to lend legitimacy to her point of view. I think that there’s something really powerful about learning the forms of discourse only to expand what is possible within that discourse. Poetry is where that really happens, much more so than critical theory. Even though we have these great experimental feminist theorists to look back on, I think that with poetry we can expand what is possible within the existing power structures through our use of language and how we inhabit language. So much of that comes through experimental innovative postmodern or post-conceptual forms of writing.”

James: In “The Aesthetics of Silence” and other essays you examine one of the key elements of poetry, the ability to employ empty space – silence – in poetry using many different devices. It’s a tool prose doesn’t employ. What advice do you have for writers of prose who are interested in writing poetry, specifically with the use of silence? 

Kristina: “Silence can take many forms and do many different types of work within a literary text. There’s the white space that we see on the page – the gaps, the ruptures, the elisions – but at the same time there’s also elided narrative context or something that’s left out or left unsaid within a story. There can be missing characters or missing objects in a story. There’s a lot of different types of work that silence can do in a text. For me, what it all comes down to is thinking about silence or what’s left out  in a text as a form of power, because that’s information that the writer is withholding. It’s a kind of agency that you have that you can use to give the reader something they don’t expect and to make them think and reflect. 

“It’s so interesting how we as a larger culture think about silence. We tend to think of it as a kind of disempowerment or a symptom of disempowerment. We’re not speaking because we’re not allowed to speak or because we feel that we can’t speak. But really, when a writer is to deploy silence in an effective way in a literary text, often it’s a form of agency and a show of resistance for that writer. I think that so many readers and literary critics expect women and non-binary and people of color to give a certain kind of narrative. But by refusing to kind of give in to those expectations through that purposeful withholding, it becomes a powerful form of resistance.” 

James: Poetry, like other art forms, isn’t static, evolving with changing tastes, the desire to experiment, and a reflection of our culture. Where do you see contemporary poets pushing poetry into new directions? 

Kristina: “As a reader and an editor, I see a lot of really straightforward narrative poetry. What’s interesting about that is the ideas that are being dealt with and deployed are so interesting, but I want the language to be just as interesting as those ideas. So going forward, seeing poetry evolve and grow, I’m really excited for poetry that uses language and diction and description in ways that are just as provocative as the ideas and the stories that are being conveyed. 

“There is so much potential with the poetry of social justice. The poetry can be politically charged on the level of content, but also there is room for the poetry to offer a powerful intervention into the kind of hierarchies and the causal chains that are implied by grammar. Grammar, as we see it in poetry, is a very Western, very male, very conventional way of thinking about storytelling and reason and what the reader is going to accept.  I’m really excited to see poetry that questions our ideas about reason or logic or storytelling, and takes risks, not only on the level of ideas and ideology but also on the level of the syntax and diction and the language itself on its most micro level.”

James: Several of the essays discuss the role of poetry in protest and social change. What advice do you have for poets seeking to advance a social issue without losing the poetry along the way? 

Kristina: “That is such a difficult balance to strike. I would think about creating tension, whether it’s tension on the level of narrative or on the level of the types of language the poet is using. Or perhaps, a kind of tension between form and content, where the form that the poem is taking strikes sparks against the message that the poet is conveying. In particular, Kim Gek Lin Short in her poetry collection “The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits”, comments on the exclusionary and elitist nature of academic forms of writing. She does this by presenting prose poems and footnotes that she writes, but the prose poems and footnotes are all about bugs. The whimsy in  that carefree narrative creates a provocative tension with the scholarly, very serious form that the poems are represented in. 

“For any writer that is trying to convey a strong message, but is also trying to hone in their craft, I would encourage them to think about the kind of tension that drives the poem forward. Narrative tension is only one way. There’s also so much work that can be done with so much potential with respect to using different types of language. For example, the language of pop culture paired with the language of academia, or putting some interesting message in a form that we wouldn’t expect. The poet Kristy Bowen has a piece called ‘Algorithms’ and it’s a wild dream narrative, but she presents it in the form of a mathematical equation. There’s this really interesting tension between form and content that drives the poem forward in a powerful way.”

James: In “The Generative Violence of the Experiment” you reference the inherent violence and destruction in artistic experiment, that destruction is a key element to creating sometime new. Talk more about how modern poets should think about dismantling convention and perhaps what they’ve been taught about technique and form when finding their poetic voice. Put another way, is it possible to veer so far from convention that the art remains accessible solely to the artist? 

Kristina: “It’s shared forms of discourse and shared conventions that enable us to participate in literature as a community. But at the same time, I think that there is a way to work within the confines of received forms to expand what is possible within them. This is something that Myung Mi Kim, one of my mentors, talks a lot about and it’s something that poets like Cecilia Vicuña and Jenny Boully really excel at. The balance would not be necessarily to set out to dismantle tradition, which is the impulse of so many young poets and so many emerging writers who are just beginning in their craft. I think that what’s more powerful than just a simple dismantling is a critique or an argument about that tradition. What is unacceptable about it? What about it needs to change? What can be preserved or refined going forward? 

“This is something that comes up a lot in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. There’s something that I love in aesthetics, which is called the Isolation Theory of Art. It’s the belief that all of art, all of poetry, all of painting, is a conversation where the poet or the novelist or the painter decides what elements of the conversation they want to preserve and what elements they want to revise or change going forward. There’s something powerful about acknowledging what has come before, but at the same time making it your own. This is something that you see with poets working in form too. The form becomes the primary thing and they don’t think about how to make this sonnet or whatever it may be their own. They don’t think about how to put their own stamp on it. I think it’s much more interesting when we use tradition, but at the same time comment on it through our own revision of that form and through our own aesthetic as poets.”

James: People across the gender spectrum have more voice in poetry today. Is there an argument to be made that our education system should limit pre-20th century poets in curriculum not only because the poetry is less current and accessible to students but also because published poetry was so dominated by men, and diverse voices discouraged, silenced or restricted in form, until relatively recently?

Kristina: “I would say the answer is not necessarily limiting historical poetry, because there is something really important about having that background and knowledge going forward. But, I say raid the archives. There is so much thought-provoking, innovative, challenging poetry by women poets, non-binary poets, gender-nonconforming poets, and poets of color that is locked in an archive and hasn’t seen the light of day. There is so much to be said for making archives and guarded collections accessible to students, whether it’s through expanding scholarly publishing in creating additions or edited collections of these works. The voices that we’ve seen in terms of historical poetry are so few. There’s so many more voices to be heard.”

James: You write that textual difficulty can be a feminist gesture, that striving for universal understanding of text is not necessarily the goal, that the rules of conformity are a form of privilege and that othering can be applied to those refusing to follow convention. I found these essays particularly compelling, poets and challenging the forms of poetry being acts of rebellion. How did crafting this book of rich and challenging essays impact your understanding of feminism?

Kristina: “When I was in my PhD wanting to publish feminist text by other writers, I thought that feminism on the page and hybrid or cross-genre writing on the page was one specific thing. But as I worked more as a scholar and as a publisher, I was so impressed by the sheer variety of feminist writing and the sheer variety of experimental forms. It really showed me that you can have like a single idea. Writers are working toward social justice through performative language, but that same idea can be portrayed from a scholarly standpoint in infinite ways. That was one of the great joys of writing this book. I kind of struck out with this idea of feminist politics of spectacle, but also seeing the sheer variety of stylistic approaches to the essentially same literary or philosophical question was really incredible and inspiring to me as a writer.”

James: The essays in the Afterword are personal, disturbing to read (while, alas, not surprising), and offer an intimate look at how sexual violence can even be found in literary criticism. As a cis white male with privilege on multiple dimensions I have never experienced, directly, the attacks you described so effectively. What are the systemic structure at play in the literary world that need to be torn down and rebuilt to significantly reduce the sexual violence you described

Kristina: “So much of the time, power dynamics begin in language and how we deal with language. Sarah Vap in her essay collection ‘The End of the Sentimental Journey’ writes that the way that we discuss experimental writing by women and the way we discuss women’s bodies is strikingly similar. There’s this assumption that people are owed access to experimental text without necessarily doing the work of getting background, interacting with the text, and doing imaginative work on their own. 

“There’s also a sense of entitlement towards women’s bodies. I was really just intrigued by this idea of readerly entitlement. What does that say about us as readers of poetry that so many readers feel like every text is for them? I think that it is really symptomatic. I think the belief that every writer should be able to have a mastery over every literary text is very symptomatic of those communities. For me, change begins with how we inhabit language and how we interact with and treat language. Giving respect to writing that may be different from your own may be a first step forward.”

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