January 2014

Kristina Marie Darling

features

The Reader as Collaborator: A Conversation Between Jared Schickling and Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of sixteen books, which include Melancholia (An Essay), Petrarchan, and a forthcoming hybrid genre collection called Fortress. 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 Ph.D. in Poetics at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo.

Jared Schickling is the author of several books, including ATBOALGFPOPASASBIFL: Irritations, Excrement & Wipes and The Pink, and the chapbook Prospectus for a Stage. A critical work, The Paranoid Reader: 2006-2012, is forthcoming. He is an editor at Delete Press, eccolinguistics, and Reconfigurations: A Journal for Poetics and Poetry / Literature and Culture. He lives in Lockport, New York.

Darling: All too often, the reader comes to a poem and finds that all the work has been done for them. A linear narrative, clearly defined terms, and a lucid explanation of what things "mean" are already there on the page. What I enjoyed most about your new collection -- which consists of hybrid genre prose, footnotes, found text, and struck-through lines of verse -- is that the book's collage-like quality demands a more active role on the part of the reader. Rather than presenting the reader with a clear-cut explanation of things, you invite them to participate actively in the process of creating meaning from the text. In many ways, it is the reader who actualizes your poems. Do you envision your work as collaborative in nature? Does the collaborative element in your work extend beyond the reader, encompassing other literary and cultural texts as well?

Schickling: To start with, I should say how glad I am to be talking with you about your work. This is a very exacting question, and I promise to try and keep up...

Lately I have been thinking about "quantum entanglement." Basically (ha!), when the quantum elements of two subatomic particles, such as electrons, and it has also been observed in diamonds, become "entangled," then what you do to and observe in the one will absolutely predict what its entangled partner will subsequently exhibit: the inverse of that observation. This despite the unique existence each entangled particle may experience, and it can occur instantaneously -- faster than the speed of light, the Constant, which is a physical "impossibility" -- whereby observers conclude that quantum entanglement is not merely about some message being sent from one place to another. Instead, one can create or teleport the state of matter to elsewhere by purposefully manipulating the entangled counterpart here. Physicists speak of this as mere information transfer, feeding the dream of quantum computing, to bypass satellites. The phenomenon, though it sounds far out, was discovered by Einstein a century ago, who didn't like it and disbelieved his findings, calling it "spooky action at a distance" (ironically, the concept was the same desperate speculation Newton had given for gravity, what he couldn't explain, and which Einstein sought to debunk in his General Theory of Relativity). Edwin Schrödinger, who argued this aspect of quantum mechanics with Einstein in letters, wrote in an article: "I would not call it one but rather the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics, the one that enforces its entire departure from classical lines of thought." Quantum entanglement has been "easily" produced in laboratory and accidentally "harnessed" in manufacture for some time, while the instruments of entanglement in particles are photons -- light, essentially. The phenomenon was essential in the functioning of the first transistor-based computers and the creation of lasers. 

Now, information like this gets me because, I suppose, I am ultimately concerned with understanding the metaphors and aesthetics available in the physical properties of the universe, the relations of things across scale. That artistic actual, which is really only whorls flashing at the innumerable tips of what Ronald Johnson calls that "artificer of reality." For me, yes, the text must be interactive in a similar way that truth or reality or being or knowledge or actuality or love or… is interactive, in the way Emerson describes the eternal soul, as something that must be constructed, that doesn't arrive pre-packaged. A merely communicative, denotative text is not one that the reader can expect to accurately represent what language is and does. In some ways I think a reader of my work must, yes, collaborate with the words on the page and everything else that may be about it, but I would view this as an accident or, more probably, a blind spot, rather than something I have sought to control. Perhaps as I have merely allowed it -- writing it was collaboration between the environment (broadly construed, to include other texts), a page, and myself, often late into the night. The pages slowly took over, and I merely chased it down, prone to the changing circumstance.

The book covers a lot of ground. A wide range of texts were involved in writing it, and a number of predominant themes interweave, though I'm not sure what each reader does and does not notice. I don't think there's a single thing in there that wasn't written in response to something I'd read. Some of it, though I would suggest differently, looks like downright plagiarism.

And this brings me to your work (do you mind if I refer to it as "work"?). I understand that you have published seven books since 2010. As I have only recently discovered your work, first in Petrarchan and then in Vow (both published this year), I am curious to hear how you arrive at the formal procedure linking these two books. But first, I'd like to ask specifically about Petrarchan. There's a down-the-rabbit-hole quality about it, an old house of Jungian proportions in which the bride and her groom find themselves locked and wandering, marooned, finally alone, with the sea out the window. But all of that (and more) occurs in footnotes, while the poem-proper is not there -- a blank page, with its footnotes. Instead, poems fill the typical space reserved for the poem in the first of two appendices, while what looks like raw transcriptions of ancient, fragmentary manuscripts fill the second. My question would be, first, to repeat yours: Does your reader collaborate with the text? But also, is the reader to observe collaboration between your footnotes and the idea of a text, seeing as how the one party to the conversation is not present, and where the subsequent appendices provide a supplementary example of something interrogated throughout the book-proper? The footnotes do reference the appendix directly...

And perhaps most importantly, what is "Petrarchan" about this book? 

Darling: I appreciate the careful reading of Petrarchan. To answer the first question, about whether the text is a collaboration between me and the reader, I'd say, yes, absolutely. The footnotes especially are intended as an invitation to the reader, a challenge to fill the white space of the missing text with their own imaginative work.

The reason I became interested in footnotes, and their possibilities for creating a collaborative text, has to do with my experiences with academic writing. In my other life, in which I pretend to do scholarly work, I've become increasingly aware of (and critical of) the strict hierarchies that govern academic writing. All too often, the author exists as a kind of authority, and the reader is expected to passively accept meaning from him or her. I became interested in challenging these hierarchies, and appropriating academic forms of writing as part of this critique. I'm fascinated by the ways that the forms of academic discourse can be repurposed to create a more egalitarian relationship between the author and his or her reader.

With Petrarchan specifically, I hoped to use footnotes to parody the ways in which many writers attempt to speak for the female other. Petrarch was notorious for this, and perhaps more than any other writer, has been associated with the male gaze. In this sense, the absence of the text becomes a metaphor for the absence of the woman's voice, as Petrarch's beloved Laura rarely spoke for herself in the famed sonnets. Form becomes an extension of content, communicating ideas not present within the text itself.

The footnotes, by asking the reader to do imaginative work, also serve to implicate the reader in this feminist critique. As one reads Petrarchan, and begins to imagine the female protagonist, one begins participating in the very cultural mechanism that is being critiqued. No text, really, can be separated from the cultural machine that produced it, and the reader hopefully begins to see the way that they have been entangled in this larger cultural mechanism.

With that said, the appendices serve as a corrective gesture, since they recast Petrarch's famed sonnets in a female voice.

While we're on the subject of source material, and creative appropriation, I wanted to ask you about the potential "plagiarism" you mentioned in your newest book. I think that the question of who "owns" a literary text is fascinating. Do you see your book as challenging the purported ownership of literary and cultural texts? Given that you see writing as a collaborative act, do you intend your book as a critique of this rhetoric of textual ownership? When is it acceptable to blur these boundaries between "original" writing and source material?

Schickling: I hope I can answer the question in a way that circles back to a few things you said... The first thing I guess I should say is that at least half of my source material might not be considered "literary" by all -- old garbage like kids' worksheets or adolescent recollections of an adult mind. Poorly written jokes and confessions and advice on treating pink eye in the Yahoo forum. The thing is, if you put a lot of such material next to one another, however inane they may seem on their own, repetitions and even patterns may appear -- of psychological conditions and emotional states traced in hands, the histories of which can even begin to seem discernable. The subject matter of at least half the book is, literally, shit. I thought, this is all ripe material for a literary performance...

So for me it's not only a question of who owns a literary text, but what is one and where does it come from. I'm absolutely with you on the cultural machine. Although, I must say, since I studied anthropology before falling into poetry, I think I'm inclined to give culture more of a break. It seems to me more organic than mechanistic, self-perpetuating (the enculturation process) but as open to changes as it is resistant and multi-faceted and very adaptable.

As far as plagiarism is concerned, as I mentioned, everything in the book comes from reading something. That seems important for me to reiterate because it's the top of a slippery slope in thinking about the ecology of a text. Everything derives -- and in my book, there is the spectrum and specter of what looks like total creativity (in the form of something original) all the way over and across and everything in between to abject plagiarism. It all derives, but how and to what end is what keeps coming out different. There is also this idea of spontaneous emergence that excites me -- that organisms are made of patterns of organization containing and exuding information that reach a threshold of complexity before inexplicably becoming a greater order of complexity, becoming cells and bones and organs and senses and life itself. We can explain away the structures of the eye and the brain and the nerves, but no one can pinpoint exactly how or where your sight-proper pops into existence.

This relates to the origins of texts, in my opinion. Copyright is an historical and economic development first, though it has since ingrained itself in normative culture -- we give stern moral lectures to the kids about plagiarism without having to think about it and, as you mention, have conceived for ourselves author-centric institutions to propagate our literature. Plagiarism has been downright criminal for some time now, and we are apparently good with this judgment. And the irony is that these same institutions pay people to show students where the Canterbury Tales comes from -- after a simplistic translation has been shown to the student in high school as evidence of the genius in our heritage. Homer's mouth, most likely, stole all of it. The point is that what would qualify as "plagiarism" today was for the formative years of a Western canon regarded as standard and even expected literary practice. Of course, plagiarism's deployment has currency in poetry today, conceptualism and "uncreative writing" and everything. 

I think all of this bears on how you explain the absence of the text in Petrarchan because I regard all texts as palimpsests of their subject matter. I don't mean to suggest that language can't describe or explain or present something real, even actual, but instead that the regular function of a text (all the more felt in a human society that is conjoined with texts) is to produce intelligible ideas about the phenomena we know of beyond its pages. As they are in the business of producing meaning, texts like to pretend that they aren't the distorting lenses through which our purported knowledge of things arrives. (This to me is the enduring value of Language poetry, its interrogation of the semiotic and subjugating aspects of the "heteroglot opinion" that language represents.) A writer finds material in his or her surrounds and co-opts it for use and inevitable distortion by willing that objects and phenomena transmute into language. So, I suppose, in addition to agreeing with you that the reader should be skeptical of the author-ity (as I hope my little bit on the contents of my book suggests), and insofar as the text itself will always already be involved in its own authorship of things (independent of the life lived by the text's "author"), I am interested in the ways in which skepticism regarding the authority of the text can lead to new ways of understanding the ecology and, thereby, definition of a text -- a skepticism that has almost nothing to do with questions of a text's accuracy regarding its subject(s). I am wondering if any of this rings a bell with you, whether or not your thinking in Petrarchan and Vow extend to an interrogation of the text itself, alongside questions of gender and identity? I don't mean to back you into a corner, so maybe I should extend the parameters of the question. If authority does not come from the author, then where does it reside? Is anything at stake by giving authority over to the text-proper, or even to the reader? Is authority a useless idea today, or not?

At this point, my friend, as we are probably moving away from a focused talk about each other's specific projects, I'd be happy to hear whatever is speaking to you at the moment...

Darling: I really like what you said about the reader's skepticism about the "authority" of a text, and how this skepticism can lead to new ways of defining what constitutes a literary "text." With the rise of small press publishing and new media, we've certainly seen many new models of the relationship between the artist and his or her audience emerge. I think that this question of where textual authority resides becomes more and more relevant with the rise of new technologies.

The increasing availability of publishing technologies has opened up the possibility for alternative ways of conceptualizing literary texts, but also interpretation and scholarship. As a female writer working toward an academic degree, I'm very interested in unconventional definitions of literary criticism and scholarly interpretation. For me, scholarly writing reflects (and perpetuates) many existing gender and class hierarchies. I say this because scholarly writing operates primarily on acts of exclusion, since personal experience, aestheticized language, and the questioning of received forms of discourse are generally seen as being misplaced in an academic paper.

When I was working on Vow and Petrarchan, I hoped to expand the definition of "literary criticism" to include creative work, and work that's grounded in personal experience. I'm deeply invested in finding ways that scholarly writing, and the process of interpretation, can be democratized. In a perfect world, I would envision scholarship as being not only creative, and grounded in personal experience, but also collaborative. Much like you questioned the location of textual authority in your new collection, and suggested that a great deal of this authority resides with the reader, I believe that the act of interpretation, and the process of scholarly writing, should be a collaboration between writer and reader.

In most people's assessment, scholarly writing consists of a person of authority expressing their opinion about a literary text, which is then passed on to a somewhat passive reader. I'm very interested in the ways that this outmoded hierarchy can be destabilized. What if the reader of a scholarly text, or a critical text, has a more active role? How can the relationship between writer and reader that's created in a work of scholarship constitute an argument (or counterargument) in response to a literary text? Can criticisms of a text be enacted on a more conceptual level, rather than simply written down and passed on to the reader?

These were the questions that occupied my mind as a worked on Petrarchan in particular, and I think that they resonate with your description of the text as a palimpsest, which is inscribed and reinscribed by the reader. I'm very interested in the ways that the palimpsest-like nature of a literary text can foster dialogue, opening up new possibilities for readers, but also the writers themselves.

While we're on the subject of finding new directions for literature and interpretation, what role do other artistic and academic disciplines play in your poetry? I'm intrigued by your discussion of anthropology as providing a kind of conceptual framework for your new book, and would love to hear more.  

Schickling: It sounds like we have similar motives in the books we're discussing. And I have to say that as a fellow publisher of small press literature I identify with your take on technology. It's virtually magic at the fingertips.

The only thing I'd add at this point is that I think there is an increasing collective awareness in this country at least that human individuals are not as in control of their surroundings as they were raised to believe or think they are. (And here I would point to your emphasis on personal experience as partial justification for my presumption.) Which is simply to say, authority seems to lie with the world, as opposed to the reader and writer -- although, the reader-writer-text dynamic that you've been describing does, when it is made into art and as you indicate, become a larger subject-object-environment situation. And I think that this awareness -- this cultural zeitgeist that is in important respects specific to this-here time and place, this sense of getting smaller as the obstacles humankind and human individuals face only grow bigger -- provides a rationale for the more reader-centered, less ego-centric form of literary criticism that I see especially at work in Petrarchan. And, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm interested to see how these concerns play out (or not, of course) in the story you co-authored with Max Avi Kaplan, Music for another life, which BlazeVox published this year.

In any case, yes, various artistic and academic disciplines outside of poetry -- terms I would stretch as thin as humanly possible -- tend to dominate my poetry. I'm not being melodramatic. I can't help it; I now simply allow it and direct it. In his blurb for The Pink, one of my books, John M. Bennett says that "the majority of the book looks like poetry, and poetry is the one form that is not referred to explicitly in the texts." The thing is, these days I have to fight for my right to party. A family is irresistible; so much of my time and energy get spent in sub-literary pursuits that in order to survive I must view everything as some kind of potential for poetry, as a poetry in action, as the meaty fun passing by one ornery chimp, et cetera. It's horrible. I'm not out to dis poetry, but my reading-consumption is diffuse because I am no longer seeking to control or direct the flow of information unless it lends itself to art. 

But anthropology was big for me. Seriously: men who give their semen to the young men to drink in front of everybody; drinking utensils cleansed in cow urine after three squares of milk with blood pricked from the same cow's jugular day after day; an arctic diet of 12,000 calories by noon; women chewing the soles of a man's shoes every morning; languages with no conjugation for past or future; men snorting hallucinogens and whacking their neighbors with the flat sides of machetes; and so on. And once I had read Horace Miner defamiliarize daily American rituals in "Nacirema" ("American" backward), I could put it all together and see that what all this exotic behavior and circumstance was showing me is how strange I am -- how strange we are. I was fortunate enough to spend some several months each in Madagascar and Turkey. It is humbling to be someplace where you are at all times essentially a joke. I stumbled into anthropology my first semester of college. I fear my curiosity has dimmed since then. But it was miraculous, and what turned me into a reader. The teacher was remarkable, which helps. Before that, I had merely quit the Marines in the same manner I'd quit every other unimportant engagement, with a strong preference in life for music. Appropriately enough, it was on reading that passage in William Carlos Williams's Paterson about burning the libraries that I went online in my reprehensible dorm room in Stony Brook and deleted my enrollment. I finished my undergrad at UB in English, which was fast and heavy, due to the credit thing.

I am curious, at what point did you begin thinking about authority in terms of texts, authors, and readers? What were the seeds and how did they germinate?

Darling: That's an interesting question. I became interested in undermining the structures of power and authority associated with writing as a result of my exposure to other disciplines. I've spent time at a number of artist-in-residence programs, such as Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, and many other comparable places. One thing that really struck me, especially during my first visit to a residency program when I was twenty-two, was how differently the relationship between artist and audience is conceived of in other disciplines. In much the same way that your work in anthropology turned you into a reader, my exposure to other disciplines at these various arts fellowships turned me into a collaborator.

For example, during my stay at the Vermont Studio Center, I met an artist named Marvin Chan, who was working on a series of portraits. He talked about his desire to give the portraits an unfinished look, so that the spectator could imagine and speculate about aspects of the work. I was fascinated by this idea of the work of art as open-ended, a collaboration between artist and audience.

Likewise, I was exposed to many different collaborative projects at these residencies. I met Kyle McCord, who was co-writing a book with Jeannie Hoag, in which poems existed as a conversation, an ongoing dialogue. I also started working on my first collaboration, a text and image project that I co-wrote with photographer and costumer Max Avi Kaplan. I started to think of all writing as a collaborative act, and became very interested in texts that allowed for some participation on the part of the reader.

Additionally, I saw that this idea of audience participation is very common in the visual arts, especially sculpture and installation projects. The work is, in many ways, actualized by the audience. I started to wonder if these ideas might be translated, in some ways, to the literary arts, and to literary interpretation.

At the time, I was studying continental philosophy, and I wondered why these texts were so drastically different from the collaborative texts I was being exposed to. I became interested in creating critical texts that existed as a collaboration between writer and reader, rather than as a mere assertion of the writer's authority. For me, this collaborative model opens up possibilities for the writer and artist to think, grow, and learn in ways that he or she did not anticipate. For me, this possibility of writerly growth and dialogue with other seemed sorely absent from many of the critical texts I encountered.

With that said, I've been working on collaborative, open-ended, and experimental texts for several years now, and find the process incredibly rewarding. When someone interprets my work in a way that I didn't anticipate, I think it's really exciting, because it shows me that something new and unanticipated is possible within my own work.

Now that we've both talked about where these ideas began for us, I'm interested to see where this interrogation of writerly authority is taking you in the future. What current projects are in the works? What do readers have to look forward to?

Schickling: The text as installation and actualized by the audience -- that's fascinating and begs some interesting questions. I wonder if texts aren't this way inherently, while their producers and consumers tend to miss that? It seems like this could go far in any number of directions, and it's been fascinating hearing what you're up to. I look forward to going further catching up to it.

You ask about new things... I have a book of essays about to be published with Furniture Press. I don't want to say much about it, but a lot of what we touched on here is probably there, with emphasis on recently published poetry and representatives of the canon popping in. It explores the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, brings together unlikely textual collaborators to open new readerly situations and environments. It's romantic as hell while deeply involved with the twentieth century's postmodern zeitgeist. I'd even like to think of it as ecocriticism, which is certainly represented. 

I'm also working on a book of poetry about fracking -- and that it is "about" fracking means it has to extend very far in order to be so. The location is manageable, being New York state, shale country, where fracking is thankfully still not happening.

And what about you? Where are you going next? And I have to ask, are these ideas making their way into your PhD work?

This has been wonderful, Kristina. I am sending you good wishes.

Darling: Your new book of essays sounds fascinating. I'm very interested in interrogating the boundaries between literary genres as well, so I'll look forward to getting a copy of your book.

And thank you for asking about my current projects. I'm currently working on a collaboration with photographer and costumer Max Avi Kaplan. The book presents my poems alongside Max's stunning Polaroids. The photographs depict a woman's hands -- just her hands -- reaching for the sky, trying to escape from a Victorian mansion, dialing an antique telephone, and many other similar gestures. The poems, written in response to each image, explore themes of disembodiment. While writing the poems for our collaboration, I mined Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita for images and odd bits of text. It seemed perfect to me, since Humbert Humbert frequently fixates on unusual details, going into lengthy descriptions of Lolita's arm, her hand, her dress, etc. These images, and bits of text, are recast in a female voice, rather than the male protagonist we see in Lolita. I see this project as an extension of my previous works, since it arises from my life as a reader, and my desire to interpret and engage with literary works in an unconventional manner. This inclination is certainly present in the work I do toward my Ph.D., but I've learned that there's a time and place for experiments with received forms of discourse. Still, it seems like, for both of us, our reading practices inform our creative work, and vice versa.

Thank you for the great conversation, Jared. I'm thrilled to have had an opportunity to learn more about your work.