THE AUTHOR OF over 30 books and with several titles forthcoming (such as Silence in Contemporary Poetry, due out from Liverpool University Press in March 2023), Kristina Marie Darling is one of contemporary literature’s most prolific poets, critics, theorists, editors, and publishers. Currently, she serves as editor-in-chief of Tupelo Press, freelance book critic at The New York Times Book Review, and contributor at both The Kenyon Review and LARB. She has lectured on contemporary literature, poetics, the publishing arts, and creative writing at NYU, Columbia, the Yale Writers’ Workshop, and many other writing programs around the world. In 2019, she began a five-year term as an expert consulting with the US Fulbright Commission.
Kristina spoke with me about her recent book of critical essays, Silent Refusal: Essays on Contemporary Feminist Writing. This interview was conducted from mid-October to late December 2021 via email and a shared Google Doc. During this time, Kristina was working and traveling through Iceland and Tuscany, her research supported by fellowships from SÍM/Association of Icelandic Visual Artists and La Macina di San Cresci. At the time, Kristina was at work on her first novel, a work of fiction set in Paris.
MOLLY GAUDRY: Why was it important for you to write this book of critical essays on contemporary feminist writing?
KRISTINA MARIE DARLING: Silent Refusal focuses on undertheorized texts, works that reviewers and scholars don’t engage with because they’re supposedly too experimental or too “difficult.” Honestly, I think that purportedly ignoring “difficult” writing is a huge mistake, as the experience of difficulty, especially in feminist texts, is frequently part of the intention. And textual difficulty is often politically charged, a feminist or otherwise separatist gesture. As a critic, I’m keenly interested in texts like these, in which politics are inextricable from aesthetics. With that in mind, my book is a corrective gesture but also an effort to give readers, educators, and students some tools to think through innovative texts by writers who challenge the status quo.
Is there a personal story that drove you to put this book together? I’m asking specifically about a personal narrative that (1) we would not expect to find in a book of critical essays and (2) we will not find in Silent Refusal.
This book grew out of an abusive advising situation I found myself in at the very end of my graduate education. During my last semester, I found out that my married academic advisor had romantic feelings for me. How did I discover this? I had suspected it for about a year, and this suspicion was confirmed when he forcibly kissed me at a party. Because I wasn’t really interested, I set clear boundaries with him, and from that point on, all of his frustration with me was exorcised in his responses from him to my writing from him.
What disturbed me most about this situation was a sense of entitlement that permeated all of our interactions. Given that he occupied a position of power for so long, deciding who he was admitted to a prestigious program, who graduated and who did not, and so on, this was not exactly surprising. But I noticed in the workshops that the way women’s bodies were discussed and the way their writing was discussed seemed disturbingly similar. In one of the workshops, he actually said, “I can’t seem to enter the text.” The book I was working on wasn’t really intended for him, as East Coast hipsters with skinny pants and ugly glasses wasn’t the audience I had envisioned for my writing. But still he felt entitled to it. And it seemed that the act of reading and interpreting women’s writing, for him and many people in my cohort, was an exercise in mastery, an essentially patriarchal enterprise.
As a writer and as a reader, I’m keenly interested in literary texts that frustrate, interrogate, or otherwise challenge the sense of entitlement that cisgender men often feel toward women’s bodies and their writing. In other words, textual difficulty as a feminist gesture.
I wonder if you would indulge changing hats briefly, from critic to poet, to provide us with a creative version — a creative act of resistance — regarding the experience you just shared. In Silent Refusal, you begin with the argument that silence can be empowering for female-identifying and nonbinary writers, that silence can be wielded in a literary text as an intentional act of resistance. One way is by challenging a reader’s “sense of entitlement to exposition.” Can you demonstrate for us what a possible poem about your experience with your advisor might look like when it denies readers the access you granted in your previous answer?
Thank you for this thoughtful and considerate question. Here is a poem that I think embodies this idea of difficulty, feminist separatist politics, and the denial of readerly entitlement:
“THOSE SCARLET ENGINES OF SPECULATION LEAD US INTO MORE VIGOROUS WILDS.”
I often imagine his melancholy as a film, a glamorous distance achieved by standing in the rafters and observing his movement between two rooms. The silence as he opens a hidden door implies the first of the storm sirens, a cold shore, and of course, the sea.
The cliffs that line the coast span twelve centuries, those dark stones reminding him of the windowless room he just left behind. Their unsightliness is its own truest representation, a faultless articulation of that sorrow. Which is to say: a thought held long enough in the mind becomes a pearl, eventually.
Now the music begins, a long shot from the harbor. The camera moving further and further below the water’s frozen surface. Years later, we will all realize there are not enough women on the crew to dress up the footage, to dub the man’s silence, to shape the narrative into a lovelier, more pleasing arc.
Early-in Silent Refusal, you explain that the texts you’re interested in offer “challenges to logic and reasoning.” You write that, upon reading such texts, we “are rendered suddenly and startlingly aware of our desire for narrative, for continuity, for causation.” And you explain that “the feminist text becomes monstrous, unwieldy, no longer dainty or well behaved.” Of all the texts you go on to analyze in Silent Refusalwhich one or two are exceedingly monstrous and exhibit some of the worst behavior of all?
This is a great question. I believe that some of the most disruptive experimental feminist texts create an embodied experience, as visceral as they are cerebral. Laurie Shecks A Monster’s Notes (2009) offers such a tangible experience of disruption. To carry this book with you is to carry a veritable saint’s burden. Her ingenious text by Ella sprawls across genres, narratives, and outside the bounds of the traditional book object. The act of challenging boundaries becomes performance, becomes metaphor.
Similarly, Julia Story’s inscrutable text boxes speak to the ways we try to contain the female voice, whether through form and the imposition of form, through the imposition of a particular kind of logic and causation, or both. Even in their most seemingly innocent, seemingly serviceable moments, the structures of grammar — those familiar subject-verb-object constructions — constrain the thinking that takes place within them. Story’s genius is this: the forms of logic and traditional causal chains—that perfectly executed grammar—are questioned and undermined from within their strictures.
Silent Refusal is organized into three parts: (1) “Silent Refusal”; (2) “Radical Listening”; and (3) “Difficulty, Intimacy, and Invitation.” Can you provide an overview of what each of these sections is about?
“Silent Refusal” considers the way grammar enacts and dramatizes a predominantly masculine, predominantly Western definition of reason and rationality. Even more importantly, this section explores the way innovative texts, hybrid texts, and postmodern techniques can expand what is possible within the logic of grammar.
“Radical Listening” interrogates language, gender, and culture in a similar way, taking as its central question the way that silence and listening are values frequently elided and dismissed by contemporary literary culture. Silence is reframed as a show of power and resistance, rather than the mere dramatization of a lack of agency. What’s more, the section considers how silence and listening are politically charged: feminist texts and their elisions as a refusal to speak in a linguistic landscape that is hostile to one’s voice and vision.
Lastly, “Difficulty, Intimacy, and Invitation” considers the ways that purportedly difficult texts carve space for the reader’s imagination, becoming the end of a collaborative endeavor. The section also thinks through the way that silence and a purposeful withholding can begin to model a more ethical relationship between text and reader, ultimately frustrating a sense of readerly entitlement.
You’re the author of more than 30 books. For interested readers, which of your books resonates most with what we’ve just read, and can you explain why?
I’m deeply invested in the conceptual, the performative, writing that enacts rather than explains its ideas and intentions. With that in mind, I would certainly argue that my long poem, petrarchan (2013), resonates with the piece I just shared. I was intrigued by the mysterious figure of Laura, the love object, and the fact that she lived her life de ella as a spectacle, never able to speak about herself, but instead only spoken about by others. With that in mind, petrarchan is structured in several distinct chapters, each of which is named after one of Petrarch’s books. The chapters consist only of footnotes, however, in the grand style of Jenny Boully, telling the story instead from Laura’s perspective of her. The pages are blank, with only the marginalia visible to the reader. I’m influenced and intrigued by Myung Mi Kim’s framing of marginal textual spaces as being charged with risk, possibility, and reversal. There is less pressure on these spaces, so the rules of language no longer hold there. In that spirit, I have used the peripheral textual spaces as an occasion for intervention, to bring Laura’s perspective to the fore. The chapters in footnotes are followed by erasures of Petrarch’s sonnets recast from Laura’s perspective of her. Erasure as excavation, as intervention. Erasure reclaimed as feminist gesture, as empowerment.
What are you working on now? What can we look forward to next?
Thanks for asking about my current projects! I’m currently working on a novel about a female graduate student at NYU Paris who goes missing. At the time of her disappearance de ella, she owed half a million dollars in federal student loans, was in deep with AmEx, and had been carrying on an affair with her married professor. No one is quite sure if her vanishing from her was a carefully executed escape plan, suicide, murder, or something even more sinister. The novel is narrated by her mother de ella, her married academic advisor with whom she was carrying on an affair, and the dean who forged her student loan documents. As the investigation continues, the questions and motives only seem to multiply.
Molly Gaudry is the author of the verse novels We Take Me Apart (2009) and Desire: A Haunting (2018). She is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at Stony Brook University.