Virginia Konchan: In both of your recent books you explore the semiotics of fashion in different ways. In 1967, Barthes made the connection, in Elements of Semiology, between text and textiles, describing the text as an interwoven fabric of quotations drawn from culture, rather than from any single reading experience. Referring to textual production as a “garment system,” Barthes describes the act of speech as comprised by “all the phenomena of anomic fabrication” or of individual style—tracing the very origin of the word “text” to the Latin past participle texere, to weave or fabricate. The author’s successor, the scriptor, exists simultaneously with the text, not in a subject/predicate relationship, dislocating the text’s meaning to “language itself” and the effect on the reader.
From the punk band Glamour Kills to the relationship between fascism and fashion (a symbolic code too often replacing signification through speech or writing for women with a codified language—literalized through semaphores such as sex bracelets worn by middle-schoolers indicating what sex acts they perform, or a diamond ring signifying a woman’s unavailability as well as cultural “worth”), the idea that “clothes make the man” takes us to the metonymic conflation, in “polite society” between a well-dressed or spoken individual and his or her character.
Can you speak to the semiotics of fashion (as a signifying system) in your two books, which present female speakers with various degrees of agency, as well as to silencing? I’m especially curious how you relate the semiotics of DANCE, Lightsey (la geste rather than logos, as signifier) to female agency.
Lightsey Darst: When I went to make hell (the first section of the book), I turned to what I had at hand. I was interested in making an attractive hell, a seductive hell, a baroque and beautiful hell, and so I went for what makes me feel a really nasty appetite: fashion. Somewhere along the way, though, I started to think about fashion not as an inherently cruel system, but more as an amoral growth formed in reaction to other cruel systems. So fashion may be nasty, but also redemptive—as when a woman remembers what she wore for the last time that she saw her beloved, remembers how she concealed or revealed or altered her body, how she made herself appear. And appearances are realities. Local glamour. Alteration of air.
Kristina Darling: That’s a great question. When writing X Marks the Dress, my collaborator and I were especially interested in exploring the ways that culture is historically sedimented, particularly the various rituals and etiquettes associated with weddings. The book takes the form of a bridal registry, with each poem named for an item on such a list. Carol and I sought to evoke the myriad ways that contemporary beliefs, desires and sexualities don’t fit within such a heteronormative framework. Just as the book creates a discontinuity between form and content, the identities of the characters don’t conform to established gender categories, particularly since these identities question, blur and ultimately reject these categories.
With that in mind, I like to think of clothing, particularly the highly gendered attire worn at weddings, as vestiges of history that we carry with us, and that inform our thinking about what is possible within love, relationships and for the individual self. In much the same way that language circumscribes what is possible within thought and expression, the particular types of clothing associated with gender identities restrict what is possible within our thinking about selfhood and the expression of personal identity. When writing X Marks the Dress with Carol, my goal was to make the reader suddenly more aware of the ways that gender, and the clothing we wear when we perform gender, are historically sedimented. We carry the weight of history with us, and cannot be unburdened unless we become more aware.
In this respect, I think that X Marks the Dress shares many parallels with Lightsey’s magnificent collection, DANCE. What struck me most about Lightsey’s book was the way in which cultural artifacts become ornamentation, yet the reader is so artfully reminded of the histories these items carry with them, since imperialism and violence are not far beneath the shimmering surface. What I love most about Lightsey’s work is the way she prompts the reader to question the structures of power and authority associated with beauty, ornamentation and artifice. I think we’re both invested in the ways in which belief systems manifest in material culture, and the vast histories that are housed within the most commonplace items.
VK: Lightsey, I’m wondering how you relate writing to dance (step work in formal dances—from the waltz to the quadrille, to meter, and purpose and design, or classical ballet with the illusion of weightlessness or modern dance with its interest in showing seams of textual and self-construction to be a made thing), or dance to paraphrase, fracture, question, conversation, interpolation, to the question of authorizing powers (the inventor vs. the executor of forms)?
LD: What a wonder it was to be able to go to studios where people were making fantastic dances and sit in the corner and take notes. Minneapolis Dance made this book possible. Hijack (the duo Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder) showed me how the inside of the work can be one thing and the outside another. Chris Schlichting gave me the formal idea of total gratification (for the paradise section). But these connections are difficult to explain, because you would have to know the dances I was looking at. Another way to put this: I’m not a dance artist myself. In DANCE, I pay homage to some elements of dances I have seen and I employ some ideas from choreographers I’ve known, but I don’t think that I alter or critique or plumb dance itself.
VK: Quoting from your poem “Crocheted Tissue Box Holder,” Kristina: “I can’t save / you: I can only be careful…We’ll lash our rings to a red satin pillow. / Keep the flower girl leashed. Use erasable ink.” How do your speakers metamorphize from muse (template or mannequin, with “virgin eyes”) to speakers, rather than to inscriptional, blank fields (virgin white prevails, as a color, in DANCE), and how are you complicit, or compassionate, with these flower girls, as “authors” of these texts?
KD: I think you’re right that my poems are, to some extent, complicit, or compassionate, with idealized depictions of femininity. I’ve chosen this direction for my work because it’s impossible to completely discard culture, even with its many flaws, and the ways in which it circumscribes possibilities for the individual self. I say this because I’m at heart a pragmatist, and I believe that it’s more effectual to work within the confines of culture and expand what is possible within it. When writing X Marks the Dress, Carol and I were especially interested in presenting an expansive, and more inclusive, definition of marriage, as well as the ways that an individual can inhabit such a union.
For me, the speakers of the poems enact the traditional relationship between muse and poet (who speaks on behalf of the muse), while at the same time revising and modernizing that relationship. For me, this critique of the poet/muse relationship mirrors our critique of the husband/wife relationship, particularly as the characters transgress boundaries between these received categories of identity. The muse is no longer silenced by the poet, who writes on her behalf, but rather, she inhabits both of these roles, in much the same way that the speakers metamorphose from bride to groom and back again.
With that in mind, I think that Lightsey and I share an interest in unearthing culture, as this is the first step toward opening up its possibilities. I love that Lightsey’s book presents poetry as archival practice, one in which texts (Defoe, John Donne, etc.) are brought into new syntactic and cultural contexts. I think Lightsey and I ask similar questions: To what extent can old frameworks be adapted? How are our belief systems enacted and embodied by material culture? Which cultural artifacts can be salvaged, and which cannot? Although our work takes somewhat different forms, I believe that we do address many of these same concerns.
LD: Let’s hope virgin white doesn’t prevail. … I don’t know that I have a sense of such speakers here—or not to the exclusion of other speakers. Certainly in my last book (Find the Girl, 2010), a flock of girls find their way through to their adult (mythic, wicked, terrifying) voices. Here in DANCE, I think or hope that we all wander towards an ecstasy which is not so much about speech but rather about becoming and undoing.
DANCE was not really intended to be a female book (as opposed to Find the Girl). However, I am a woman, and so it seems that I’ve written a female book again. Funny how that works.
VK: Violence (socio-symbolic, domestic and historical), from kidnapping to murder, underscores these texts.
From Kristina’s “Appendix C: What Survived the Holocaust”:
I was stolen.” “Stashed between / my mother / clawing…marriage / dissolves: / She’s / chained // face first.”
And, from Lightsey’s “Cleveland”:
Last seen wearing a yellow blouse, gray tweed skirt, white bobby socks & black-bow
ballerina flats. a bracelet-length sleeve is simply more elegant, but no tourniquet is enough
& corrodes the flesh beneath. [go home girls] Black velvet rich on both her sides
(speak each way) corrupts, & rend apart the tacked-down tears to hope, enchain & out glides
[sorry love] “tucked up today’s scar” ruched blood in a narrative “so fast lord loud &
at the same time (as in ashes they find your gold more easily / beautiful” hand
(beautiful”) that ambles, spiderlike, through her unguent pots in search … you swallow
enigmatic jewel, twelve emblems & a secret motto” / the story’s gore—eternity or so
in malachite & kohl. Those pleasing girls, out late, looking glass guardrail and I walked
into my own—it was cold there—thus the furs. Smooth walls” so thin hands take
back each necklace of poisoned hearts—how once hung, she thinks / nothing /
nothing” torture. birchbark skin signed in bruise.
Thinking here of Karnya McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, and of Julie Carr’s disturbing 100 Notes on Violence, how does the history of documentary and confessional poetry or poetries of witness factor into your work?
KD: When working with Carol on this collaboration, I was especially interested in the ways that language systems, particularly the judgments, metaphysical categories and worldviews that they communicate, constitute a kind of violence. After all, the rules of language, its grammatical and syntactic structures, circumscribe what is possible within thought and expression. I’m deeply invested in not only documenting the ways in which language shapes consciousness, but also exploring the exciting possibilities (for meaning, for poetry and for one’s personal identity) that exist at the very edge of what’s intelligible in language.
I find it tragic that we often lack the language to describe something that exists outside of a heteronormative framework. For me, this paucity becomes especially apparent when thinking about the ways we talk about weddings. There’s always a bride, groom, bridesmaids and groomsman. There’s a white dress and the bride is the one who’s given away. Because language embodies and enacts certain ideals about what gender should or ought to be, it becomes difficult to label and describe anything that exists outside of (or beyond) a heteronormative framework. I think there’s something inherently violent about a language system that limits possibility.
With that in mind, I’m fascinated by the ways that Lightsey’s poems suggest that objects, and material culture more generally, act as a kind of signifying system. More often than not, these items that she describes signify a violent past. This is at times a linguistic/metaphysical violence in addition to literal violence. I’m very interested in this idea that something that resides outside the boundaries of language proper can signify so powerfully the violence inherent in our attempts to communicate. Lightsey’s book was really a joy to read, and has opened up new possibilities for thinking through these questions in my own work.
LD: Yes, I read 100 Notes on Violence somewhere on the way to my own book, and I loved that form, journal-cum-poetry, which I am still learning about in my current work.
That poem “Cleveland” concerns a particular pair of murders that I obscured because they aren’t mine to write about. I kept wavering on that line: What am I allowed to write about? I write about the slave trade in DANCE, for example, and about lynching, both very obliquely. I’m still not sure about my approach. It’s safer, with any particular atrocity that isn’t your own experience, to either leave it out or make it the subject, but I wanted to be honest about the place these atrocities occupy in a life that might be mine.
I’m thinking about Turner’s The Slave Ship right now, with its little tufts of hands and limbs barely distinguishable from the fins of fish and the turning waves, easy to miss in a first view of the storm and the ship and the marvelous sky. Turner made a hard object there, hard to look at, hard to think about.
VK: Mario Lupano and Alessandra Vaccari’s Fashion at the Time of Fascism explores and compares a huge range of forgotten archival sources, such as women’s glossies, fashion, film and gossip magazines, photo archives, exhibition and commercial catalogues, books, manuals and magazines on tailoring, dressmaking, design and architecture, and corporate and government journals through the four basic themes of “Measurements,” “Model,” “Brand” and “Parade.”
Fashion at the time of fascism is an interesting gambit, as is, today, the retail industry’s complicity with the “economic stimulus” linchpin of free-market capitalism: buying more consumer goods to bail water from a debt economy, female agency translated to purchasing power, discretionary income spent on decorating the body rather than improving the mind, decline in quality from sweatshop labor exacerbating the disposability of goods (and thus the landfill crisis). Under this aegis, is refusing to buy (or refusing to dance, perhaps, if marionetted or as a chorus girl) to refuse inauthentic forms of subjectivity and relation?
KD: This book sounds fascinating, and I must get a copy of my own. Thank you for the recommendation. I find this question intriguing for several reasons. When writing X Marks the Dress with Carol, we were both interested in the ways that heteronormative assumptions about gender are deeply embedded in consumer culture. In many ways, consumer culture, even in a freemarket capitalist society, represents a kind of dictatorship of ideas, values and identity politics. Carol and I were both interested in working within these inauthentic forms of subjectivity and relation in order to expand what is possible within them. So the wedding registry becomes an argument for marriage equality.
In this sense, I think that Lightsey and I are taking up similar questions, albeit in different forms. Her stunning verse addresses many of the same concerns that are at the heart of my hybrid-genre collaboration: To what extent are we complicit in perpetuating these inauthentic forms of subjectivity and relation? How can we move more effectually, with greater awareness and the possibility for change, within a flawed and somewhat violent system? I don’t think there are any easy answers to the questions, but I see my book and Lightsey’s as initiating a dialogue.
LD: A woman gets dressed for a lot of different reasons. Fashion is not always a luxury. I’ve noticed lately how often fashion is the target of thrifty talk (“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” Thoreau warns)—fashion rather than, for example, weapons (beware of enterprises that require new guns, we might say).
But, then again, Thoreau finishes the above thought by preferring, over new clothes, “a new wearer of clothes.” I can get behind that. Let’s have a wearing that is sensual and informed. Let’s see how that paradox looks on us.
VK: Kristina, I’m thinking of your poem “His-and-Hers”: “Everyone brought babies to the bachelorette party. / Some were real and some were fake.”
Or, in an extended example, from “Pizza”: As we flipped through the album, I noticed a / handsome stranger standing half in, half out of / several photos” says the narrator. “Explain that man,” she demands.
Darling, you know how my mother and father / rejected me? How they said they couldn’t support / our relationship, that our wedding was an insult to / God? Well, I told my parents I was marrying a / man. I hired an actor to play my husband…I did the ceremony real quick, just a few / people…He has an apartment on the / south side of town. He has kids from his first / marriage, Becky and Jeff.
Those are our kids’ names.
I know, you said. That’s why we had to name / them Becky and Jeff.
I’m fascinated by the different ways these texts forge poetic taxonomies, as part ars memoria, part legerdemains of social expectation and debt—whether as wedding registries and photo albums, for Kristina, or for Lightsey, in occultist forms (horoscope machines, Kabbalah, the gnostic gospels and botanical charts).
I’m curious how you see your work engaging with the drive to make “an account” of items: the past, indebtedness, as well as issues relating to validity or proof (prophecy, authentic, copyright, forgery)?
KD: I love your description of the book as a “legerdemains of social expectation and debt,” since I feel that this gets at the very heart of what Carol and I were striving for. When writing X Marks the Dress, we both were interested in the various ways that social expectations shape our identities, our goals and the course of our lives. But I like to think of our book not as looking backward and documenting past social expectations and pressures, but rather, as a project that’s more oriented toward the future. By taking an inventory, by assessing and documenting the current cultural climate, we both hoped to play a small part in changing what is possible within culture, to open up new possibilities, rather than examining all the ways that possibility has been foreclosed. I think of writing as consciousness raising, a means to document the many inconsistencies between the beliefs that mainstream culture holds and the actual people who inhabit that culture.
In this sense, I think that Lightsey and I are addressing similar concerns, but with a subtle difference. I was intrigued by Lightsey’s concerted effort in DANCE to suggest that language and culture get permeated by a past, and belief systems, that we don’t necessarily consent to or endorse, though nonetheless we find ourselves engaging with them through our participation in culture. I’m interested in this idea of the legerdemains as a means toward gaining greater consciousness of the beliefs and assumptions embedded within culture. Poetry, for Lightsey and for myself, serves as a form of consciousness raising. I think we’re asking many of the same questions: how can we inhabit a culture that we don’t consent to, and with unknown origins? What’s fascinating about Lightsey’s work, and what distinguishes her work from my own, is that her book opens up the possibility of consenting (or not consenting) to the culture we find ourselves immersed in, as the reader is rendered suddenly aware of its origins.
LD: Yes. It’s important to owe, to acknowledge owing. I don’t believe that there’s nothing new under the sun, but constantly striving for newness can mean overlooking the beautiful and painful wreckage that must be reckoned with. I wanted to pick up things that had moved me for obscure reasons and reset them. And yes, there’s a connection to tarot and other fortune-telling devices, because those occult systems are collaborative constructions, made of our shared dream-images.
I did get a little obsessive about text in the making of DANCE, saving tiny bits, stitching fragments together in piecemeal torrents, feeling all of it as material—but, come to think of it, I always am that way. I am still marveling over the idea that our words can survive us and speak intimately to utter strangers hundreds of years later. I am immensely grateful for my experiences with the inner lives of others, and I always find it hard to let anything go, though of course editing and filtering is vital work. In fact, perhaps that’s what the work of the writer is.
VK: To risk representation is to risk being reduced into a perceptible object, in the eyes of the other: to risk being objectified, reviled or just misunderstood. And yet, to remain mute is to be represented (dressed, oriented, staged and spoken for) by another, usually male, authority. As post-Language writing (the dance from and between silence, the mark, the sign and the letter) attests, mimesis is requisite to begin the process of women’s signification in Western culture, as a necessary step on the pathway to (re)signification—yet imitation cannot remain stagnant as a site of mere recursivity. How do you see yourselves, as female writers, subverting or interpolating with literary traditions and power structures (Victorian, modern, postmodern) and the cult of femininity, writ large? Is this aesthetic dilemma more fraught, do you think, for women, for writers, and why?
KD: I’m intrigued by this question and, for me, it’s intricately connected to genre categories and how they function within the literary community. My collaborative book, X Marks the Dress, takes the form of prose poems, flash fictions, footnotes and erasures. For me, this subversion of genre categories remains inextricable from the subversion of power structures within the literary community. More often than not, genre categories serve as a means to exclude writers from public spaces. If something doesn’t fit within established frameworks for thinking and writing, it becomes difficult to publish or promote, as it seems “unintelligible” to those in mainstream culture. Additionally, work that resides outside of the traditional categories of Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction often doesn’t fit within the means of production and dissemination. With that in mind, I think of the experimental forms found within X Marks the Dress as expanding what is possible within the existing means of publishing, disseminating and promoting literary texts.
I think that there’s a reason that women are drawn to these hybrid genre forms, since the genre categories that we’ve inherited are so intricately connected to a male tradition. Adrienne Rich once said that she refuses to write in a tradition that’s hostile to her. I think that’s part of the reason that hybrid genre and post-genre forms are so appealing to those writing from a feminist standpoint.
LD: It’s like this: I’m in the water, so I’m swimming. Occasionally I have a thought about how to do or survive something or other, but these realizations are makeshift—practical rather than theoretical.
I do have a sense of working through a series of quandaries. At the moment, I’m trying to figure out how I feel about revelation, in particular in relation to sex. Some people seem to be trying to wear out the category of the abject. Can you do that, I wonder? Is it a liberating or a puritanical pursuit? I understand the urge to get our bodies and our sex lives on the page as normal, as things you can simply mention as you would a plant. On the other hand, I like a dangerous edge in my revelations—I wouldn’t want to lose that.
I’ve had this thought before: I’m fucked up; I use my fucked-up weapons and enjoy fucked-up pleasures. And everyone in a culture can say the same. (And so, while I think questions of identity loom larger for writers saddled with an identifying adjective of some kind, I believe everyone does face these problems.) However, it is one of the tasks of the artist to go against training, to try to undo some of one’s acculturation, to be in some way wild.
VK: Politics of class surface in your books in fascinating ways. From Lightsey’s “Treasure”:
All last season, the skeletons rose and fell on biers of pack ice—I mean the frames of slaves, / gilt & cast out, amber veins sprayed in a soft net, generous as fish scales in a river’s harvest. / Meanwhile, our vacant mansions stand in fields of mud, their windows maze cracked under the strain / of bending idle lines of sight while a single horse, tired of providing scale…).
According to critic Paul Fussell, we are what we wear, signifiers of apparel (from blue jeans to badges to feather flourishes), revealing what our clothing says about class, sex and our desire to belong to communities (military, the church, family, health care, sports, universities, civic life).
Do you envision a time (Lightsey’s “raveling edge of this event horizon”) when we don’t need these signifiers of class to “mark” us as purchasing agents in a male imaginary—homo economicus rather than (however post-humanist) subjects? Similarly, do you envision a time when women aren’t taxed with the role of signifier, rather than signified (providing economies of scale, marking, as in Kristina’s work, place, wherein the self is substituted for a material fetish, without the power to actually assign value)?
KD: That’s a thought-provoking question. I don’t necessarily envision a world without these kinds of signifiers, since history will always be present in some way, informing how we inhabit gender, and even our conscious experience. What I do think is possible is the increasing subversion and repurposing of the very signifiers you describe. When writing X Marks the Dress, Carol and I were very interested in exploring an imaginary world in which signifiers no longer mean what we think. For example, a white dress wouldn’t normally be associated with a critique of marriage, of gender and of heteronormative culture. Likewise, the groom’s magnificent tuxedo conveys a growing sense of unease with these signifiers of class. Indeed, the groom’s attire comes to signify the intense amount of pressure that cultural constructions of masculinity place on the individual. One must not only support oneself, but be able to purchase and support the bride as well. The signifier is appropriated as part of a critique, a subversion of the very system it represents. With that in mind, I’m very interested in literatures that reinscribe these cultural artifacts, these material signifiers, with new and more complex possibilities for interpretation. I think that Lightsey and I share an interest in changing, or prompting the reader to reexamine the values we attach to material artifacts, as these bear the weight of complex and difficult histories.
LD: Not really. I’m not a forward-thinking person; the present absorbs me (with the past in it: “the new moon with the old moon in her arms”). I think my “raveling edge” is scary—a millennial fantasy. Of course our personal raveling edge will come, and then everything will be different…
To answer this another way: In the last section of this book, the paradise section, I imagine everything coming right again—bodies growing in the roots of a lynch tree, for example. And things have changed since I was young. But I note that some of the changes are beyond my experience, in the same way that integration is beyond the experience of people who finished school before the 1960s. I can perhaps gesture at these changes that already are too late for me, though.
VK: “Since when is pretending a job?” asks the speaker of Kristina’s poem “Pull-Out Closet Organizer & Shoe Rack.” “I’m still paying / the mortgage with my fashion sense: pink / sunglasses, matching pumps, & your favorite dress…Clothes cost money, darling. A / husband like you should foot the bill.”
Walter Benjamin claimed epic theater a process by which to “make gestures quotable.” Speaking of these fissures between forms of signification, and labor (performing femininity in lieu of other viable employment options in the market), could you speak to the politics of performativity in your texts or fashion, attenuating the contiguity between form and appearance (“self-expression”/performance, role-playing and drag)?
KD: I’m intrigued by your reading of the poem. When working on the collaboration, I became very interested in the emotional weight that we attach to objects: “pink sunglasses,” “pumps” and “a favorite dress” come to represent the tensions, insecurities and resentments that culture breeds, particularly when one falls short of the commonly accepted definition of “femininity.” Clothes, and the material artifacts of femininity, become a means toward critique, subversion and manipulation of the very system that perpetuates these definitions of what womanhood should or ought to look like. With that in mind, I became invested in creating a speaker who used clothes and other material artifacts to lash out, manipulate her surroundings and get what she wants. I tried to create moments where the speaker found herself suddenly empowered through these supposedly repressive artifacts of femininity.
LD: More and more, I think of a poem as a script or score for the reader. A friend recently pointed me to this, from a Paris Review interview with Helen Vendler:
I don’t believe that poems are written to be heard, or as Mill said, to be overheard; nor are poems addressed to their reader. I believe that poems are a score for performance by the reader, and that you become the speaking voice. You don’t read or overhear the voice in the poem, you are the voice in the poem.
So yes: I have this desire to get people moving and uttering things and wearing difficult emotions on the outside. When I read, I often get other people to read my poems with me, and I really enjoy that—enjoy the vulnerability of reading, perhaps. I did another performance recently as part of a residency at the Walker Art Center Library in which participants simply read, silently to themselves, sitting at a table. People are beautiful when they’re reading: the arc of the hand, the angle of head to page, the quiet receptivity. When we read, silently or aloud, we are able to entertain what’s dangerous. We are in a play space.
VK: One chasm of modernism was the question of whether language itself was “merely ornamental,” describing rather than enacting reality (no ideas but in things), or can language do (or rather, be) both.
How do you deal with the materiality of language: the actual wrestling with words, as objects, the means by which we signify, as well as the communicative utterance (structuring desire and intention) itself?
KD: I love the fact that you’ve read X Marks the Dress in the context of the debates surrounding literary modernism. Much of my scholarly research addresses modernist women poets, particularly H.D., Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein. When reading their work, I’m always interested by the ways in which language can be ornamental in the sense that you describe. But I don’t think that language is ever merely ornamental. I’m interested by this aperture between description and reality, and think that these modernist women poets used it to subversive ends. For instance, there are moments in H.D.’s poetry where she describes the events of her life, but also layers that description with historical material, particularly classical sources that represent an alternative worldview when compared with the urban industrial society she inhabited. Thus the ornamental qualities inherent in language serve to convey a sense of time as recursive, to communicate the layered quality of experience.
I definitely see X Marks the Dress as emulating these amazing female writers. The book has several appendices, which are written from different historical moments: Victorian footnotes, contemporary flash fictions and erasures that resist being situated in any given time or place. In this sense, language as ornamental, particularly as description is heaped onto description after description, serves to convey the idea that culture is historically sedimented, that we bear the weight of all of these narratives as we inhabit culture. I think that Lightsey and I have really taken a similar approach to layering many narratives, which take place at different temporal moments, to convey a sense of time as recursive, and history as layered, sedimented with so many fragments of culture.
LD: If I am pushing to say something, usually there is a problem.
However, I have a hard time obeying the rule I might lay down about that. So I do push to say on occasion. I do put my desires in words. There’s a sort of nakedness about my work that sometimes strikes me as embarrassing. Why is it like that? I imagine, maybe we all do, a poet who is completely open to the objectness of words, who really does not want for you, the reader, to get anything in particular (and not just from any given line, but from a whole book). But this strikes me as an outer bound—like the ideal of a body absolutely without unneeded muscular tension (for dancers, this is a holy grail). Perhaps this would strike us as inhuman if anyone attained it.
VK: Love can’t be bought, only given, or withheld, yet it too (the ultimate surplus value) can also be made into a transactional fetish (an object or token or formalized “act”).
As one of Lightsey’s speakers says:
Love me? down to the very gene, viral sheen of my crown & breath spent, heart gnawn, you see, I didn’t make it. [many dismal objects] [Coffined] Can’t shake
this mood, this sorrow, not an accurate word. This sense of thin ice & break. Listen:
Once they’d reached this point, some sort of reckoning was inevitable. “Morbid.”
Both your books are rather damning or at least suspicious of bourgeois institutions, whether of marriage or culture. Lightsey elsewhere references these boxes or spaces as “hysteria zoo”; “perfumed grave for the demimonde”; “prison”; “house locked up, sealed on a scream of a jade design.”
Is there a neo-Gothic element of real, not just campy horror (Poe’s “death of a beautiful woman” and other archaeologies of matricide or the return of the repressed) to these reified coffins you describe, wherein speakers must scream to be heard (or not, for, say, Kitty Genovese), or, as a cry for help, not speak?
LD: I wound up writing a lot about the Black Death, which is horrifying and certainly Gothic (all those woodcuts of maidens dancing with skeletons). I was trying to imagine, in a human way, the worst thing that can be imagined. The Black Death might be a safe space for that kind of imagining because it’s so distant and so…Gothic: that is, so aestheticized. But, of course, the real category of the worst thing imaginable goes on growing, and I did some wrestling with that too.
What does this have to do with something so small as a marriage? We feel what we can in the lives that we have. To feel more, you have to change the circumstances of your life.
VK: Somewhere between the cultural functions of poetry (marking, mourning, commemoration) is the making (materially, and as vision) of the new. I’m thinking of Lightsey’s lines, “Taken from the center & thus we see what held there all / Along … I was raised by wolves …/ & I will lose myself in oleander,” and the formality of beginnings and endings (to our poems, and mortal lives). How do you address the volta to the “beyond” from the cyclicality of life and death: the death drive, into life, ownership, community, pleasure? Again to quote Lightsey: “My plants were rescued from the site of the downtown public library when construction was commencing. I talked a workman into digging up the clump of leaves (not knowing exactly what the plant was), and we split them. I hope he has enjoyed his as much as I enjoy mine.”
LD: That’s my mother! She was writing a weekly email that year, each email featuring a different bulb that was blooming in her yard.
Let’s see: I had set myself the task of following the form of the Divine Comedy. That meant, dauntingly, that I had to get to Paradise. And it was a strange time to get to paradise—2010, 2011, when I was writing this. There were deaths in my family and among my friends. And the decade just past had felt so full of suffering and disaster, all over the world. Where was paradise in all this?
A friend told me that the ending of DANCE felt less like a paradise and more like a reckoning. I can get with that: Paradise is a return with a difference.
I’m having trouble composing this answer, I admit, because I had a lot of quasi-mystical thoughts and a lot of personal experiences that led to the altered state that occurs at the end of DANCE, and I think most of them are neither here nor there for readers and fellow writers. …The writing changes you. It’s not inert. It is one of the primary relationships in a writer’s life.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of 17 books, which include Melancholia (An Essay), Petrarchan and a forthcoming hybrid genre collection called Fortress (Sundress Publications, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is currently working toward a PhD in Poetics at SUNY-Buffalo.
Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic and teacher based in Durham. Her books are Find the Girl and DANCE. You can find her criticism online at mnartists.org, walkerart.org, The Huffington Post and Bookslut.