Kristina Marie Darling needs no introduction to readers of this journal. As Editor-and-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly she brings poetry, prose, and conversation to bookshelves and devices across the globe. The author of thirty-eight books, her writing spans genre category, crisscrossing convention and tradition. In this conversation we discuss the practice of writing criticism with a focus on Silent Refusal (Black Ocean), her recently published collection of essays.
Karla Kelsey: Silent Refusal is composed of seventeen essays addressing a variety of contemporary texts written mainly by women and all unafraid of difficulty in multiple meanings and forms. What was your process for composing the book? Did you have in mind this book project, or did the book organically form?
Kristina Marie Darling: Thank you for this great question. The book began with a single essay, which was first published in Ploughshares. The essay was simply called “Le Livre Monstreux” and considers the separatist politics of intentionally difficult writing by women and non-binary poets. The essay was especially important to me because of the hostility I met in creative writing workshops. I was surprised — and admittedly a bit intrigued — by the sense of readerly entitlement that unfolded in the various discussions of my poetry. When listening to my colleagues’ various critiques of my writing, the idea that every text should be for them was fascinating to me for what it revealed about literary culture, and more specifically, about our beliefs and expectations as readers of poetry. Following the publication of the initial essay, I wanted to mine this topic in greater detail. So, after pitching the book to Black Ocean, most of the manuscript was written in magazine assignments, which gave me mini-deadlines throughout the year and kept me accountable. When finalizing the collection as a whole, Carrie Olivia Adams’ feedback and edits were invaluable for turning these magazines pieces into a cohesive book.
KK: Each essay addresses more than one text, and you often weave references across essays and throughout the book. These acts of inclusion articulate a feminist approach to criticism. If you were to write a manifesto of feminist criticism, what would points would you decliam?
KMD: I would argue for lyric criticism, collaborative criticism, and criticism in hybrid forms. Essays that sprawl outside of and beyond the limitations that we tend to impose upon scholarly writing. In my own practice, I’m compelled by works like Black Sun by Julia Kristeva or This Sex Which Is Not One by Luce Irigiray, which use performative language, metaphor, the well-chosen image, and sonic texture — in other words, they use the tools of poetry — to make theoretical claims. In my opinion, this strategy — using language in creative ways to stake a claim about literature — is a powerful tool. It renders the idea, the argument, visceral and experiential for a potential reader, rather than purely conjectural.
KK: Along with engaging contemporary works of poetry and prose you often begin each essay with an idea from a theorist or philosopher—Georges Bataille, Hélène Cixous, Walter Benjamin, for instance. Will you tell us about your decision to anchor many of the essays in theory? Is theory also important to your “creative” work?
KMD: I try to approach criticism as a kind of forum for a conversation that is larger than any one book or writer’s work. What I love about literary essays is that they can shine a light on intertextuality, that the writer can create a constellation of works that illuminate and complicate one another.
With regards to framing poetry with theory, I would go so far as to say that poetry is theory. Lately, I find myself compelled by the ways poems often perform and dramatize a very specific philosophy of language. For me, every poem or hybrid text is a kind of manifesto, saying this is what language can do if only we will let it.
KK: Have you ever encountered a difficult text that seems to refuse address by critical language, that resists critical language, finding it, perhaps, to be a violation? If so, what are your thoughts on the value of creating appropriate space for such texts in larger discourse communities?
KMD: I love Heather Christle’s poems on black pages in Heliopause. I admire the boldness of a poem that refuses to be written on in a spirit of critique, correction, or so called “close reading.” After all, these kinds of critical endeavors are rooted in a very western notion of gaining mastery over a text. What I find so compelling about Christle’s gesture is that by foreclosing traditional ways of responding to the work, she invites creative response and collaboration, effectually jostling the power structures that are implicit in literary criticism.
KK: You are an incredibly prolific writer and editor. Can you describe the way you work on your many projects: do you work on several at once? Does criticism hold a separate space for you, apart from “creative” practices? (What do you think of the division between the “creative” and the “critical?”) When you begin to write criticism, do you already know what you are going to say, or is it a process of discovery?
KMD: In general, I find that having more than one project to work on at the same time works well for me, because if I get stuck with the poetry, I can turn to the essays, and vice versa. But more importantly, I will usually learn something from the poems, whether it’s how to work with juxtaposition in a subtle way, or how to dramatize a particular idea using sound and metaphor, that will help me write an essay that had heretofore eluded me. Oftentimes, struggling with my own poems will also help me understand the process behind the literary texts that I read for my critical manuscripts. In other words, why writers make the choices they do when organizing a poetry collection, or drafting a stanza. Similarly, my reading for essays and criticism has opened up new possibilities in my own poetry and hybrid texts. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a new book of experimental prose and said, “I didn’t know that language could do that!”
KK: What five works of criticism or theory would you recommend to poets and prose writers interested in writing (or currently writing) critical prose today?
KMD: The books I’m going to recommend are very different stylistically, but disrupt the implicit power dynamics associated with form, style, and genre in similar ways: Sarah Vap’s The End of the Sentimental Journey, Christopher Kempf’s Craft Class: On the Writing Workshop in American Culture, Julie Carr’s Real Life: An Installation, Litany for the Long Moment by Mary-Kim Arnold, and last but not least, Solmaz Sharif’s writings on erasure.