Kristina Marie Darling: Your new book, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1, offers readers an extended engagement with 1960s mass culture, exploring the myriad ways that television and radio shape the individual consciousness. This idea that culture determines what is possible within thought, and within the human mind, is gracefully enacted in the content of the poems, which appear as pristine couplets. I'm intrigued, though, by moments when the form is broken, and the poems deviate from the pattern that has been established. As the writer, how do you know when a form should be broken? What does breaking form make possible within the content of your work?
Tony Trigilio: Thanks so much for your detailed reading of the book. My hope is that, as you mentioned, readers can identify with the ways mass media and individual consciousness shape each other in the book. As I get deeper into Vol. 2 of the Dark Shadows project (about half-finished with the second volume now), I gain a deeper appreciation of mass media's roots in the verb "to mediate." I realize the connection is obvious: but it's one thing to experience media/mediation intellectually, and an entirely different thing to experience it psychically and viscerally. Like all of us, the development of my own psyche was mediated by electronic communication—for me, it was television and radio, and for folks growing up now, it's digital media. It just so happens that the mediating force for me was a kitschy vampire and all the nightmares he caused me (though I was way too young to understand he was kitschy). As scary as the continual nightmares were, they did introduce me to the power of dream and to the idea that dream-reality is as vital and real as waking-reality.
I appreciate your remarks on the symmetry of the couplets, and, perhaps more important, your remarks about those moments when I break the couplets. For me, the breaking of the couplets creates an asymmetry that speaks back to the formal boundaries I've deliberately imposed on the project. The accumulating couplets lead, for me, to a weirdly discontinuous feeling of finality in each segment of stanzas. By "discontinuous," I mean that each segment of couplets sustains itself until eventually reaching a resolution (the one-line stanzas that break the couplets) that is really not a resolution at all, because, ideally, it resists the expectation for continuously symmetrical couplets. It resists the desire for resolution. My hope is that the one-line stanzas lead the reader to the next segment of couplets as part of an ongoing chain of formal buildup and formal collapse. This dance between structure and collapse offers, for me, an ongoing chain of speech (form) and silence (collapse) always mediated by the white space of the page and the horizontal lines that break up each segment of the book. I'm working with the same couplet structure in Book 2, but I'm also starting to feel like I need to break into a different formal constraint for Book 3. I don't know what form will suggest itself for Book 3 yet.
This tension between speech and silence seems vital to your poems, too. Your work often brings me back to John Cage and his urgent sense of the musicality of silence—really, his adoration of silence as a phenomenon that's just as powerful as sound (and, in the same way, his adoration of noise as a phenomenon just as powerful as music). Whether you're elevating footnotes and indexes from the margin to the center, or whether you're writing haunting silences into the abstract lyric or prose poem, it feels like you want to enact the limits of speech at the same time that you're urgently speaking. Your work reminds me that even though language never gets us to the real thing-in-itself, we absolutely have to keep speaking, because language is our ticket into the cultures we live in, and is our vehicle for re-envisioning the cultures we live in. Can you talk a little about the writers and artists who've influenced your interest in silence? In literary terms, your work evokes Jenny Boully's writing, among others, but the way Cage comes into my mind when I read your work makes me curious about who your influences are from other art forms, too.
KMD: Thank you for your generous and thought-provoking reading of my work. I appreciate what you said about the importance of asymmetry in a text, particularly the ways that such an imbalance (whether formal, visual, or sonic) leaves room for the reader to imagine, speculate, and participate in the process of creating meaning from the text. To forge connections between different elements of the poem. We definitely seem to share an interest in fostering a more active reader, prompting them to inhabit the text and help construct it.
In my own work, I strive for asymmetry of all kinds. This can range from formal imbalances (like footnotes to an absent text, or footnotes that become the main text) to pairings of very different types of language, taken from vastly different registers and discourses. I feel that this kind of asymmetry in a literary work almost always involves silence, a gap between what the writer has articulated and the connections that the reader must forge himself or herself. For me, this silence, this gap in a poem or story is where the reader's imagination lives, it's the aperture where he or she enters the work and begins to interact with it.
My most recent book, Fortress, uses silence perhaps more than any of my other collections. The book begins and ends with erasures of Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, in which I erase human suffering from the book. As you can imagine, there wasn't much left, only "the fragile blue thread," "the small arc," and "hands placed on a piano...remembering a song as though it were another form of breathing." The poems themselves are confined to the margins, made to inhabit the book's least habitable spaces. I'm very interested in the effect that this unwieldy amount of white space has on the reader. I hope that the visual imbalance of the book, in which text is overwhelmed by white space, and sound by silence, prompts the reader to consider the myriad ways that we are coaxed to fill silence, to eventually find beauty in what most would call an absence.
I would have to say that the text that most piqued my curiosity about silence, white space, and erasure was Yedda Morrison's Darkness. She erases people from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, leaving only the natural world in all of its threat, ruination, and majesty. I love the fact that the gesture of erasure becomes as meaningful as the text itself, illuminating and complicating the small fragments with which we are presented. In many ways, meaning resides in what isn't said, in what is taken away. In my own work, I certainly emulate this use of white space and silence to spark the reader's curiosity, to prompt their own imaginative work. Along these lines, Ronald Johnson's Radi Os and Janet Holmes The Ms of My Kin are also favorites, along with Jenny Boully's The Body: An Essay.
While we're on the subject of erasure, silence, and white space, I'd love to hear more about the moments of rupture within your poetry. The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) is wonderfully cinematic in its presentation, as the poems are presented in discrete episodes, almost like scenes of a television or radio show. I admire the way that the transition from scene to scene, the break in narrative continuity, invites the reader to speculate and imagine in much the same way that incompleteness, white space, or asymmetry would in a literary text. What possibilities does a rupture in the narrative thread open up within your work? By challenging received narrative structures, and the reader's desire for continuity, what other ideas, hierarchies, and assumptions can a poem challenge?
TT: My sense of textual rupture is, I think, much like the excellent way you describe your sense of textual silence—operating as a “gap” in the text “where the reader’s imagination lives.” A ruptured narrative thread offers the reader a chance to participate in shaping a narrative rather than just passively receive the text. My hope is that, as I challenge the reader’s desire for continuity, I’m highlighting the artificial linearity of traditional narrative structures. I’m trying to foreground the constructed-ness of narrative in order to allow maximum space for associative leaps within sections (and between lines and stanzas) of the poem. I really like how your remarks on asymmetry are encouraging me to reflect on the assumptions about narrative and non-linearity that simmer between the lines when I’m writing (not just writing the Dark Shadows poem, but, really, as I write anything). I’m often trying to negotiate new kinds of narrative structures that tell stories through gaps in meaning. I guess I like to take what looks like traditional narrative and reveal—and revel in—what is non-linear and not always rational about the way it unfolds. In my ekphrastic response to the Dark Shadows TV show itself, for instance, I absorb the slow, interminable, episode-by-episode crawl of soap opera narrative (a crawl I enjoy, all the same, as a fan of soap operas) while simultaneously re-imagining this linear narrative crawl in a poem where fragments of autobiographical detail frequently irrupt.
I’m drawn to how this approach disrupts traditionally received hierarchies of narrative. My discontinuities are an effort reveal the seams produced by narrative threads, rather than conceal them as part of a fantasy of wholeness. In doing so, I’m trying to re-think the assumption (a hierarchical assumption that puts the writer above the reader somehow) that narrative only functions as a force that shapes the chaos of experience into digestible linearity. We don’t experience the narratives of our everyday lives this way, and I’m drawn to work that reflects our actual experience—work that allows narrative to emerge as messy, associational, in-progress, and sometimes ruptured.
The roots for this approach to narrative date back, for me, to my discovery of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comic books, especially how his seemingly mundane, quotidian storytelling becomes associative and moves by implication rather than declarative exposition. But Pekar’s work moves this way only if I’m attentive to the gaps in meaning between panels (like the way white space functions between stanzas in a poem, or the way white space deliberately “imbalances,” as you described it, the written word). I’m drawn to much the same in entirely different writers like Lydia Davis, too. In form and structure, her work unfolds in mini-narratives, of course; but, as one reads her work more closely, the narratives actually emerge in crisply accumulating roundabout moments of thought. I’m drawn to how much her work might look linear on the page, but how her commitment to psychological and phenomenological detail produces narrative momentum that is recursive rather than linear.
I see this same sort of recursive movement in your work, especially in the new book, Fortress, with its sly “minor plots” swerving around, while also propelling, the major plot of the unfolding margins and blank pages (“the book’s least habitable spaces,” as you put it so well in response to my previous question). But the blank pages aren’t just a representation of absence or loss—too much is happening in and around that so-called blankness. The seemingly ancillary text and footnotes instead allow a rich narrative to emerge through distinct objects that function as vital social and psychological markers in the narrative.
I’m fascinated by the weight placed on what could seem like marginal relics or curios in your work—photos, keys, discarded gloves, jewelry, empty bottles, forgotten photos, among others. Amid the silences and textual traces, the actual physical phenomena represented in the poems are intellectually and emotionally crucial to the dramatic situation and to the reader’s experience. I’m especially drawn to what the domestic objects in your poems evoke and reveal about the psyche, and what they permit the psyche to hide. You take mundane, everyday objects and invest them with radiant intellectual and emotional meaning. As I deepen my own commitment to those objects in your texts, and as those objects then become more and more psychologically resonant, I begin thinking of the vital curios that mark the boundaries of the psychic spaces I inhabit myself (those spaces that I inhabit happily, and those that unsettle me). This isn’t just an autobiographical tangent for me, as a reader of your work: instead, it’s a moment when, as you mentioned earlier, the reader becomes an active agent encouraged “to inhabit the text and help construct it.”
Also—and I guess this is related to what domestic objects both reveal and hide—I’m struck by the rich textures of the rooms and homes in your poems. As you write in a particularly tense moment of physicality in Fortress: “the room is multiplied into a house of rooms and the house into a city of houses, the body is carried forward into / civilization” (68). I remember interviewing Nick Twemlow last year, and, during a discussion of how our childhoods influence us, he remarked that every house he remembers from childhood has a unique “tone” of its own. I feel like this could be a description of how you approach rooms and houses in your work: your work sounds out the tone of each space, and it does this through an intense dialogue between silence and speech. Can you talk more about the generative potential of objects, houses, and rooms in your work? I hear the echo of Stein’s cubist-influenced attempt to render the physical world from as many angles of vision as possible—and to make a new kind of coherence from the messy collision of these frames of reference. But I imagine the scope of what you’re doing is wider, and I’d love to hear more about the poetics of space in your work.
KMD: First, thank you for the incredibly generous reading of Fortress. I really appreciate the way you described Lydia Davis's work, suggesting that her "mini-narratives" read as an "accumulation of thought," an effort to create coherence from the disparate (and often very strange) phenomena with which we are presented. I really admire the way Davis calls our attention to the artifice of these narratives. And I agree wholeheartedly that narrative offers the illusion of wholeness, that it feeds into a fantasy of coherence and orderliness that simply doesn't exist in the (often very random and disconnected) world around us.
I see the poetics of space in Fortress as an effort to suggest the myriad ways that the creation of narrative, and the stories we construct in order to link disparate experiences, are much like building a cathedral, a beautiful house, or a room in which to keep various artifacts and mementos. In Swann's Way, Proust describes this as the "enormous edifice of memory," and I love this comparison between the individual's search for order in the world and elaborate architectural structures. We often build beautiful shrines around experiences that are important to us, and more often than not, we use narrative to do this. The creation of narrative becomes an act of both homage and preservation, much like building a sacred architectural space.
When writing Fortress, I was also intrigued by the ways in which objects, mementos and artifacts accumulate much like the narratives we construct around events. In many ways, these objects, these keepsakes are the accumulation of thought that you so eloquently describe in Davis's work. For me, thought and memory are embodied and physically palpable, and I love exploring the implications of memory manifesting in this very tangible way. Because these objects, these mementos are a kind of language unto themselves. They serve as beautiful and emotionally charged signifiers, which represent something purely internal, a memory or emotion that is housed inside the individual subject. When memory is externalized in this way, narrative becomes the link between interior and exterior, between self and world, between internal language and shared culture.
I think this is why I'm so drawn to scholarly forms: the footnote, the glossary, the archival fragment, etc. These fragmented, marginal forms of writing resist the fantasy of narrative cohesion in a way that I find fascinating. But perhaps more importantly, the reader is implicated in this the process of creating a narrative around an event that isn't theirs, a memory that is part of a consciousness other than their own. I love thinking of fragmented forms as bridging the gap between interior and exterior, but also, between self and other. And this is what scholars do so much of the time. They create magnificently cohesive narratives around diary fragments, notebooks, and texts from another temporal moment, artifacts of another consciousness. I'm very interested in the ways the relationship between reader and text doubles back on itself, is mirrored and refracted.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your literary scholarship and the ways in which it informs your poetry. I certainly admire the way you've pursued both very different forms of inquiry with equal precision and dedication. What does your background as a scholar make possible within your poems? Would your poems be possible if you had never written or published scholarly writing? And most importantly, is possible to separate poetry and scholarship? After all, your poems read as gorgeously rendered deconstructions of much of the literary and cultural landscape.
TT: Your excellent description of the poetics of space in Fortress really captures the experience of reading the book—the architecture of narrative functioning as an extension of the architecture of physical space. And I love how the Proust quotation speaks to this relationship between the mind and the tactile world. Thinking of writing in this way makes narrative an experience of fluidity—of “exploring the implications of memory,” as you put it so well. It’s a compelling argument for the generative potential of narrative, where, as readers, we co-create from what is implied, fragmented, and/or absent.
I can see how the process of finding a language for absence owes a debt to scholarly forms, especially considering that contemporary scholarship is understandably skeptical of assertions of self-presence. Thinking more about your question on the influence of my scholarship on my poems, I work from an initial premise that creative writing and scholarly writing are not in opposition to each other. The research and shaping of an argument in a scholarly essay or scholarly book is itself, I think, a creative act. I’m grateful for your kind words about how my scholarship and my poetry overlap each other. My scholarship and my poems are inseparable, even though they almost always work in different registers of language and levels of diction, and they are modes of creation that make each other possible. My background as a scholar helps me understand where intellectual and affective energies can feed each other. While my scholarly training helped me become a better, more complete reader of poetry, it also encouraged me to complicate poetry’s traditional lyric “I” and to challenge, for myself, the primacy of this “I.” Scholarly work on subjectivity creates, for me, a middle-way between contemporary poems that resist selfhood and contemporary poems that celebrate selfhood. I don’t want to abandon the “I,” but instead want to dramatize it within the social and cultural contexts that make it a speaking subject and not a static “I.” I’m most drawn to poems that create a stage for a self whose speech is constructed from a web of complicated, interrelated political and historical forces (my debt to Foucault oozes from every pore of this sentence, I know). Poems such as “Special Prosecutor” and “Autoresponder@whitehouse.gov,” from my first collection, The Lama’s English Lessons, definitely wouldn’t exist in the same way if not for my scholarly research on the way power circulates in written language and speech. Also, my poetry collection Historic Diary might not have been possible without my scholarly background in New Historicism. The book’s title came from the name Lee Harvey Oswald gave to the diary he kept in the USSR. Just the fact that someone might call his/her diary “historic diary” is, for me, a cipher for the productively messy relationship between poetry and history.
I’ve enjoyed our collaborative dialogue, and I’ve learned a lot—especially about the experimental potential of silence, speech, and narrative—from the give-and-take of our discussion of our shared interests. As we approach the end of the interview, I find myself coming back to a question that reaches beyond our specific, individual projects and, more generally, talks about the ways we approach our work. We are both writers who seem to thrive on juggling multiple projects at once, sometimes in multiple genres. I always try to keep in mind that if I don’t work hard to create the day-to-day consistency of a sustained writing practice, I’ll be juggling projects but never actually finishing them. Can you talk a little bit about your work habits—where you write, or how often you write, or maybe what kind of environment you need to write in? I’m drawn to this question, I guess, because I always like to hear fellow writers talk about how deliberate they have to be about carving out writing time. The wonderful paradox I’ve found is that I need disciplined regularity—writing as much as possible in the same location and sometimes at the same time every day—in order to experiment and take wild leaps in the writing itself. It’s something I learned many years ago, when I was a professional musician, and I realized that the discipline of rehearsing several times a week was a requirement to making the kind of music that was constantly full of surprise and that swerved from predictable song structures. The work habits required to make and record music translated naturally to writing habits, even though writing is such a solitary and quieter mode of art-making (of course, it’s noisy in our heads, but I mean that the physical space around us is quieter than, say, a music studio). The process of learning how to create productive work habits as a musician, then, led to a kind of lightbulb moment for me in learning how to create productive work habits as a writer.
I also want to add a final note about how great it is to be a part of the same press as you, BlazeVOX Books. I often say to friends and colleagues that BlazeVOX publisher Geoffrey Gatza has built a press that reminds me of the old SST record label. SST Records took chances with risk-taking music that other labels were too tradition-bound to touch, and their track record with such music was so good that I had to check out everything the label put out. Whether or not I knew the band, I wanted to pay attention if their album came out on SST. As a reader and writer, BlazeVOX means to me what SST once did as a musician.
KMD: I've enjoyed our collaborative dialogue as well, and appreciate your description of scholarship as a middle-ground between "contemporary poems that resist selfhood and contemporary poems that celebrate selfhood." I think this is why I'm so drawn to scholarly forms of writing in poetry, as they allow for a polyphonic text, allowing the same speaker to try on various discourses and registers. For me, scholarly forms, when used in a creative way, can complicate the lyric "I" in a way that I find thought-provoking. Jenny Boully's The Body: An Essay is a great example of this.
And thank you for asking about my work habits. Most of my books wouldn't exist without artist residencies. These literary arts fellowships encourage me to deliberately carve out time in exactly the way you described. This is also where I meet many of my collaborators. What's more, the opportunity to work alongside artists from other disciplines is great for challenging the limitations I tend to impose on my own practice. It's difficult to say something is impossible in poetry when one is surrounded by painters, composers, installations artists, and sculptors, many of whom use text in interesting and surprising ways. For me, all of writing is a collaborative act, and consciousness is essentially dialogic. I think this is why I'm so drawn to working in collaborative, communal settings like Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale, and Yaddo.
BlazeVOX Books has created a kind of community too, and it's been so much fun collaborating with other writers who publish with the press. What could be better than a literary press that not only publishes experimental, innovative, and challenging work, but connects its authors to other writers around the world? It's an honor to be published by the same press as you, and I've also been able to connect with several other writers I admire through BlazeVOX: Susan Lewis, Leah Umansky, and Carlo Matos, to name just a few. I love the sense of community that BlazeVOX creates for its writers.
Let me just say that it's been a pleasure conversing with you. I feel like I've learned so much about your work, my own practice, and the larger literary community. Thank you for a great conversation!