Jane Huffman: Your book Fortress is quite unconventional in its presentation. It mixes the tools of poetry, prose, footnote and paratext, and the pieces function on the page in a very visually interesting way. Can you speak on the book’s aesthetic conception – both in literary content and experimental appearance?
Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question. The book actually grew out of a huge disappointment in my life. A man I had been in love with for several years called me to tell me he’d met his soul mate, some girl named Stacey. Although they broke up the next week, it was really awful at the time. My body ached when I heard that news. Perhaps because of that, I felt drawn to Elaine Scarry’s classic work, The Body in Pain. In what became a cathartic exercise, I started to erase pain from the book with giant black marker. Then I took inventory of what was left: the small arc, the fragile blue thread, and desire.
In the months that followed, I typed up and rewrote the erasures, which later became the “Preface” and the “Epilogue.” I also began engaging the work of Romantic poets who depicted the experience of ingesting opium, trying to imagine how a female speaker would inhabit these psychic landscapes. Eventually these “painkiller poems” and footnotes began to take shape as the books in the middle. The writing itself felt like a process of discovery, and I wasn’t sure at first where it would take me. I’m just so glad that a difficult experience gave way to something constructive, a beautiful book that bears a small (but still palpable) weight in the world.
JH: To me, the book establishes and maintains a consistent physical and emotional world, and the narrative within that world is both approachable and surreal. It has a feeling of tangible space and place, but also accomplishes a great deal of imaginative exploration. What was the process that went into assembling such a manuscript?
KMD: I had to sink very deep into myself, and I’m grateful to the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico for allowing me the time and space to do so. The solitude and vast open spaces of the residency expanded my sense of what is possible in the imagination, and as a result, my own writing.
Because I had the leisure of a three month residency, I thought a lot about the relationships between mind and body, between the heart and one’s physical being, and between memory and imagination. While most of my writing is very fragmented, I’m proud that I strived more for connections and continuity within this manuscript. It represents something a bit different from my previous books, so I hope you’ll check it out!
JH: If you were a professional DJ, what would you spin?
KMD: Taylor Swift. Every day of the week.
JH: Like its title suggests, Fortress offers a narrative which explores the notion that forces of entrapment, protection, and freedom often exist beyond or behind the same thresholds. Can you speak on the sense of place and space you have woven into the pieces and its significance in the collection?
KMD: The poems were actually written in the deserts of Taos, New Mexico. I became very interested in the ways that a barren landscape can shape one’s sense of being in the world. Does it foreclose possibilities? Or does it give rise to renewal and regeneration? Likewise, I thought a great deal about how one’s inner state, one’s emotional landscape, is often projected onto the world around us. In Fortress, I have tried to dismantle the boundaries that many of us maintain between self and world, between interior thoughts and exterior landscape, since the relationship seems, to me at least, much more fluid.
JH: Do you have any advice for poets who are just beginning the process of getting their work out into the world? Or perhaps for poets who are at the beginning stages of assembling a book or chapbook?
KMD: I always tell emerging writers: Don’t be afraid to start with small things. Small things can often lead to much bigger things. My first residency was actually in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I had a great experience there, and when I applied to Yaddo and the Wurlitzer Foundation a few years later, I had something to put on my resume. Likewise, my first publication was in a stapled zine that was actually stapled crooked. Within a few years, I had two essays appear in The Gettysburg Review. All too often, I see writers try to start with the big things, not realizing that they should build up those accomplishments. There is no shame in starting with something humble and striving for more.
JH: What was the last book of poetry you read and loved?
KMD: I would have to say James Wagner’s Trilce. It’s a collection of homophonic translations of Cesar Vallejo’s work. I truly appreciate the ways that Wagner uses sound to create meaning and forge connections within the work. So much of the time, we focus on the semantic meaning of the words we use, and the music goes unheard. I love the fact that Wagner teaches us to hear the musicality of everyday language anew.
JH: Gregory Orr writes about the four poetic temperaments—story, structure, music, and imagination—and claims that every writer naturally leans toward two. Where do you place yourself on his quad-diagram?
KMD: Imagination, and almost nothing else. The other three (story, structure, music) are like horses that have been harnessed to pull imagination’s enormous white chariot.
JH: Now, the eternal question: What can you share about your personal process of revising poems?
KMD: For me, writing a poem is a process of discovery, and revision is about taking stock of what one has discovered. These discoveries are rarely at the beginning of the poem or sequence. It’s always a challenge to find a form and structure that renders these insights intelligible to the reader.
JH: How do you define experimental poetry?
KMD: For me, all poetry that takes risks is experimental. Many poems that use traditional forms (like the sonnet, tercets, quatrains, etc.) are very innovative and exciting to me. Karen Volkman’s Nomina, for example, reads as a collection of pristine Petrarchan sonnets, but they use sound to create meaning and forge connections within the work, rather than narrative. Likewise, Lucie Brock Broido ornaments received forms in very subversive ways. Experimental writing can definitely mean prose poems, hybrid texts, erasures, and found poems, but it’s by no means limited to those forms of writing.
JH: Any upcoming projects in your world?
KMD: I’m working on a collaboration with visual artist, photographer, and costumer Max Avi Kaplan. The book is an experimental text/image project that recasts Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita from Lo’s perspective. I hope you’ll keep your eye out for it!
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty books, which include Fortress
(Sundress Publications, 2014), The Arctic Circle
(BlazeVOX Books, 2014), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories
(BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, 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.
Jane Huffman is a poet and playwright who reads and writes from a variety of bedrooms in the Midwest. She is currently studying poetry with Diane Seuss at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, MI, which is a small town with a big literary scene. This week, her favorite poets are Salvador Plascencia, who is actually a novelist, John Darnielle, who is actually a songwriter, and Eduardo Corral, who sometimes answers her Facebook messages. Her work has been featured in a variety of journals in print and online, most recently RHINO Poetry, theNewerYork, Galavant, and A Bad Penny Review.