Kristina Marie Darling: I have always admired the way that your texts exist in spite of, beyond, and against traditional genre categories. Your work has the denseness and lyricism of poetry, with gorgeous and fractured narratives surfacing and resurfacing. In many ways, you question genre boundaries while appropriating the conventions of existing literary genres, a project that's wonderfully ironic and subversive. To what extent do you see genre categories as gendered? Are there larger power structures in the literary community, and in the academy, that dictate genre boundaries? Is writing against them and beyond them a feminist act?
Molly Gaudry: I’m wrapping up my coursework now as a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where I’ve been spending a lot of time interrogating everything I thought I knew about genre. Is it multi-genre or mixed genre? Are these different from hybrid texts? Or non-genre texts? Do generic boundaries even exist, and, if so, where do they most rigidly appear and why? Is a crossover an invasion, a breach, a misstep, a test? Is it always transgressive? Or is it an attempt to erase, blur, break down walls? To what extent can the common reader learn to accept and appreciate that these boundaries and borderlines are, and have always been, invisible? I am struggling to answer these questions for myself.
I read something interesting recently in an anthropology essay about liminality. “Vermin” was used as a metaphor for boundary crossers. Rats and other critters that sneak into our homes, where they don’t belong, have breached the social contract. They are pests that must be taken care of, must be returned to their place. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to so many invisible boundaries socially constructed around us. The metaphor works for just about any marginalized individual, group, or social structure that attempts to move. I’ve only just begun to wonder about the broad-spectrum potential of what more play in literature might mean, what might come of more widespread generic boundary crossing, because if we can learn to be more willing to allow these shapes and forms to shift and mutate then perhaps we’ll be less rigid in other areas of our lives, too.
I’d like to continue to talk about "feminist acts.” When did you first begin to recognize, in your own work, your feminist investments?
KMD: I definitely agree that writing against genre embodies many forms of resistance, since it is often those in power who delineate genre categories. And it's frightening how these generic categories shape cultural production and the ways that we inhabit language.
I first began to recognize my feminist investments as an M.A. candidate in continental philosophy at the University of Missouri. Many of my colleagues were working within the analytic tradition, and their work drew heavily from logic and the sciences. I was immediately struck by the strict genre conventions that bound their work, and as a result, their thinking, and what was possible within their writing. Research papers always came in preferably five sections, with a clearly worded claim, a tripartite argument, and extensive footnotes. Either that, or the papers didn't make it to conferences, didn't get published, and couldn't be used as writing samples. I admired the mental discipline of these philosophers, but it was difficult not to notice one thing: out of twenty or so students in my year, I was one of two women enrolled in the program. It became cognizant of the fact that one must have access to training, and forms of writing, in order to take part in this particular conversation. And women were frequently denied access to those academic forms of writing, and the training needed to inhabit them with confidence.
In part as a result of my work in philosophy at the University of Missouri, I became interested in rendering these academic forms of writing more inclusive. My work often takes the form of footnotes, appendices, and indices, which are often filled with decidedly non-academic content (including autobiographical writing, aestheticized language, etc.). It seemed problematic to me that these academic forms of writing privilege what have always been hailed as masculine values: logic, rationality, and a scientific mindset. In many ways, my work is a small effort to carve a space for the feminine within academic forms of writing.
MG: I’m really interested in your desire to carve space for the feminine within academic forms of writing. I like to think that my own writing is “feminine,” and I feel that it is (in a Marguerite Durasian kind of way, which is quite complicated and problematic in many ways). Still, I would like to have a better idea of what I actually mean when I say, or feel, that the “feminine” is part of my overall project. I love how you say that you’re claiming the spaces of footnotes, appendices, and indices, and feminizing these constructs. I wonder how you feel about the body of the work, traditionally privileged as the primary space of the text. How important is it to you to claim it for yourself? Or, conversely, to what extent would you want to reject it? What does it mean to you to rethink and reenvision these secondary spaces, like footnotes, which traditionally function to support the primary text, or even tertiary spaces, like appendices and indices?
KMD: That’s a great question. For me, the desire to privilege the body of the work over marginalia reflects many of the implicit hierarchies within language. I’m very interested in what happens when the hierarchies are reversed, when the margins become the main text. In this sense, I suppose I am claiming the main text for myself, but in other ways, I’m trying to redefine what we think of as the main text, to shift the reader’s attention to things that currently only occupy the periphery of their field of vision.
Some readers could certainly see this use of form as a feminist statement about women’s voices being pushed to the margins, but I’m more intrigued by what is possible within those marginal spaces. When the individual subject is (socially and formally) marginalized, they have nothing left to lose, and there is a kind of freedom in that. They are not burdened by the pressures of inhabiting the main text, as they do not have to create a narrative arc, a logical sequence of events, or speak in a way that we recognize as legible. For me, this reversal of main text and marginal text affords the possibility of working outside of accepted ideas about logic, coherence, and narrative structures. It is a subversion of not only hierarchies imposed upon language and various types of cultural texts, but it is a subversion of reason itself. I think this is why I’m so drawn to academic forms of writing. They represent our definitions of logic and legibility, but also the structures of power and authority, and the social inequities, that our ideas about reason give rise to.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about the relationship between your life as an academic and your wonderfully experimental work. In what ways do your scholarly interests intersect with your creative work? To what extent do you find your creative work resisting, or reacting against, aspects of academic culture? I'm thinking of the strange genres one must learn and make oneself fit into (like the job letter), as well as the connection (even though we all try to deny it) between these academic genres and structures of power and authority....
MG: I love what you said there about being intrigued by what is possible within marginal spaces and not being burdened by the pressures of inhabiting the main text. There really is a freedom in that, isn’t there?
I’m about to begin my last-ever semester of being a full-time student. I’ll be taking Lance Olsen’s Experimental Forms, and I’ll be sitting in on Melanie Rae Thon’s Narrative Theory and Practice. Both of these professors used the word “liminality” in their syllabus, and between now and the end of the semester I hope to have a much stronger grasp on what this means and how it might be applied to the literature I’m most drawn to as a reader, and how it applies to my own work, which I hesitate to call “experimental.” It’s interesting, actually: before the PhD, I would have used the word “experimental” quite freely, but I’m a lot more cautious with it now. This is a result of Michael Mejia’s fiction workshop, during which I began to wonder to what extent we might generally think of “innovation” as the goal or successful outcome of “experiment” (and perhaps it is the experiment, then, that is our most valuable practice). I’m not sure, though, that I’m ready to call my own work experimental (and if it’s not an experiment, then it’s not by this logic innovative), because although it may look illegible on the page, it still privileges characters’ psychological logic-making abilities, and, as a result, it is concerned with overall legibility and accessibility. In short, I write novels. I inhabit the main text. I work hard to create narrative arcs and characters with deep psychologies. All I am doing is reshaping the novel form, which is nothing new, if we consider the novel’s history to be monstrous and all-devouring, and so to turn to poetic forms that predate novels and recall even older traditions seems in some ways backward-looking as opposed to forward-looking. I don’t know. What do you think?
KMD: I'm fascinated by your definition of the experiment as a text which strives for innovation. So much of the time texts are lauded as experimental when they simply reproduce familiar structures of thinking and writing. But I think that there's more to innovation than just the text. For me, part of innovation is the relationship a text creates between the artist and his or her audience. Many of the books that I consider the most innovative, or the most experimental, imagine the story, or the poem, or the novel as a collaborative endeavor, in which the reader participates actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. This collaborative relationship between reader and writer, text and audience is something that the Lit Pub represents for me (and of course, your novels represent this as well). I think that your work is especially fascinating in that it prompts us to re-imagine the boundaries between text and reader, and between self and other. The text, or the magazine, or the press, represents not just a message or an overarching narrative, but a community. This is innovative, in my opinion, because it privileges process over product, allowing one to exist in a constant state of becoming.
In this respect, I think that we have a lot in common as publishers and cultural producers. I see my small press, Noctuary Press, not as a group of texts, or a project with an overarching message, but rather, as a forum for a dialogue. Noctuary Press is a starting point, a touchstone for conversations about what constitutes genre, the dangers of genre categories, and the gender politics inherent in our definitions of genre. I love being surprised by reviewers' interpretations of Noctuary Press books, as well as creative responses and collaborations that our books have given rise to. Pank Magazine published a wonderful creative engagement with Carol Guess's F IN, a review by J/J Hastain, which is a wonderfully innovative text in its own right. And I'm always happy to hear about our texts being taught in creative writing classes.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your work with the Lit Pub. How did you envision your contribution to the publishing landscape initially? How did this vision change shape after you had started publishing?
MG: I’m interested in what you say about the relationship between writer, text, and audience. I’m thinking of Iser’s field of play, and where we as authors attempt to position readers, from page to page, or even from line to line, particularly with ergodic texts like yours, privileging rhetorical metalepsis, paratext, and even parody (or reclamation) of paratextual spaces. And texts that, in both of our cases, play with readers’ desires to fill in narrative gaps, what’s left untold and unsaid (and where, and why). So even as focalization may not be first and foremost on my creative agenda, it’s definitely there in the process of struggling with the creation of a text that problematizes both overreading and underreading, even as I (think I) privilege voice.
As for Noctuary Press and Lit Pub — actually, let me just jump in here first and further praise j/j hastain as an inspired writer and critic — I see Lit Pub, as you see Noctuary, as a starting point. Where you say Noctuary offers up a starting point for dialogue, I add that Lit Pub is a starting point for authors, a launching pad for careers on the rise, a place for mostly first books to emerge. Previous titles do influence what the catalog has room for in the future, which means I’m always looking for something new, something the catalog doesn’t yet offer. In this way, there is room for dialogues about the texts, but what those conversations may be surprise even me from book to book, author to author.
Actually, this brings up another point I’d like to talk about — you are a powerhouse in terms of your own academic and creative achievements alone, but add to these your literary citizenship, your press’s and authors’ contributions to the contemporary literary scene, and the countless awards, residencies, and fellowships you’ve earned, and I have to ask you a question I’ve often been asked: How do you do it all? And a followup I’m rarely asked: How do you balance your public and personal lives?
KMD: Thank you for your kind words about my work and Noctuary… It definitely means a lot coming from a writer as accomplished as you! I think your questions are great, too, and professionalization is something that definitely doesn’t get talked about enough in graduate school.
I do get asked from time to time how I’m able to go to residencies, publish books, etc., especially at a relatively young age. My answer tends to be very anti-climatic and unpopular. Most graduate students enter an MFA or a PhD program and feel an intense pressure to professionalize once they start the program. But I started sending out work when I was in eighteen years old, and started applying for residencies and fellowships when I was an undergraduate. In retrospect, this was a good thing to do, because once I entered a graduate program, I didn’t have to learn the forms of academic and professional writing (like artist statements, cover letters, and project proposals). I already had application materials ready to go. Now applying for residencies, fellowships, and other opportunities seems manageable, since it’s a fairly familiar process. The practice I had early in my career really helped.
But this doesn’t mean that I’m a good planner, or that I look ahead. I took a poetry workshop when I was an undergraduate at Washington University and it just ran away with me. I loved everything about it and couldn’t wait to be part of the poetry community. I wanted to start reviewing books, going to residencies, and meeting other poets right away. I’m still very engaged in the literary community, and it’s out of sheer love for what I do every day. And how many doctors and stock brokers can say that?
In terms of balancing personal and professional lives, I don’t think the two can really be separated. Many professional opportunities have led to great friendships. For example, I met Carol Guess when I was promoting my book, Melancholia, and now consider her a friend and terrific mentor. I met my friend and collaborator, Max Avi Kaplan, at a residency at Vermont Studio Center (something that I saw as a purely professional opportunity at the time). I really believe that if you love what you do, you will love the people you encounter, so it’s never really been a challenge to balance personal and professional lives. I do wish, though, that I had a few more hours in every day.
While we’re on the subject of literature and community… I’ve always seen you as someone who is an exemplary literary citizen, contributing exciting work while giving back to others and supporting projects you believe in in multiple ways (publishing, promoting, collaborating). How did literary citizenship begin for you? How did you see yourself in relation to a larger community when you began writing, and how did that relationship you envisioned change over time?
MG: That’s a really nice way to look at the intersection between the professional and personal. As for my own literary citizenship, it really came into focus for me in 2008, when I read Blake Butler’s blog post, “Where did Lucy purchase her new vagina?” Overlooking the problematic title, I offer that the post itself is a call to action, a list of to-dos anyone can do. I’m not sure if I was already editing online journals before that post, but I know I felt empowered when I read it, and I always trace my own service back to Blake’s. He served as a model for me, back in 2008, and inspired my own writing and my ideas of why I should be engaged with others’ writing.
And, to answer your question: when I first began writing (as a creative writing major at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the nation’s only public K-12 school of the arts), I wasn’t even thinking about publication, for instance. Even as I made my way into an undergraduate English major, I was pretty intensely focused on the work (arrogantly so, at that), and I’m not sure I even knew a larger “writing community” existed. I probably had some conception of the “publishing industry” existing solely of Cheever types, and that, if lucky, maybe a young writer would get a story in The New Yorker followed by a Random House book deal. It really wasn’t until after my early interactions with Blake and others in the online community that my perception of what writers, and writing, and publishing could be — truly, an interconnected network of readers and writers of all ages everywhere exemplifying the best attributes of the spirit of from-the-ground-up, community-focused, Internet-enabled grassroots culture-shifting movements.