First Book Poets in Conversation: Kara Candito & Kristina Marie Darling

Kara Candito is the author of Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Her work has appeared or will appear in such journals as AGNI, Blackbird, The Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Gulf Coast, Diode, The Rumpus, and Best New Poets 2007. She has been a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a recipient of scholarships from The Vermont Studio Center and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville (
Kristina Marie Darling is the author two full-length collections of poetry: Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010) and Compendium (Cow Heavy Books, 2011). She is also the editor of narrative (dis)continuities: prose experiments by younger american writers (VOX Press, 2011) and a volume of critical essays forthcoming from Cambridge Scholars Press.

Kristina Marie Darling: Kara, let me just say that Taste of Cherry is one of my favorite poetry collections.  I'm excited to have the opportunity to learn more about your writing process.  I've always been fascinated by your use of more traditional forms, like couplets, tercets, and the lyric.  And Taste of Cherry does a great job of using them to illuminate and complicate the poems' discussions of femininity and the body.  As the book unfolds, "red dresses," modern-day sirens, and "girls...trampling the night for love" appear and reappear within the parameters of established poetic forms.  In this sense, your writing is constantly negotiating postmodern female identity with a complex literary heritage.  Could you speak to the relationship between form and content in your work?  How conscious of it were you when writing these poems?
Kara Candito: Thanks so much, Kristina! And thanks for your thoughtful questions. I've always been interested in the ways in which women (and anyone who inhabits a marginal identity) can use the space of dominant culture subversively. For example, I was raised in an Italian Catholic family. That went to mass every week was a non-issue until I was at least sixteen. One Sunday, around the time I'd begun to experience my own private reformation, I noticed a girl in the pew across from mine wearing a t-shirt that said: "I love my pussy" in big pink letters. This was an epiphanic moment for me, one that I paid homage to in the title poem of Taste of Cherry. Here was this girl in the most hegemonic space I could fathom, kneeling, taking communion, going through the motions and yet refusing to be inscribed by them. When it comes to the space of a poem, I try to inhabit the forms and traditions I've inherited in unexpected and unsettling ways. Harnessing the rigors of spatial constraints-for example, the symmetry of couplets and the tension of tercets-I hope to give shape to what might be characterized as unstable, lush, and sensual experiences. In doing so, I also hope to push the boundaries of the subjects and subjectivities readers expect to encounter within these inherited spaces. I'm a huge fan of Thom Gunn's poetry, which uses highly scripted and disciplined poetic forms to explore sexually and culturally subversive experiences.

Speaking of form, I'm really fascinated with the way you use the prose poem form in your amazing collection, Night Songs. It really seems to lend itself to these wonderfully non-linear moments of intimate experience and insight. For example, in "Dearest V," the address begins in medias res: "Halfway through a silent film, with its dark curtains and pale women, I start to think of the cello. Did a corseted actress say your name?" What drew you to the prose poem form? Could you also talk a little bit about the provocative tension between the prose poems in the first section of Night Songs, and the erasures that occupy the two succeeding sections?
KMD: As a very young poet, before I started experimenting with hybrid prose, I wrote a great deal of lyric poetry. And most of these pieces were filled with conventionally lovely images----flowers, stars, the moon, etc. At the time, I had an unshakable belief that beauty is necessary in any work of art. But I usually seemed to reproduce what poets before me had done, rather than engaging with these ideas about the sublime on my own terms.

Later on, experimental forms allowed me to begin exploring my interest the sublime in a much more productive way. I gravitated to the prose poem because readers feel entitled to aesthetic bliss when they encounter verse, but it's not nearly as anticipated with hybrid writing. For so many people, prose suggests a linear narrative, emptied of any sort of lyric grandeur, driven by plot and not by associations between images. These preconceived ideas about genre are terribly misguided, but they certainly make things interesting for poets. When set against these entrenched expectations, the rich poetic heritage associated with the sublime seems almost new again. And for me, that's what makes hybrid writing absolutely fascinating. A good prose poem can easily revive old literary tropes by creating tension between form and content, image and narrative, expectation and actuality.

That said, the erasure pieces at the end of Night Songs were another part my effort to frustrate the reader's expectations. I wanted to suggest that the boundaries between lyric fragments and a more traditional narrative are actually more porous than most would like to believe. I had hoped that readers would see the ornate, image-laden phrases in the erasures as material being excavated from the original prose poem. In this sense, lyric fragments are the underpinnings of each of my hybrid pieces, something that is recovered only at the end of the book.

While we're on the subject of form, and the reasons we gravitate to certain established modes of expression, Taste of Cherry is filled with wonderful persona poems and dramatic monologues. The book does a wonderful job of using them to explore subjects that don't usually appear in books of poems----therapy, memories of adolescence, and the female experience of the body are merely a few examples. Do you see these sorts of invented personae as part of your effort to inhabit and unsettle tradition? When writing in the voice of fictional characters, what types of speakers are you most drawn to, and why?
KC: I've been in love with the dramatic monologue form ever since I read Browning's "My Last Duchess" during my freshman year of college. There's something liberating and unsettling about poetry that overtly tries on different voices and perspectives. I think this relates to the notion hybridity-the fact that poets have this capacity to imaginatively engage bodies and times and spaces that are simultaneously foreign and familiar really goes against the grain of the singular, sanctified lyric self that's often associated with the speaker(s) of contemporary poetry. The dramatic personae in Taste of Cherry enabled me to explore my obsessions with cultural interpretations of female sexuality, self-analysis, and memory in different costumes. As a self-conscious performance, the dramatic monologue also permits a great deal of experimentation with lyric fragmentation, dramatic utterance, typography, and even punctuation. Each of these elements becomes a means of constructing a self that talks directly to the camera. I think every poem is a performance of sorts, and I'm fascinated with the weird, wonderful angst that occurs when the act becomes obvious. The best analogy I can offer for this is the poem-version of a David Lynch film.

As a writer, I find that I'm drawn to moments of pure panic and rupture, when the spotlight falls on the actor who's gesticulating wildly, trying to make sense of something that's terrifying and uncontainable. Through Faulkner's Caddy Compson, Atwood's handmaiden, and even the anonymous speaker of "Strange Zippers," I was able to explore different contexts and strategies for conveying these moments of crisis.

Speaking of performance, I'm very interested in the meta-narrative elements of Night Songs. "In Which the Composition Remains Unfinished," in particular, seems to me such a powerful, jarring nod at the reader, and also at the task of the contemporary artist: "Arrangements intersect and the player is met with song. Which suggests a performance is not the opium dream of its maker, but rather a strange machine groaning into the colorless night." Like the erasures you spoke of so eloquently, these moments seem to resist the reader's expectations by interrupting and even critiquing the lyric and narrative impulses at work in the collection. Could you talk a little bit about the role of meta-narrativity in Night Songs, and whether it relates to your interest in hybrid forms?
KMD:It's definitely true that writers who work with hybrid forms are hyper-conscious of readers' expectations of narrative. But I feel like my interest in manipulating these literary conventions comes out my practice as a critic more than anything. I've been an avid book reviewer since I was an undergraduate in college, and my experience contributing criticism to journals like The Gettysburg Review, The Boston Review, and The Colorado Review has really shaped the way I write poems. The task of introducing an audience to a newly published book, situating it in the contemporary artistic landscape, and opening up its possibilities helped me to understand that readers always have expectations. When thinking about a poem, it really is impossible to leave behind the literary and cultural texts that one has encountered over the course of a lifetime. But this realization was very inspiring for me. I began to look at poetry as a conversation with other writers and artists, and perhaps more importantly, an opportunity to suggest new directions that this aesthetic dialogue might take. With that said, I never really leave this reviewer mindset behind when I'm writing my hybrid pieces, which may or may not be a good thing!

You're also active in the literary community as a critic, with book reviews appearing in The Potomac and The Kenyon Review Online. Does your practice as a reviewer inform your poetry at all? How important to you think it is for writers to complete close readings literary texts, even those unlike their own?
KC: That's a really interesting question. Having minored in literary theory as a Ph.D. student, I often found myself defending the virtues of critique to writers who see the mindsets of theory and even close reading as detrimental to the creative impulse. I think that Anne Carson's latest book, Nox, is a great example of the generative synthesis that can occur between literary and cultural memory and poetic inspiration. Performing close readings of individual texts has really helped me to negotiate and articulate the choices I make in my own writing and the potential consequences of those choices. I think it's especially important to do close readings of texts that challenge our tastes and assumptions about what poetry is or should be doing. For example, I recently reviewed Alicia Ostriker's The Mother/Child Papers, which incorporates journalistic recollections and essay-like passages that really run against the grain of what I'd typically call poetic language. By entering into conversation with Ostriker's work, I learned a lot about the limitations I've been inflicting on myself as a poet.

In my ideal world, critics of poetry would write and speak in ways that are less concerned with binary oppositions and proclamations, and more invested in destabilizing assumed oppositions. I am often troubled by what I see as the reductive categorizations at work in the discourse on contemporary poetry. For example, there's what's been described as the ongoing argument between the poles of autobiographical lyricism and intellectual indeterminism in American poetry. The former prizes clarity and determinism, while the latter values disjunction and the rupture of the "I" and its linguistic representations. I think that these camps could learn a lot from one another. I am also very suspicious of purism in general. As a writer who's interested in "experimental" and hybrid forms, and as a critic who has reviewed a wide range of poetry, I'm curious about your take on the current state of poetry, and, more specifically, the conversations writers and critics are having about contemporary American poetry.
KMD: I definitely agree that many critics writing today are overly invested in these sorts of binary proclamations. But I've also noticed some really exciting trends in recent years. It seems like a growing number of innovative writers have taken up the roles of critic and cultural gatekeeper. More and more, poets who question these reductive assessments of the contemporary artistic landscape in their own work are finding an audience as essayists, reviewers, and as publishers of criticism. Some of my favorite examples are Bill Allegrezza (the author of seven poetry collections and editor of Moria) and Eileen Tabios (author of The Secret Lives of Puncuations and the publisher of Galatea Resurrects: A Poetry Engagement). For me, this is a promising development, one that has the potential to enrich the critical discourse that you've described. With that in mind, I think that that contemporary poetry and the writing that illuminates it are both on the verge of something truly remarkable.

And while we're discussing the direction that poetry and literary criticism will take in the future, and how exciting it is to watch the process unfold... Can you tell us about what you're working on now?
KC: I agree, Kristina. This is an exciting time for contemporary poetry. We are seeing a lot of work that challenges traditional camps and mindsets.

Lately, I've been revising and organizing the poems in my second manuscript. For a while, I thought I had a title, but I don't. What I have are a big ungainly bunch of poems that are talking to each other very loudly, gesticulating wildly. They are perhaps more lyric-driven than the poems in my first book, and more concerned with forms of violence; not just sexual, but cultural and metaphysical. More than anything, I think this manuscript is about my love affair with Federico García Lorca's poems, and also his persona. A line from Dean Young's "One Story" pretty much says it all: "Now Lorca, there was a poet."

So, what are you working, Kristina? Who are your muses these days?
KMD: Your second poetry collection sounds fascinating! I can't wait to read it. And I'm definitely jealous that you're working on something, because as a poet I'm a little lost right now. My second book, Compendium, is forthcoming from Cow Heavy and Floral Books in February 2011. It's a wonderful press run by two experimental writers whose work I really admire, Molly Gaudry and Donora Hillard. I'm super excited about this, but haven't started anything new just yet. I've mostly been working on editorial projects, which are more fun than struggling with my own poems. I'm editing an anthology for VOX Press called narrative (dis)continuities: prose experiments by younger american writers, which features new hybrid work by writers under the age of forty. I'm also hard at work on a volume of critical essays about women writers and psychoanalysis for Cambridge Scholars Press. Hopefully reading all of this great work by other writers will inspire me to start working on my own poems again.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761