Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty-six books, which include Look to Your Left: A Feminist Poetics of Spectacle, which is forthcoming from the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics at the University of Akron Press; Stylistic Innovation, Conscious Experience, and the Self in Modernist Women’s Poetry, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group; Daylight Has Already Come: Selected Poems 2014–2020, which will be published by Black Lawrence Press; Silence in Contemporary Poetry, which will be published in hardcover by Clemson University Press in the United States and Liverpool University Press in the United Kingdom; Silent Refusal: Essays on Contemporary Feminist Writing, newly available from Black Ocean; Angel of the North, which is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry; and X Marks the Dress: A Registry (co-written with Carol Guess), which was just launched by Persea Books in the United States. Penguin Random House Canada has also published a Canadian edition.
Kristina Marie Darling’s contribution as a literary citizen over the last fifteen years has produced an unabridged grammar of textual and literary possibilities across multiple genres. Darling’s corpus, including Failure Lyric (2014), Women and Ghosts (2015), and Je Suis L’Autre (2016), and her recent 2021 collection, Silent Refusal: Essays on Contemporary Feminist Writing (Black Ocean Press) expands the possibilities that exist in the space between poetry and lyric essay. Darling’s generosity as an independent scholar and teacher opened up the space for an interview on Zoom earlier this year as she was preparing for her work teaching courses on publishing in Rome. Darling’s remarkable career, especially her work outside of the traditional academy, promises a fresh perspective and direction for hybrid literary achievement.
Amy Penne: I am so grateful for this time together to explore poetry and analysis of poetic forms via your recent foray into poetry criticism. And grateful for the technology that can connect us over time zones and continents.
Kristina Marie Darling: It’s great to talk to you and to be able to chat in this format. And I’m delighted we found time to talk about poetry and criticism, especially experimental poetry. Opening up to experimental poetry and to writers who experiment with forms are my favorite topics of conversation.
AP: I work at a community college where I teach all introductory courses in composition, literature, and the humanities. Most of my students have very little background in poetry beyond the few bits and bobs they may remember from Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein, or Shakespeare’s sonnets. After encountering your work and the work of some of our contemporaries like Eve Ewing, Sarah Vap, Rochelle Hurt, Tyehimba Jess, Anaïs Duplan, and so many others, I decided my intro to poetry classes would solely be devoted to living poets. I no longer teach dead poets (even though I love many of them) and I try to focus as well on more experimental and hybrid work.
KMD: That’s fantastic. Students love contemporary poetry, and they love seeing themselves as part of a community of working poets. And I don’t know why more living poets aren’t taught in the classroom.
AP: Part of my rationale is that a poet like Terrance Hayes references Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath. He’ll play with sonnets. Most students have heard of Dickinson, Plath, and sonnets, even if they don’t know much about them. My students have Google and YouTube and I teach them how to go down the rabbit hole to dig deeper into references in contemporary poetry, which teaches them about traditional writers and forms. So far, it seems to have met with success and my students say things like, “I didn’t know poetry could do that,” or “I didn’t know people who look like me could be poets.” I’m so grateful for encountering your work which helped me to reframe my work in the classroom.
KMD: That’s kind of you to say. I think you’re absolutely right that a contemporary poem can become a doorway into all of that history and tradition, and we don’t always have to go the other way around by teaching the form before we showcase contemporary practitioners. Every literary text is a deconstruction of and a response to what came before. Marianne Moore coined the term “conversity” to describe the conversational nature of poetry and it helps us as teachers to open up contemporary poetry as a gateway to the inherited tradition.
AP: I know it’s transformed my own work as a writing teacher who writes. Shedding light on hybrid poems as well as poems that decenter the “I.” I’ve learned from your work to get out there and find poems that do not always privilege the “I” or the myopic obsession with left-margin lineated forms on the page.
KMD: That just opens up so many other things that a literary text can accomplish. And readers are hungry for something different. When you take the “I” out of it, you make space for the poem as literary criticism, the poem as a corrective gesture, the poem as an intervention into an inherited tradition. Taking the “I” out opens things up and you’re not limited to your autobiographical experience. The poem can then become an alterity or otherness that speaks through the poet. And of course, there is a long tradition of this. Homer demonstrates that alterity or otherness through the use of the muses. Or in the work of H.D. it’s the unconscious mind, as she was a patient of Sigmund Freud and kept her own dream journals as sources for her poetry. And now with contemporary collaborative poetry, that alterity or otherness is the spark for collaboration. It’s what John Gallagher and G.C. Waldrep call the “third voice.”
AP: It’s wonderful to see so much more collaboration within the traditional academic setting as well.
KMD: Oh absolutely. And this takes us back to teaching and pedagogical philosophy. Collaboration is a great tool for teaching not only craft but literary citizenship. I was recently speaking with the poet Oliver de la Paz, and he was designing an entire course on how to be a good collaborator as a way to equip students with the tools to be a part of a community.
AP: Community is something you create in the authors you examine in your recent book of criticism, Silent Refusal. Why did you choose a more, for lack of a better word, “traditional” form of literary criticism for this recent collection of essays? Your other essay collections, like In the Room of Persistent Sorry, Women and Ghosts, and Je Suis L’Autre experiment wildly with form and resist categorization. This text is different, although it certainly maintains your signature sense of play.
KMD: Thank you. That’s a great question. The idea for this began back when I was in graduate school at NYU. I wanted to not only dig into this idea of difficulty but of readerly entitlement and how that entitlement is gendered. During my own thesis semester, I was actually cautioned away from writing difficult texts. This is where things got disconcerting for me because we tend not to give difficult texts the scholarly attention they deserve because they’re challenging. Their difficulty is part of the performance. Even more, the deliberate difficulty we enjoy in so many hybrid and challenging texts is politically charged. The challenge is the feminist or otherwise separatist gesture.
AP: I love that idea of textual performance.
KMD: Me too. Where I think the more traditional or more legible (literally legible on the page) forms of criticism play a crucial role is in giving readers and educators a mechanism to be able to interact with those texts that are supposedly too difficult or too challenging. This is important as these aren’t always writers from the dominant social groups that are going to be writing these disruptive texts; it’s going to be women, writers of color, non-binary writers. If we’re going to discount, not teach or write about, difficult texts because they challenge us and our traditional grammar or our assumptions about what a text should look like, then we’re reinforcing existing power structures within our community and in the Academy.
AP: So, this text is meant, in some ways, for educators within the Academy but also as an intervention to promote writers who aren’t usually privileged in our poetry classes.
KMD: Yes, and for any reader interested in these diverse writers and their experimental and hybrid texts. I wrote this more traditional or recognizable scholarship to be a bridge between communities and to give all readers, but particularly educators, tools for building new reading lists in their courses. This book could easily be an adopted textbook. I hope it’s a work which creates the kind of community de la Paz is imagining and builds bridges through discussion of craft and of literary technique.
AP: Your career and creative work span so many genres and spaces. You write, you teach, you publish, you are an editor-in-chief at Tupelo Quarterly, you’re a professional consultant, and you’re constantly on the move. How do you balance your teaching and literary citizenship with your own writing practice?
KMD: I first became interested in being an independent scholar when I was finishing my Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo. If you’ve ever been to Buffalo, you know it’s just about the snow capital of the country. It’s cold and I was honestly just looking for warm places, at first, to do residencies and carve out time to write. I started applying for grants and residencies. I had some success and realized that a lot of the professional development aspects of the writing life are left out of our traditional academic settings. It’s not a conversation most schools have with their graduate students. There’s a big hole in the conversation for writers in both MFA and Ph.D. programs. My writing was benefitting from residencies and grants and that’s when I turned even more of my attention to helping other writers.
AP: Your focus on teaching and literary citizenship has made a huge difference in my own work and in my development as feminist teacher, writer, and reviewer.
KMD: Thank you for saying that. I designed some 4-week courses housed at the literary magazine at Johns Hopkins University, and for every course I designed, there would be something at the end requiring students to go out into their communities, as well as opportunities for learning more about publication through what I called submission bombing. Out of this exercise, I saw that students were getting their work published, so I began focusing even more on the professional development of the writers I was working with and that became an integral part of my curriculum. Professional development and empowerment of emerging and more experienced writers became an integral part of my work.
AP: Silent Refusal seems to fit with your idea of community and development. While your literary criticism in this collection is more traditionally recognizable, the writers you discuss and the texts you analyze disrupt traditional poetry and prose in all the ways that your creative genre-busting work has done and continues to do. What did you discover while writing this collection?
KMD: Even if you’re going to disrupt the genres and forms of writing, there’s something powerful about knowing the forms of discourse as well. It’s that idea of knowing the formal constraints in order to break the forms. What I love about the texts I explored in this book and what I love in my work as an independent teacher and consultant is that it’s vital to encourage students to write and read these unruly texts. Break all of the rules, I say, challenge the status quo. But I want to support those writers and I want to help them craft a solid project proposal that frames their work and shows what’s at stake in their work so they can get funding for their unruly feminist or unruly intersectional texts. There is something to be said for knowing the forms to leverage for social change and to get full access to funding and resources.
AP: We also have been thrust, headfirst, into hybrid forms of communication and educational delivery, courtesy of the global COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve benefited tremendously from courses that used to be reserved for writers in New York City, Boston, San Francisco, or even closer to home for me in Chicago. But as a full-time teacher, wife, mother, and writer, and a person who suffers from acute travel anxiety, I could never have attended workshops like these. But I’ve accessed and learned from some phenomenal writers and teachers through Catapult, Creative Nonfiction, the Playwright’s Center, Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center, and others. What do you think this explosion in online learning and online access will do for creative writers?
KMD: While I think some of the noise associated with the explosion of online courses and workshops may be hard for some writers to navigate, this new world will be a net gain for writers. After all, there is only so much diversity you can experience in a physical classroom. When I was teaching online for the Chicago School of Poetics, I had a student logging in from Northern Michigan, a student from Manila, and a student logging in from Tokyo all in the same class. The conversation was naturally richer and more diverse. The respect and exchange of ideas was more vibrant. You can’t get that in a physical classroom. Students may have different backgrounds, but students logging in live from all over the world is a unique experience that only an online environment can foster. And let’s think practically too: online workshops and programs have less overhead. There’s no space to rent. For those who have an entrepreneurial spirit, you can start with much less investment. The resources you may have needed within universities or in physical spaces are minimized and you can put more resources towards the students and their writing. More money can be used for guest speakers and experts in the field, including agents, editors, and publicists. The publishing practicum I’ll be teaching in the fall at the American University of Rome will include guest speakers nearly every week. Of course, they’re not flying into Rome for those; it’s all on Zoom. But the students will have the benefit of experts in the field. So online learning, especially in this context, can, if we shape it that way, foster much greater diversity and serve more writers.
AP: I feel I’ve nearly earned an MFA since fall of 2020, without the official credential of course, because I’ve learned so much from the instructors I’ve had, the colleagues in classes, and from just doing the work. I’ve completed roughly ten courses and several more hour-long seminars and workshops.
KMD: That makes so much sense. Sometimes in MFA programs there’s an explosion of writing. And that’s the point, of course. But there may not be as much reading. What you get in online courses is much more deliberative. You can take the time to really read and study and decide what you want to contribute to a workshop in ways that can be more difficult when you’re put on the spot in traditional MFA workshops. Even asynchronous courses lend themselves to much more reading and thoughtful study. Of course, it all depends on students taking initiative over their own work. But I’ve seen some truly remarkable work from the online workshops we’ve offered through Tupelo Quarterly.*
AP: Taking these courses has, even at this later stage in my teaching career, helped me reframe the classroom space as much as they’ve helped me in my creative work. This semester, I’ve changed the texts I’m teaching, incorporated more diversity in terms of writers but also forms, and of course, my work as a reviewer, essayist, and aspiring hybrid verse-drama composer has given me hope that even once I’m an old lady, maybe I can apply for residencies and continue to stretch what’s possible. The creative writing world seems big enough even for old people, like me. I mean, I’m not that old, but I’m not a 23-year-old MFA student from Exotic-Place-That’s-Not-The-Staid-Midwest.
KMD: I know what you mean. But with residencies, especially if you’re working in experimental and hybrid forms, you would get to meet so many different kinds of writers at different stages of their careers and that can be such a productive way to continue to grow as a writer.
AP: Thank you, so much, for your time and your encouragement and your incandescent work as a literary citizen. You give so much of your time in your work as a teacher, editor, consultant, coach, and provocative writer. I am particularly grateful for the time you take to encourage writers to take reviewing more seriously and to put energy into reviewing. I have fallen in love with writing reviews and now do it for my beloved local online culture magazine, Smile Politely, as well as for literary magazines and other online outlets.
KMD: Of course. This has been delightful. You know, in my work teaching at places like the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center or through our weekend Tupelo Press workshops, I love to get students started as reviewers because that introduces them to editors and publishers and gets them involved with journals. It also, to reflect back on what we said about MFA programs, encourages reading and thoughtful reflection, which can only enhance one’s own writing practice. And the online format for so many journals lends itself to more opportunities for writers, and that’s how we create more space for hybrid forms and more diverse writers and readers.
AP: And that’s what both hybrid forms, as well as hybrid forms of communication, can give us: more space for conversations like this. Thank you.
*Silent Refusal: Essays on Contemporary Feminist Writing closes with a poignant and raw set of “Notes on Violence & Language.” The final subsection, “Workshop Violence: A Partial Archive,” utilizes direct quotes from workshops and personal comments to spotlight the dark side of MFA programs, artist colonies, and noncredit workshops. Darling writes, “No matter what landscape, building, or campus, I remained deeply disturbed by one thing: the difficult text was almost always spoken about as though it were a female body, and as though the primarily male readers in the room were entitled ‘access’ to it.” Picking up on the themes prevalent at both the 2021 2022 Association of Writers & Writing Programs conferences, and in two recent books on craft, Felicia Rose Chavez’s brilliant The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom (Haymarket Books, January 2021), and Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult Books, January 2021), Darling similarly exposes deeply misogynist reactions to hybrid texts and to her as creator of those texts. She endured comments like “I don’t understand why Kristina writes in broken forms. Maybe this means she was the victim of sexual violence at some point.” Equating unruly, disruptive, hybrid texts with assumed sexual violence was only one example from workshops; she has others. Too many. Her examples mirror, in some ways, those of the disenfranchisement and racist harm done to writers of color in MFA programs as documented in Felicia Rose Chavez’s work. Chavez writes, “silencing writers is central to the traditional writing workshop model.” Shutting down queer writers, writers of color, women writers, and creators of all modes of hybrid texts has been far too common across workshops and programs.