“High Lonesome: A Conversation with Allison Titus About Poetry, Silence, and Thresholds”—curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your new book, High Lonesome, just launched from Saturnalia Books.  What would you like readers to know before they delve into the work itself? 

Hi Kristina! Thank you so much for your generous attention to this book. What I tend to say before readings is that I worked on HL on and off for about ten years, so the oldest poems in the book (some early version of them) end up being almost a decade old, whereas the newest poems in the book were written throughout 2023; it creates this strange impression (for me at least) of feeling brand-new and ancient at the same time.

KMD:  Tell us more about the significance of the title. What advice do you have for writers who struggle to choose a powerful title for their poetry collections? 

Before I knew it was going to be my title, “high lonesome” was a term (phrase, expression?) I just always knew that I found kind of spellbinding, but I never interrogated or researched it. It brought to mind (for me) an elevated lonesomeness and it felt a little elegant. But somehow I didn’t know that it was connected to music until a conversation with a student of mine (the brilliant Chandler, thank you C!). Fast-forward several years, to when I met my partner. (At the time I was in the final year of writing this book.) He’s a video artist, and one of his areas of interests is old-time music; through him, I got to know about the work of John Cohen and the documentaries Cohen made about Appalachian musicians of Eastern Kentucky and about the banjo player Roscoe Holcomb; it was Cohen who coined the term high lonesome in reference to Holcomb’s shattered, electrifying voice: “I was hearing a man confronting the dilemma of his own existence,” is how Cohen put it later (according to Amanda Petrusich’s exquisite New Yorker essay which you can read here: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-discovery-of-roscoe-holcomb-and-the-high-lonesome-sound) And this is a really great clip of Holcomb: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wGgvbHcgyc 

By this point, when I was naming the book, the meaning of the term high lonesome had deepened and become more relevant for me and my own project and its scope of various lonelinesses, and I liked how it was a texture of mine and my partner’s creative lives independently, a sort of natural overlap. And I guess I wanted to infuse that shattered electricity into the poems; I think to call it HL was quite aspirational on my part. So my advice about titles might be: to decipher what the strange and essential phrase inside the book is—something that has a meaning that resonates for the collective impulse, the whole ecosystem of the book, that can maybe transcend it.

KMD:  You use white space as a unit of composition quite expertly in these poems.  Ruptures and silences frequently heighten the experience of the language itself, creating a sense of suspense, or giving the reader the experience of drama unfolding in time.  Can you speak to the important work that silence can do in poetry? 

I love this question. In poems, it’s that silence, as a property, also has sound and substance. It has heft. The white space, that it can be deletion or continuity, a signifier of intimacy or of distance. As Sontag wrote, “...but any given silence takes its identity as a stretch of time being perforated by sound.” I really rely on that duration in my poems, I think, the passing of time that the white space embodies. Like you said, the suspension; the measure of time for which we are held apart, between words. And I like visually how, when a poem uses more expansive white space, the page becomes a field and words crop up like silos on the horizon. Then there’s the way that we use language to get to the unsayable. The tension between what is said and not-said; what’s revealed and what’s withheld; that which we have words for and that which we don’t: this is the energetic body of the poem. As Ulrich Schmitz writes in Eloquent Silence, “Text becomes interesting when it operates at the edge of silence. In the vicinity of silence, the eloquence of language appears to unfold, and every silence which seeks recognition returns inevitably to language.” I like the idea of this aliveness that exists at the very edge of silence—what that threshold sustains, suggests, enlarges.

KMD:  I admire your use of experimental forms, but also, your capacious vision of what experimentation can be.  Can you say more about the necessity of allowing multiple types of artistic risk to coexist in the same rhetorical space? 

The way that multiplicity allows an expansiveness, how the attempts can overlap with and inform each other — anything that complicates and adds texture(s) feels to me like an extension (enhancement?) of whatever the vision might have been, or started out as—maybe that multiplicity amplifies the possibility for the singular experiment to transcend itself. And I guess I have a lot of competing impulses, so to indulge those fascinations instead of limiting them feels more interesting as a practice. Maybe that’s a collaging impulse. I really like mixed media...this seems related.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are quite accomplished as a magazine and anthology editor.  What has curation opened up in your creative practice?

Really simply, just the exposure to more things, wilder things, new things or new (to me) old things; my favorite thing about curation is discovering all the new ways that language can work. I like how seeing the risks other writers allow themselves to take gives me permission to invent new ways to write myself. It’s a widening, an expansion. It makes me think of something Jane Hirshfield wrote: “a widened constellation of being emerges.”

KMD:  What else are you working on?  What can readers look forward to? 

My next poetry work is The New Sent(i)ence anthology that the poet Ashley Capps and I are co-editing which will be published next February (2025) by Trinity University Press — a decade-plus in the making, that book is our passion project, and we’re so excited for it to exist in the world as a real thing. It’s an incredible collection of writing that pays generous attention to the experiential lives of non-human animals and includes work by amazing writers (including Lucille Clifton, Anne Carson, Aracelis Girmay, JJJJerome Ellis, Craig Santos Perez, Terrance Hayes, A.R. Ammons, Eileen Myles—on and on). It’s something we think is a really special and important collection.

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty-nine books. An expert consultant with the United States Fulbright Commission, a twice-awarded Fulbright Scholar, and a member of the peer review panel for Fulbright grants, Dr. Darling’s work has also been recognized with three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet and the Howard Moss Residency in Poetry, a 2024 Villa Lena Foundation Fellowship, a 2024 Civita Institute Fellowship, and ten juried residencies at the American Academy in Rome, where she previously served as an ambassador for recruitment. Currently a faculty member at The Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop, she has taught (or is scheduled to teach) at Yale University, the American University in Rome, Stanford University, where she leads a workshop in professional empowerment through their Continuing Studies Division, the New School, San Diego State University, where she has served as Editor-in-Residence in partnership with Poetry International on three occasions, and in Cedar Crest College’s Pan-European M.F.A. Program. A prolific public speaker with the Ovation Agency, Dr. Darling has also lectured at the historic Betsy Hotel in South Beach, Miami, the United States Embassy in Togo, The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and Webster University’s Geneva, Switzerland campus, where she leads a biannual writing workshop for diplomats.  Dr. Darling is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press & Tupelo Quarterly. Born and raised in the American Midwest, she now divides her time between Greece, Rome, and the Amalfi Coast.