Virginia Konchan with Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher

Virginia Konchan, John Gallaher, and Kristina Marie Darling
Virginia Konchan, John Gallaher, and Kristina Marie Darling

“I think collaborations are an especially important reminder that all authors are really co-authors, co-conspirators in an ongoing series of thefts.” —Kristina Marie Darling

Ghost/Landscape, a poetry collection co-authored by Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher, was published in 2016 by BlazeVox. We took this opportunity to discuss the book and its inception/creation, hauntings, exorcisms, hybrid forms, lyric trespassing, the multiverse, and the ghost line.

Virginia Konchan: How did you conceive of the idea for this collection? Can you speak a little bit about the compositional process, and how it unfolded over time? I’m particularly curious about the titling, and the arrangement of the poems.

Kristina Marie Darling:  It started with a single poem, like most collections do. John and I weren’t sure what exactly would happen, if the work would be an extended sequence, a chapbook, or a book. Of course, I’m quite compulsive, and wanted answers. I kept asking John, “What do you think will happen to the poems? Will they be a book?” I’m grateful that John encouraged me to privilege process over product, and to just enjoy the ride.

As we worked on the manuscript, we each contributed whole poems to the project, and would take turns sending work back and forth. I thought the whole book would be an exploration of landscape and the pastoral, and while there was some of that, we ended up writing about bank robberies, murders, haunted houses too. The great thing about writing poems with John is that you never know what he’s going to do next. I enjoyed the spontaneity of the collaboration, which is something I rarely find when writing on my own. As we revised, John suggested starting out the book with these darker, more dangerous poems, since that would change how the reader experienced the quieter, more pastoral pieces that we had written.

VK: There is a beautiful sense of choral voice or shared speaking in these poems of what Allison Benis White so rightly called “domestic noir.” How intentional is the ambiguity between the lyric “I,” the “you” and the plural “we”? Are you aiming for fluidity of persona(e); is every pronoun meant to be read as ambiguous?

KMD: That’s a great question. I think all of writing tries to tap into a kind of collective consciousness. After all, it’s inevitable that we will draw from a shared cultural imagination, a common vocabulary of images, tropes, and forms. Every poem is a conversation, in the same way that thought itself is a conversation. And for this reason, every poem and every thought are an act of theft. Every “I” is really a manifestation of a larger community. For me, this notion of poetic voice as a social construct, and thought itself as a social endeavor, are what the pronouns in Ghost/Landscape enact through their ambiguity. Kind of like in John’s book, In a Landscape, where many of the poems are interior dramas, but they’re still populated by fragments of culture, art, and conversations.

John Gallaher: Absolutely, one of the great difficulties (opportunities!) in writing with someone is what happens in a communal text when one says “I.” The usual ambiguity, the kind of implied ambiguity, in writing is brought to the surface. Whether we like it or not, co-authors are writing as and for each other. It’s strangely liberating, like being on a team or in a band or something.

VK: The discourse and subject matter in the poems ranges from the domestic (talking on the porch in Spring) to the esoteric (Diderot, Goethe, Kierkegaard).  How important was maintaining a consistent tone, or sense of place, in this collection?

JG: We didn’t talk about it other than to note that shifts were occurring.  I think?  The unpredictability was rather delightful!

KMD: What I so enjoy about reading collaborations (I’m thinking of Kelly Magee & Carol Guess, Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade, Kathleen Rooney & Elisa Gabbert, and John’s work with G.C. Waldrep) is that the difference in styles and aesthetic predilections becomes a source of tension that drives the manuscript. While certainly a “third voice” emerges, which transcends the individual writer and the single voice, I love to think of collaboration as a space not only for dialogue between poets, but also, between different textures of language, different modes of writing and thinking. And I hope these juxtapositions within the manuscript allow the vastly different lexicons, and disparate vocabularies of imagery, to strike sparks against one another.

VK: A depeopled landscape could be vacant—or, it could be peopled, paradoxically, with ghosts. The latter is the case in this collection, one that takes the idea of a voice- (rather than body-) based communique, and attenuates it to its farthest extreme. You’ve even invented a noun for it:  “ghosting.”

Was the writing of this book more exorcism or elegy?

KMD: The writing of this book was more of an exorcism, for sure. I didn’t just want to see the ghosts, I wanted to have coffee with them on the front porch, to maybe find out what they were reading, and what they hoped to do with their English lit degree. But seriously, for me, the ghosts were a metaphor, a little emblem for my own relationship to the text. When working on a collaboration, I always have this feeling that I’m trespassing in someone else’s carefully imagined world, because the lyric imagination that makes possible the text is not entirely mine. So I’m constantly haunting my own text, and someone else’s, and of course I’m trying not to get caught.

JG: Ooo, I like this. I never thought of it as either, actually, but certainly I’m with Kristina that it’s more of an exorcism. The phrase I’d use is more of a séance, perhaps. I like the idea of coffee on the porch, where the ghosts aren’t creatures to fear or cry to, but instead, to simply be with.

VK: The theme of broken connections and lost maps permeates the collection. Like the dead letter box at the P.O., many poems attempt to build a bridge between sender and receiver, yet end up bearing testament to the work of waiting, or the lament of disconnection. From “The Chapter on Regret”: “I tried to phone you, but the snow went on for miles. That was the beginning of winter . . . No matter what number I dial, you never seem to pick up.”

Did writing this book in collaboration attenuate an already imperfect synchrony between subjects (at least in terms of time), or was there something about the project that speaks directly to the code scrambling that is communication (and, in the Derridean sense, writing)?

KMD: That’s a very perceptive reading of the text. The poems, or my sections at least, are often self-reflexive, mediating on the composition process and its inherent discontents. There’s a piece in the book called “A History of Beauty,” which is most directly about the collaboration. In the poem, the two characters have competing ideas about what’s aesthetically pleasing, and are frequently undoing each other’s work. Melancholy paintings of winter are pinned and unpinned from the walls. For me, this persistent making and unmaking of an imagined world was what was most beautiful about the collaborative writing process. This “imperfect synchrony” allowed the work to exist in a constant state of becoming.

JG: What Kristina said! I like the idea of the multiverse (maybe because it has the word “verse” in it), where perhaps 17 or so universes are laid over the top of each other, a kind of Universe Turduckan that we can only perceive as this universe because that’s the way our sense work, but that all the rest could be right here through us, knocking about.  Talk about your missed connections!

VK: Several of the poems have the word chapter in it (“The Chapter on Regret”; “The Chapter on Miracles”; “The Chapter on Etiquette”). Others gesture toward texts: “The Ending Tells the Story” (a telling poem, as the collection ends with “Chapter One”).  I’m thinking here of James Shea’s collection The Lost Novel, and other poetry collections that allude to or are otherwise organized like prose. What larger textual tradition are you speaking to with these poem/chapters?

KMD:  John actually started that early in the collaboration.  He would send poems marked “Chapter Two” when “Chapter One” was always absent, missing, or otherwise mislaid. The beauty of collaboration, though, is that theft and appropriation are always fair game. I started doing this too, and in my sections at least, it became a way of evoking and frustrating readerly expectations.  The work has the appearance of prose, and all the little signposts you would see in a work of nonfiction. I hope this leads the reader to expect utility, a text that is straightforward and useful, like an instruction manual. I really enjoyed conjuring and frustrating this readerly expectation of utility, prompting the reader to redefine usefulness to also encompass things like beauty, humor, and narrative ruptures.

JG: I like James Shea’s work a lot! So often when people are talking, they’re talking about the chapters of their lives. “Beginning a new chapter.” I loved when Kristina kept bringing that idea back. And then came Chapter One and we had to stop, right? It turns out they were a countdown. That’s the other way sequences work . . .

VK: A related question: I thought of James Tate—specificially his Ghost Soldiers—while reading Ghost/Landscape. There is a breezy tone, anecdotal richness, and a colloquial manner that belies the complexity and darkness of the poems. Both of you have worked in the prose poem form, and Kristina, your press is interested in hybridity and the intersection between forms.  How do you situate these prose poems, in terms of form or lineage?

JG: Tate’s great. Simply wonderful. We didn’t talk about lineage, only that we wanted to write—we said this at the outset—in prose. We still haven’t talked about lineage.

KMD: I keep thinking of the beautiful epistolary prose poems in Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters. The prose poem as an act response, but a response from a fictional character, a carefully constructed persona. I should say that before I worked with John on Ghost/Landscape, I had written a verse novel with Carol Guess, X Marks the Dress: A Registry. This project with Carol showed me that collaborative poetry is inevitably a hybrid of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, lyric essay and other non-literary types of texts.  I think of Ghost/Landscape as a kind of epistolary verse novel, owing a lot to fiction and hybrid experiments with form and narrative (I’m thinking of Molly Gaudry, Kelly Magee, Elizabeth Colen, and Sarah Vap’s The End of the Sentimental Journey).

VK: Some poems in this collection read as a primer in postmodern malaise, wherein the spectacle commands attention; others read as a quietly rendered interior, one troubled by the lack of knowledge regarding the positioning of the other. Among the narratives alluded to are a murder, an affair, a bank robbery and a road trip (Lolita-esque, if you subsitute a kidnapping for a bank robbery), though “maybe it never happened,” as “The Practice” suggests.

How important are these narrative threads to the larger project?

KMD: I can only speak for my contributions to the text, but I think that these narrative threads are very important to the larger project, since they try to show (through content as well as through form and process) that the creation of narrative is a collective endeavor. All stories, all narratives are really collaborations. We inevitably appropriate, adapt, and re-imagine what we cull from a shared historical imagination. So in this sense, there is no such thing as a single-author poetry collection, no such thing as an original contribution or novelty. All of writing, all of thought is a collaborative endeavor. With that in mind, co-authored poetry collections merely bring to the fore the aspects of writing that we have been conditioned as a culture to overlook. In a literary climate that is always preoccupied with the ownership of texts, I think collaborations are an especially important reminder that all authors are really co-authors, co-conspirators in an ongoing series of thefts.

JG: I’m a browser. I love flipping TV channels, watching a once-only narrative happen as one show finishes another becomes a sporting event and then a cake. I think of this as something of the contemporary condition, perhaps just a hyped-up version of what life’s always been like. All these stories matter in that they happen and accrue. We do with them as we will, in organizing our attention and meaning-making.

VK: Several of the poem’s titles reference the poetic conceit of landscapes (an ekphrastic turn, borrowed from visual art), in the legacy of William Carlos William’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (“Landscape with Demoltion Equipment”; “Ghost Landscape”; “Second Landscape”). There is also a sense of seeing-as-creating at hand: “Anywhere You Look is a Landscape.”

I’m reading these poems as a projection of an internal landscape, one paradoxically filled with and emptied of memories and experience. How does one negotiate, as a collaborative team, the sense of loss, complicity, or guilt that arises from these unfolding circumstances?

KMD: I really appreciate your reading of the text, particularly your attention to the blurring of boundaries between interior and exterior. You’re absolutely right that many of the landscapes in the book are projections, enactments of the characters’ interior dramas. As John and I worked on the collaboration, the pastoral came to encompass psychic and emotional landscapes, a making visible of the vast hidden terrain of the unconscious. Exterior become interior, and the internal was often externalized. In a lot of ways, collaboration was the perfect setting to explore the ever-porous boundaries between interior experience and what surrounds us, between self and other, and between self and world. The book’s treatment of voice, character, and pronouns, as you so eloquently mentioned, Virginia, reflect a similar preoccupation with destabilizing our much too comfortable thinking about the relationship between subject and object, viewer and viewed.

JG: Jorie Graham’s Region of Unlikeness was a really important book for me, and some of that importance had to do with the way the text related to the book’s cover image, Francis Bacon’s “Study of a Figure in a Landscape.” We’re always both, always in both. That book and image were a perfect combination of how I see things, perhaps how—because of them—I’m come to see.

VK: Many of the poems, such as “A Better Age of Reason,” contain philosophical speculation and metaphysical questioning. “These are not just things, these are tendencies.  It’s how enlightenment, I’ve read, is an understanding of our cooperation with what happens. So now we wonder about the value of enlightenment.” What about co-writing a book lends itself to a different kind of reasoning, associative logic, or dialectical turn, while “One of us is sinking.  The other is making promises”? Alternatively put—what kinds of extra-poetic logic does writing collaboratively yield?

KMD: This question immediately reminds me of John’s work with G.C. Waldrep, which I often teach from in my poetry workshops. In this collection, there are two voices, but also, a third voice emerges, which belongs to both of the writers, and neither one of them. I think that we definitely strived for something similar in Ghost/Landscape. Though there are two distinct voices that inhabit the manuscript, I hope that the work also gives rise to something greater than each voice on its own.  For me, the tension between the voices, between each respective vocabulary of imagery, and the ways of thinking that they each represent, are where this third space begins to emerge. And in the various appropriations that occur throughout the book. The voices ultimately become interdependent upon each other for meaning as they draw from a lyric imagination that belongs to both of them and neither one of them.

JG: My hope is that, though there are two voices at work, people can’t—or at least have a difficult time—deciding which of us wrote which page. Maybe the book could have a second life as a poetry drinking game of some sort. Nice idea. I really like philosophy, and Kristina is great at sitting with it, really getting into it. I’m a little more of a tourist, though, and like to jump around, or perhaps I just lack the patience required to really sit with an idea. This structure allowed me to just kind of show up at the door, knock, and leave a package. Kristina then did the heavy lifting of thinking through the implications. She made my job fun and easy!

VK: “ . . . isn’t decorum also a kind of violence?” the narrator of “Even in the Movie Version, Only the Field Survives” asks. As an extension of the above question, what about this writing process surprised you the most? Is it more freeing to share authorial responsibility, or less?

KMD: I was amazed by how John could weave together vastly different rhetorical modes. My poems are very consistently lyrical, so it was a joy to write with someone whose work surprised me, that I could learn from. With that in mind, it was definitely liberating to share authorial responsibility. I’m terrible at revision, but thankfully, John had some brilliant ideas for organizing and structuring the book. When working on a collaboration, the great thing is that both writers bring different strengths to the project. More often than not, it was the differences between me and John, between our respective bodies of work and approaches to the composition process, that made the collaboration exciting, but also something that I learned from, something that helped me improve at my own craft as an individual poet.

JG: I’m learning to stay with what is more. I like tossing things in, and then in revision, tossing other things in and deleting things. I’m a tosser. Kristina is much better at thinking things through and staying the course. She has a steady vision. GC Waldrep is like that as well. I wish I were more like that, but, at least in this book, I get to be by association.

VK: Kristina, you’re the author of over twenty collections of poetry and hybrid prose, and John, you’re the author of five poetry books, two chapbooks, and two edited collections. The tropes of ghosts, enigmas, traces, maps, and landscapes, as well as the questions of legibility and readability, are woven throughout both of your collections. John, in a recent interview, you said of ghosts: “Ghosts are a good way to illustrate the idea of past and present. A ghost is someone from the past who didn’t die right, who then ends up in the present without the ability to change, without the ability to have a future.”

I love this idea of ghosts as a metaphor for unfinished business, yet one in your work, that is not just static or unredeemed, but transformative.

What ghosts, now that the project is released into the world, haunt you now?

JG: We are the ghosts who haunt me most. That all business is unfinished. That wherever we are, we’re seeing it as it will be without us. I don’t know. The imagination is the most formidable ghost of all.

KMD: Now that Ghost/Landscape is published, I’ve been trying to talk John into doing another collaboration. I had this idea that I could write all of a poem except the last line, then John finish the poem, and write all of the next poem (with the exception of the last line). And then we could just keep going and see what happens. Which is to say the ghost that’s haunting me most is nostalgia for how much fun it was to write that book, and a wish to recapture the spontaneity that collaboration brought to my writing process.

JG: What a project that would be! The ghost line . . . .  Yeah, that last line is always absent, as it’s the reader turning from the work to whatever happens next that we’re fundamentally excluded from, but, if only for a second, a part of.

Author of a poetry chapbook, Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary Press), Virginia Konchan’s essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Conversant, Guernica, Kenyon Review Online, Jacket2, and elsewhere.  Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems and essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, The Iowa Review, The Columbia Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere.  She is currently working toward both a PhD in Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an MFA in Poetry at New York University.

John Gallaher is the author (or co-author) of five previous books of poetry, and co-editor of two collections.  His last name, Gallaher, has no second g, but he isn’t bothered by its absence.  Actually, the first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of O’Gallchobhair, which was dated 1350, in the Ancient Records of Tirconnell, Donegal. Since that time, the name has continued to branch and develop. It’s mostly OK, not having the second g of the much more popular Gallagher, though he’s often reminded of its absence and the diminishment of his situation.

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