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The Satisfaction of Incompleteness: A Conversation with Kristina Marie Darling

Last month, I talked with Kristina Marie Darling over email about her new book Compendium (Cow Heavy Books, 2011)—topics ranged from the Romantic fragment to mourning rituals to collaboration to erasure.

Darling is also the author of the poetry collection Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010).  She has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as grants from the Vermont Studio Center and the Elizabeth George Foundation.  Her editorial projects include an anthology, narrative (dis)continuities: prose experiments by younger american writers (VOX Press, 2011), and a volume of critical essays forthcoming from Cambridge Scholars Press.


Michael Leong:  First off, congratulations on the new book.  I was wondering if you could begin by discussing the title.  A “compendium” is, according to some definitions, an “abridgement or condensation of a larger work or treatise” or a “condensed representation, an embodiment in miniature.”  Reading through your book, I got the sense that I was encountering paratexts (and in the book you interestingly draw on several paratextual forms like the footnote and the glossary) to a post-gothic or Victorian novel—in other words, we have the textual fringes of a narrative but not the narrative itself.  What is the relationship between the work called Compendium and any larger work or main text?

Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question.  When I set out to write Compendium, I hoped that the book would allow the reader to imagine the main text.  Although he or she would hopefully be guided by the fragments found in the collection, I wanted it to become their creation.  Sigmund Freud once said (and I’m definitely paraphrasing here) that there is something inherently satisfying about incompleteness.  In his opinion, the supposedly missing elements in a work of art allow space for the audience’s imagination.  The spectator fills in the blanks with things that he or she wished were there.  

This idea, that there is beauty and freedom in incompleteness, definitely was influential for me as a reader and a writer.  I came to admire texts in which the reader experiences a sense of agency, often because he or she is asked to speculate or imaginatively reconstruct elements of a narrative.  This is definitely something that I was striving for in Compendium. 

ML:  In a way, the main text to which Compendium refers is what Roland Barthes calls a “writerly” or “scriptible” text—it is a product of the reader and thus exists in a state of virtuality.  In S/Z, Barthes memorably says, “[t]he writerly text is the novelistic without the novel, poetry without the poem, the essay without the dissertation.”  This notion really resonates with Aaron Belz’s great blurb for Compendium: “How often does one open a book of poems, commence reading, and then wish that the book had no poems in it at all?  Compendium solves this problem by providing footnotes for texts that are invisible, mislaid, erased, or for some other reason not included in the volume.”  So working with paratexts seems to “split the difference” between the blankness of pure virtuality and the completeness of a readerly object.

I want to follow up on your comments about the fragment and incompletion and ask how this might be related to your interest in Romanticism.  The fragment was, of course, one of the dominant forms for the Romantics (Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Keats’ “Hyperion,” etc.) and you have two very interesting references to Romanticism in Compendium: “Always begin by saying that this is not ‘Romanticism.’  In the work of Keats especially, we rarely encounter a clear-cut example of artifice.”  And in the last piece of the book: “In an effort to balance desire with restraint, the Romantics were said to take their opium in a field of poppies.”    

KMD:  You’re absolutely right that my interest in fragmentation comes, at least in part, from my love of Romantic literature.  I’ve always been fascinated by the emergence of ruins, fragments, and unfinished works as sources of inspiration during this period.  During the eighteenth century, fragments like these were symbols of destruction, but the Romantics re-envisioned them as opportunities for creation, for thinking and imagining.  Gotthold Ephraim Lessing once said that “To present the utmost to the eye is to bind the wings of fancy and compel it, since it cannot soar above the impression made on the senses…”  I hope that Compendium presents this kind of opportunity for the reader, but in a modern way, placing these Romantic ideas in dialogue with contemporary experimental forms. The references to Romanticism within the text were intended to hint at this idea.  I tried to use literary allusions in a way that would suggest appropriation, but also reinterpretation and repurposing.  By referencing opium and poppies in such a way, for instance, I wanted to evoke moments in which culture has distorted certain aspects of literary life during this period, and to suggest that I’m unashamedly doing the same. 

ML:  It’s also evident that you’re interested in the Victorian Era as well.  Obviously there’s the “Footnotes to a History of the Victorian Novel” piece—but Compendium is filled with objects like Victorian boots and Victorian keepsakes (like lockets, miniatures, and jewelry boxes).  Such objects seem to be charged with a mysterious and melancholic energy—presented in such a way so as to tease the audience’s imagination.  I think of the way Joseph Cornell uses Victoriana in his wonderful boxes—and I think of Cornell particularly in relation to your prose poem “The Box.”  Here’s the first two sentences: “That evening, the connoisseur presented Madeleine with an usual box.  Despite its array of glass buttons and sheet music, he explained, one must never open the smallest compartment.”  Is there a Cornell connection here?  In any case, the prose poem as a “contemporary experimental form” works well here with the idea of Victorian collecting. 

KMD:  The poems in Compendium are definitely inspired by the visual arts.  I’m an ardent admirer of Joseph Cornell’s work, especially the wonderful boxes that you described.  I love how the various objects found in them invite the reader to speculate about the collector himself, to imagine connections between the seemingly unrelated items that have been presented as a coherent whole.  With that said, the poems in Compendium actually began as a dialogue with a visual artist who was very much inspired by the Victorian era, particularly the elaborate rituals surrounding mourning.  We decided that he’d create objects (shoes, lockets, boxes, etc.) that would be presented as part of a collection of artifacts, and I would write poems about them.  The experience was incredibly helpful for my poetry.  I found myself drawn to images, rhetoric, and characters that would have ordinarily never appeared in my poems, only because I wouldn’t let my imagination venture to those places.

ML:  Now I am seeing traces of Cornell everywhere throughout the book!  The tiny silver spoons in “Footnotes to a History of the Victorian Novel” make me think of his “Object” in which he places a tiny spoon in the middle of a book.  I also imagine Compendium as a kind of box—with different compartments containing various objects and artifacts.  Actually, another definition of “compendium” is, according to the OED, a “box, etc., containing or comprising several different games.”  I had linked this with the way Cornell once defined his boxes: “perhaps a definition of a box could be as a kind of ‘forgotten game,’ a philosophical toy in the Victorian era, with poetic or magical ‘moving parts.'”  I’m really intrigued to hear that this project started out as a collaborative/ekphrastic one with a visual artist.  I know J.A. Tyler had asked you (in an interview for your previous book Night Songs) about the connection between your writing and music, and I was wondering about how the plastic arts influenced your poetry.  Can you talk more about the collaboration?  At what point did you decide that Compendium should be a stand-alone text without the visual objects?  How else did the collaboration impact your writing practices and sensibility?  Did the main characters of “Madeleine” and “the connoisseur” derive from a visual inspiration?  Do you have any other collaborations planned?  

KMD:   My collaborator was the visual artist and fashion designer Max Avi Kaplan.  He was a huge influence on my writing.  Before I started working on the project with him, I hadn’t thought much about the colors, textures, and histories associated with clothing.  But when he expressed an interest in Victorian fashion as a possible starting point for our collaboration, I had to admit that was intriguing.  He suggested that I look at some websites, which included museums with searchable collections of Victorian shoes and dresses, as well as histories of fashion, its conventions, and its cultural undercurrents.  I was pleasantly surprised that this new information had such rich possibilities for my writing.  These fragments of Victorian clothing seemed to invite the spectator to construct strange, wonderful narratives about the world that they belonged to, the people who owned them, and the social conventions that surrounded them.  In many ways, these ornate boots, lockets, and dresses appealed to Max for the same reasons that fragmented poetic forms interested me.  When I really embraced this fragmentation as a fundamental part of both the work and the material culture I was inspired by, I was ready to attempt a stand-alone text.  With that said, my eventual acceptance of incompleteness, and the text you see in Compendium, wouldn’t have been possible without these collaborative efforts.  Nor would the characters found in the book, who were borne out of the accounts of Victorian mourning rituals that Max sent to me.  I would love to work on another collaboration.  I’m likely going to be co-writing an essay on erasure with an amazing poet.  Details will follow soon.


Photo by Max Avi Kaplan, design, MaxAvi


ML:  Erasure seems very much related to the condensation that is a part of creating a compendium and to the poetics of the fragment as well.  You have this sequence of prose poems in your book that you subject to erasure and they become, in turn, these little shard-like fragments.  For example, one prose poem becomes whittled down to the suggestive phrase: “It was never / the lockets.”  I was wondering if you could talk about issues of scale.  Compendium, as a book object, is only 6″ x 4″ and, at 55 pages, it’s less than 1/4″ thick—it’s probably one of the smallest poetry books I own.  And, thematically, there are the Victorian miniatures that we discussed earlier.  Can you expand upon your interest in things tiny?  And how might erasure be related to mourning?  I remember Ron Silliman opining that erasure was a technique that became less interesting the more it was employed and the more widespread it became; he said, in a review of Janet Holmes, “I’m not convinced that we need to have an ‘erased’ edition of every major work of the English language.”  But, to me, erasure can serve an important cultural function besides just being a mode of literary innovation.  I had reviewed a book by Travis Macdonald called The O Mission Repo which subjects The 9/11 Commission Report to a series of erasures, and, to me, it performs an important act of national mourning.  After all, mourning is very much about grieving for something erased, no?

KMD:  That’s a great question.  As a former philosophy student, the feminist thinker Julia Kristeva has been a huge influence on my writing.  She wrote a book about mourning called Black Sun, which describes the process of grieving as self-destructive.  In other words, the psychic energy that one has invested in the lost object is turned back on the self, causing the individual to lose his or her will to live.  What’s more, she suggests that grief divests the individual of her ability to express herself.  It’s this capacity for self-expression that must be resurrected, and in turn helps the individual to recover from personal loss.  With that said, I find that erasure is a useful device for representing the destructive quality inherent in the mourning process, as well as the inevitable loss of speech that Kristeva describes.  Within a book-length project, I think that erasure also has some interesting possibilities for depicting the eventual recovery of one’s linguistic capacities, since these fragments can be juxtaposed with something wildly different than the text that has been erased.  As for my interest in all things miniature, I think that it’s another manifestation of the mourning theme that extends throughout the book.  During the Victorian era, miniatures were displayed as visible signs that an individual was grieving the loss of a loved one.  For me, they suggest the same violent impulse that Kristeva describes in Black Sun.  To reduce something, whether it’s an object, a text, or an idea, is a destructive act, one that represents an unimaginable suffering. 


Photo by Max Avi Kaplan, design, MaxAvi


ML:  I don’t know that Kristeva text—I’ll have to check it out–but her description of grieving sounds very much like the way Freud describes melancholia—that the shadow of the object falls upon the subject.  Kristin Prevallet has asked, “why doesn’t our culture have rituals of public mourning?”  I was wondering whether you can speculate on this question and discuss how your thinking about Victorian mourning might be useful for our current culture in which mourning is much less conspicuous and is separated from other aspects of public life.

KMD:  I think that, in some ways, this absence of ritual is a good thing.  It can be liberating to deal with loss on one’s own terms.  For Victorian mourners especially, these social practices must have been oppressive.  To have the duration of one’s grief circumscribed by convention, as well as rules for which behaviors are acceptable as public displays of sadness, seems cruel.  I think that Kristeva’s absolutely right that self-expression is integral to recovering from personal loss.  To me, these sorts of social conventions limit one’s ability to recover from the “loss of speech” that she describes in Black Sun.  Rituals are certainly fascinating, since they reveal so much about our culture during the Victorian period, but I wouldn’t want to see them resurrected.  This shift away from them that you describe leaves greater freedom of thought and expression, which seems like a change for the positive.  I hope that Compendium suggests that cultural practices like these can be appropriated by the individual, and ultimately used for one’s own purposes.  It seems like such a book becomes possible in a society where ritual is a less prominent aspect of public life.


Photo by Max Avi Kaplan, design, MaxAvi


ML:  I’m looking again at Compendium‘s striking front cover and am wondering if Surrealism has impacted your sensibility (and perhaps for purposes of this discussion we can treat Surrealism as a radical extension of Romanticism).  Liz Huston’s image seems quite indebted to Max Ernst’s style of collage (and his fascination with human-animal hybrids).  Kyle McCord has also compared your work with David Lynch.  And we’ve already talked about Cornell…  

KMD:  I love surrealist art and poetry.  There are some contemporary female poets who are doing amazing work that I see as part of the surrealist tradition—Sabrina Orah Mark, Kim Gek Lin Short, and Joanna Ruocco especially.  And these poets have been a huge inspiration for me.  As a reader, I sometimes feel that there isn’t enough strangeness in modern poetry.  This was something that earlier generations definitely embraced—just think of Modernist writers like Pound and Stein, or even nineteenth century poets like Keats—but it seems like it’s not as prominent in contemporary literature.  As someone who has participated in lots of workshops, poets tend to shy away from strangeness, often as a result of a lack of trust in the reader.  But I’m a huge advocate of challenging the reader’s expectations, or even making him or her uncomfortable for part of the experience.  As an avid reader of literary texts myself, I know that some of my favorite writers frustrate my expectations of what poetry should or ought to be.  I think that incorporating strange/disconcerting/out-of-the-ordinary imagery is wonderful for this purpose, because it requires the reader to become aware of his or her expectations, and also to become more open-minded about them.

ML:  I completely agree that strangeness is being eschewed in our current literary climate; for example, Stephen Burt tells us that the pendulum has swung away from the “elliptical” toward what he calls “the new thing,” toward an “insistence on reference.”  And the conceptual poets seem to be promoting a new literality; “The mundane is the new strange,” Kenneth Goldsmith might say.  I’m all for the strange/disconcerting/out-of-the-ordinary.  Because of that, one of my favorite phrases from your book is: “Note the confluence of evening and a thousand unopened black umbrellas.”  It reminds me so much of Lautréamont’s pre-surrealist meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine.  Thanks for the short list of female writers in the surrealist tradition: I’ll have to check those writers out.  Kim Gek Lin Short’s The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits has been in the huge stack of to-read books on my desk for quite some time.  (I don’t want to sidetrack the discussion too much but Mark Tursi and I have started to talk about collaborating on a surrealist project and he put out a call for such lists here.) 

Can you explore the issue of surrealism and gender a bit more?  I was also noticing in the front cover image that the animal-headed human is importantly female (I think all of Ernst’s anthro-zoomorphic figures are men).  And while we’re on the cover—how adequately do those two figures stand in for Madeleine and the connoisseur or the male/female dyad in the book?

KMD:  For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities that surrealism offers for female poets especially.  A number of contemporary feminist writers have placed surrealism in dialogue with other literary traditions, which include formal/metered writing, scholarly prose forms, and lyric poetry.  I love seeing female poets use strangeness to undermine the reader’s expectations of these predominantly male forms.  Kristy Bowen’s writing is a great example of this trend in contemporary women’s poetry.  Her writing is very much informed by Joseph Cornell, particularly his use of collage.  She constructed a beautiful series of boxes that evoke his artwork (which can be found here) and completed a wonderful tribute to Cornell with artist Lauren Levato (more information here).  My favorite Bowen poems pair disconcerting/surreal imagery with scholarly prose forms (such as footnotes and dictionary definitions).  For me, this sort of aesthetic dialogue is very much in the spirit of surrealist writers and artists, especially Cornell himself.  It’s great to see female writers find a sense of agency by embracing textual hybridity and collage.  The ability to fashion something new from inherited tradition, while still maintaining dialogue with one’s predecessors, is something that I definitely emulate in my own writing.  With that said, my writer friends have described Compendium as one book-length prose collage.  I find that this is especially true with the two characters in the prose pieces, Madeleine and the connoisseur.  I see them as walking personifications of arcane literary conventions that have been pulled from dissimilar and at times conflicting sources.  And as a female writer seeking to question some of these conventions, I love that the cover image portrays a figure that could be interpreted as Madeleine with all of the tropes that Ernst used to depict male subjects. 

ML:  Is the book-length prose collage that is Compendium expanding or has it spawned a future project?  I ask because I notice that you’ve published some “footnote” poems in journals that are not included in Compendium (such as “Footnotes to a History of the Corsage” and “Footnotes to a History of Psychoanalysis” in Softblow) but could have perfectly fit in.  

KMD:  I totally agree that some of the work I published after finishing the manuscript has a lot in common with Compendium.  Those poems are actually from my third book, The Body is a Little Gilded Cage: A Story in Letters & Fragments, which is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press in 2012.  This new project is based on/inspired by the work of modernist poet H.D., and uses text and images from her correspondence during psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud.  In some ways, it’s formally similar to Compendium, since there are lots of word collages, erasures, and footnote poems.  It’s a book I’ve always wanted to write, though, since H.D. was one of the very first poets I read as a young adult.  In fact, her book Sea Garden is one of the reasons I became a poet myself.  I had tried to write about H.D. for some time, but I felt that I didn’t have the ability to write the book that I wanted to write, or to do justice to her work at all.  For me, lots of practice and experimentation, especially with working on Compendium, helped me have the confidence to approach this new project, which seemed incredibly intimidating at first.

ML:  Congratulations on the upcoming book! We’ll be looking forward to it. Keep us in touch—and thanks for sharing your time with Big Other.

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