The Reader as Collaborator: A Conversation Between Kristina Marie Darling & Rochelle Hurt

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.

Rochelle Hurt is the author of The Rusted City, published in the Marie Alexander Poetry Series from White Pine Press (2014). Her work has been included in Best New Poets 2013, and she has been awarded literary prizes from Crab Orchard ReviewArts & LettersHunger Mountain, and Poetry International. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in journals like CrazyhorseMid-American ReviewThe Southeast ReviewThe Kenyon Review Online, and Image. She is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati.

Kristina Marie Darling:  I truly enjoyed reading your novella-in-verse, The Rusted City, and was intrigued by your re-envisioning of conventional narrative structures.  As the book unfolds, we see some elements of a traditional narrative, particularly as we learn about several recurring characters (for example: The Quiet Mother, the Favorite Father, and the Smallest Sister) and their relationships with one another.  But the reader is presented with a story in fragments, a beautifully fractured arc that leads us to further questions and to our own imaginative work.  With that in mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between poetry and techniques that are more often associated with prose.  Did you initially envision the book as having a plot, setting, and recurring characters, or did the narrative arise from the music and imagery that you were working with?  What does poetry make possible for writers who are interested in the creation of narrative?

Rochelle Hurt: The impetus behind the project was setting, so I began with place-based images, but they quickly exploded into fragmented scenes, so once I started getting them down, a narrative naturally began to develop. Characters and details were often formed from relational phrases that came through in the fragments. For example, “the favorite father”: after I used that phrase once, it stuck and became part of that character’s relationship with the smallest sister, which in turn informed the entire plot. In this way, the whole process was an act of exploding two basic lyric kernels into a narrative structure—imagery (into scenes and then a plot), and language (into names and then character relationships).

I think using poetic techniques to build a narrative in this manner leaves intentionally visible cracks in the story (not just between fragments but within them as well), where things like metaphor can slip in and shape a reader’s understanding. This was very important to me in writing The Rusted City—asking readers to occupy a space between the literal events of the narrative and the metaphoric descriptions in which those events are couched. Wolfgang Iser calls these kinds of gaps ‘indeterminacy,’ and theorizes that literary prose contains a level of indeterminacy that requires readers to makes reasonable leaps in order to understand a text. He doesn’t discuss poetry, but I’m interested in the ways in which poetry can manage indeterminacy in forming a narrative.

In reading your selected poems and stories, Scorched Altar, I’ve noticed several themes and motifs that run throughout your work, but I’ve also noticed formal techniques that recur as means of handling these thematic concerns—specifically in terms of narrative authority. In addressing the formal implications of gender roles, you make use of absence on the page quite beautifully. Many of your collections use footnotes, marginalia, and ellipsis in favor of direct exposition to tell love stories from a female perspective. I think this can be seen as a an almost parodic revaluation of a traditionally marginalized or absent point of view in lyric poetry—a centering of a female voice not by simply replacing the traditional male voice, but rather by embracing and expanding the formal possibilities of marginalization. Absence becomes ever-present. In the selections from Correspondence, this absence extends most visibly into plot construction as we’re given subplots that gesture toward a missing (or erased) central plot. Can you talk about the connection, as you see it, between narrative and gender in this collection or in your work as a whole? What is the value of formally occupying these marginalized spaces, rather than refusing them? What do these forms (footnotes, subplots, end notes, etc.) allow for a female point of view that more traditionally authoritative formal spaces might not?

Kristina Marie Darling: First of all, thank you for your generous and insightful reading of Scorched Altar. When writing the poems that are collected in that volume, I was especially interested in undermining, questioning, and interrogating the predominantly masculine intellectual tradition that governs our ideas about logic, reason, and legibility. It is the linear narrative, presented in orderly, cohesive paragraphs, that is often perceived as the most rational. In many ways, our ideas about what a narrative should be derive from an intellectual tradition in which women’s voices are underrepresented, to say the least. I’m intrigued by the ways that form, and the form that a narrative takes, can be used to set forth alternative definitions of reason, logic, and coherence. In other words, I’m interested in creating texts that are governed by their own logic. For me, fragmented forms like glossaries, footnotes, and subplots offer a way of creating a creating a sense of order that is completely internal to the text. A sense of order that operates by associations between images, sounds, and repetitions.

This is great fun because glossaries and other academic forms embody the masculine order and intellectual tradition that the texts are reacting against. I truly enjoy subverting this intellectual tradition from within, using its own forms as a vehicle for critique. I hope to show that we should never make an assumption about its text, its legibility, or its underlying logic on the basis of its form. In other words, anything is possible within a literary text, and the categories that we use to organize language are inherently unstable. With Correspondence in particular, I wanted to create a text that questions the hierarchies implicit in the ways that we think about language. The marginal text becomes the main text, suggesting that these hierarchies are always subject to revision.

In this respect, I think that we share an interest in the ways gender shapes narrative, and more specifically, an interest in positing alternative ways of structuring a narrative. I’d love to hear more about the role of the poetic image in organizing The Rusted City. Your beautiful book creates a structure that seems to emerge organically, reminding us to value process over product in a way that is truly refreshing. This also strikes me as an intuitive way of organizing a text, one that asserts the value of the unconscious in the writing process. In what ways was this structural device a reaction against other ways of writing and thinking? And what did this structure make possible within your narrative? Would this have been possible within a more conventional narrative structure?

Rochelle Hurt: I like the way you describe the relationship between form and gender: “In many ways, our ideas about what a narrative should be derive from an intellectual tradition in which women’s voices are underrepresented, to say the least.” One implication here is not that women and men have inherently different ways of telling stories, but that a culturally exclusive literary tradition has missed out on endless possibilities for linguistic and formal variation in its ignorance of different social experiences. I think people from socially marginalized groups often use these forms as resistance.

This idea indirectly informs the structure of The Rusted City. I felt it was important to provide a depiction of the Rust Belt (where I grew up) that was not a documentary in the traditional sense. I think ostensibly objective accounts of history often leave out or gloss over the varied personal experiences of people who have lived that history. The history of any place is necessarily subjective because it’s made, lived, and remembered by different people—so I wanted a form that embraced that subjectivity through lyricism, metaphor, and hybridity. A history told primarily through imagery and metaphor (rather than events, names, and dates) is no less a history—in fact it is in some ways closer to our real experiences. I think the prose poem form already encourages a fusion of narrative and lyrical language, but I tried to further intertwine these two modes through the addition of lineated poems and a book-length narrative arc. The point of view in the book shifts, but many of the prose poems are limited to the perspective of the smallest sister, who experiences her world as something between dream and reality. Thus, the internalization of cultural images of her community for her becomes a physiological act—she eats rust, she adorns herself with it, she corrodes her body. Her position in the world of “objective” historical documentation is likely insignificant; she is young, female, poor—small in many ways. Thus, her subjective experience seemed most appropriate for this project as a means of countering the totalizing effects of documentary.

Of course, this is closely connected to the ways in which dominant narratives get shaped and reshaped according to social power structures. I think your own work deconstructs traditional methods of storytelling by constantly destabilizing even its own narratives. You extend some of your series, like “Footnotes to a History of . . . ” through several books so that narratives expand and evolve over the course of your career. Often, phrases or images from a previous book reappear in a new context. In this way, I think some of these poems can be seen as self-palimpsests—and this self-referentiality speaks again to a text’s ability to create its own systems of logic. This makes your Selected Poems an especially engaging text. Is your extension of some of your own series a means of further destabilizing language and narrative? This also got me thinking of the ways in which the physical properties of a book (a tightly bound enclosure for text) affect our reading processes. I’m curious to hear some of your thoughts on the life of a book versus the life of a project that breaks out of an individually bound book. Do you envision these cross-collection series differently from series that remain within a single book? How and at what point in the writing process do you decide which projects to extend?

Kristina Marie Darling: First, let me just say that I loved your discussion of formal innovation as a means of resistance for groups that have been marginalized within society. Your response reminded me a lot of Adrienne Rich’s essay, in which she “refuses to write within forms that are hostile to her.” I definitely agree that literary forms are political in ways we often don’t even realize or fully acknowledge.

The poems in Scorched Altar grew out of an interest in the ways that narrative, too, is political, and gendered in ways that writers rarely realize or question. In so much of conventionally narrative writing, the reader is presented with an orderly, linear progression from one event to the next. I became very interested in exploring the myriad ways that we use narrative to lend a sense of unity to our disjoined experience of the world around us. A sense of unity that is, for the most part, artificial. For me, this raises many questions about our assumptions and values as a culture. Why is something that is linear, more unified, immediately considered “rational,” “coherent,” “intelligible”? Do our definitions of reason, logic, and continuity arise from an inherently masculine intellectual tradition, and what alternatives are available? Why is something fragmented immediately othered, when it is probably a more accurate rendering of the world around us? With that in mind, my poems strive to create, as you suggested, an alternative definition of logic, one exists outside of this predominantly masculine intellectual tradition. This logic, because it is internal to the text, calls attention to the subjectivity of any unified framework that we impose upon our surroundings.

I’m also very interested the implications of conventional forms and narrative structures for the reader. All too often, conventional forms place the reader in a fairly passive role, in which the writer actively gives meaning and the reader is not in a position to question it. I’m deeply invested in fragmented forms and their potential to give the reader greater agency. In each of my book-length projects, the reader is invited to imagine the text from the fragments with which I have presented them. The ongoing work, the work that links all of the disparate projects that have been collected in Scorched Altar, is the continued collaboration with the reader on this “ghost text” that haunts all of my fragmented, elliptical collections.

In this respect, I think that our work has a great deal in common. I truly enjoyed the ways in the white space and moments of textual rupture within The Rusted City leave room for the reader’s imagination in a way that is provocative and engaging. To what extend to do you envision fragmented forms as an opportunity to collaborate with the reader? In what ways does this collaborative relationship with your audience serve feminist ends? What are you working on now, and does the readerly collaboration you’ve initiated in The Rusted City inform your more recent work?

Rochelle Hurt: I love the idea of a “ghost text” that is created between writer and reader—but especially the project of summoning the ghost text back into being through your extension of previous projects over the course of your career. In one way, it can be read as a textual reincarnation of a gothic tradition (the supernatural being or the dark secret)—one of many ways in which your work plays with and subverts gothic tropes. This is an intellectually stimulating project with socio-political implications, as you note, but it also strikes me a result of real compassion for the reader. I suppose by ‘compassion,’ I mean care, but also a kind of co-passion—a sharing of the project’s goals and the author’s excitement with the reader. Formally, this kind of work stands in opposition to traditional academic and poetic forms—the lecture, the existential poem, the historical text. At this point, I’m bored by texts that work this way, essentially filling me with their knowledge (assuming I’m empty and waiting to be filled)—and I think a lot of other readers are growing restless with that tradition as well. Popular media outlets love to point out how few people are reading these days, and how lazy contemporary readers are, but I think if you look at much of the contemporary poetry being published, it suggests an eager reader who wants to be an active part of the experience a text offers.

What I see as one of the most feminist aspects of texts that allow for collaboration between author and reader is the potential to destabilize subject-object relationships. In the “fill-in” model I mentioned above, the reader is (as you note) passive; she is an object being acted upon by the poem and/or the author, similar to the ways in which women have historically been objectified in art and literature (and other media). It makes perfect sense to me that a rearrangement of these roles in a poem wherein a woman is a speaking subject (rather than an object) should be accompanied by a rearrangement in form, wherein the reader is also an active subject collaborating with the author. Destabilizing subject-object relationships in any context (not just in male-female relationships) is a central goal in feminist theory and art, and in this way I see collaboration of any type as a feminist endeavor.

My allowance of readerly collaboration through fragments and lyrical leaps in The Rusted City can be read as a feminist formal choice, and I hope that this informs a reader’s understanding of the main character, the smallest sister. The book’s point of view and structure establishes her as both a subject and an object; it’s not a simple reversal. Likewise, the narrative establishes her as both victim and agent. The taboo interactions between her and favorite father are intentionally ambiguous so as to allow for a less stable subject-object relationship between them. Yet she gains agency through an ability to transform narrative through metaphor, since many of the metaphors in the book (particularly those surrounding her body) are presented through her subjective lens.

While my current project is thematically centered on gender and sexuality, it is stylistically different from The Rusted City. These new poems are more directly concerned with language as a means of control, so I’m often trying to destabilize familiar language by over-saturating it with meaning—innuendo, double entendres, mixed metaphors, branding, etc. I’m aiming for plurality (and poetic excess) as subversion.

I’d love to hear what’s next for you. Do your current projects continue to pick up threads from previous books, and has your approach to this ongoing collaboration with readers evolved over time? Do your new projects take a different approach or incorporate new elements of formal collaboration? I’m also curious to hear your thoughts on the role of changing contexts and time itself in this collaboration, since it is a long-term process.

Kristina Marie Darling: I’m intrigued by your new project, and look forward to seeing the ways that your formally adventurous work questions, challenges, and interrogates language as a means of control. I think that our current projects have a great deal in common. You mention that you’re interested in destabilizing familiar language, and this is something that I’m deeply invested in as well.

I’m currently working on a collaboration with visual artist, photographer, and costumer Max Avi Kaplan. Max and I are creating a feminist response to/erasure of/reframing of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Max’s haunting photographs explore themes of female (dis)embodiment within Nabokov’s classic work. My spare, imagistic poems recast the all too familiar narrative from Lo’s perspective. I hope that this process of textual excavation not only gives voice to Lolita, but also serves to redirect the focus of scholarly interpretation, calling our attention to the ways various types of rhetoric (ranging from visual to legalistic, literary, scholarly) often serve to silence those who already lack agency. I intend the poems not as adversarial or as a corrective gesture, but rather, a way of opening up new possibilities for thinking through the literary texts we have inherited. I’m deeply invested in discovering ways that the female voice can inhabit a literary tradition that at times seem hostile. With that said, each poem is paired with a photograph, which is intended to simultaneously complicate and complement the text.

I find my practice as a writer becoming more and more collaborative. In many ways, the act of collaboration with another writer, artist, musician, etc. mirrors what I see as the ideal relationship between writer and reader. In a collaboration, one listens as much as one speaks, if not more. One is responsible for not only giving voice to one’s own aesthetic predilections, but also, taking into account the other as one speaks. One must leave room for the other’s response and not overwhelm the additional voices that are present alongside one’s own. For me, this is exactly how a reader and writer interact when a text is read, particularly as the writer sparks the reader’s imagination, providing guidance without over determining meaning. Along these lines, the reader responds to and incorporates the text in their own imaginative work, in much the same way that a collaborator would respond to, add to, and build on one’s own work.

My collaboration with Max Avi Kaplan will be out later this year, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s called In love with the ghost, and will be published by Negative Capability Press. There are also collaborations in the works with composer Dale Trumbore, and a forthcoming collaborative text co-written with Carol Guess called Instructions for Staging. I hope you’ll check them out!

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