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A Conversation with Kristina Marie Darling

A Conversation with Kristina Marie Darling

June 2009
Interview by Cynthia Reeser

Kristina Marie Darling talks feminism, online publishing and body image with Cynthia Reeser.

Many artists, particularly those who travel in order to create, have struggled with the histories and significances attached to their surroundings, finding themselves at times inspired and paralyzed by them. Although, as Virginia Woolf argues, workspace and solitude remain necessary in order to write, another set of experiences and questions face those who travel in order to find them.

-From Traveling with Virginia Woolf by Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University, where she received both an undergraduate degree in English and a master’s degree in American Culture Studies. Eight chapbooks of her work have been published, among them Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006), The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006), and Night Music (BlazeVox [books], 2008). A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her poems and essays appear in such journals as The Mid-America Poetry Review, Illya’s Honey, Finery, Big City Lit, and Janus Head: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Reviews and other criticism have also been published in issues of The Boston Review, Shenandoah, The Colorado Review, New Letters, The Literary Review, and other periodicals. Recent awards include residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Prairie Center of the Arts, as well as scholarships to attend the Squaw Valley Writers Conference and the Ropewalk Writers Retreat.

Cynthia Reeser: Your essay, “Traveling with Virginia Woolf,” discusses the opportunities afforded to women in the current technological climate, which provides not only a relatively new resource for publishing, but also for networking—giving women, as you indicate in your article titled “A URL of One’s Own,” a wider range of opportunity. Can you comment on how the current literary landscape in the digital age has impacted you personally as a woman writer?

Kristina Marie Darling: When I first started becoming serious about my writing as a college freshman, I took the advice of a teacher and submitted mostly to small print magazines. Immediately, I found this process to be a problematic one. Although much of the writing that appears in journals like freefall and Poetry Motel is really excellent, publications like these have tiny press runs of fewer than 1,000 copies, sometimes even less than 500. I discovered that not many people other than contributors read what’s published, and, what’s more, these magazines are often pretty hard to get a hold of. Given all this, and my being a student in a non-writing related field, it was definitely easy for me to feel isolated from other writers, and disconnected from any sense of literary community.

After about two years, I turned to the Internet as a way to both promote my writing and get in touch with other writers. Not only was it simpler to get my poems and essays out there, but I found it so much easier to witness what’s going on in the literary world. I think online journals like Stirring, Big City Lit, and Babel Fruit are great because they’re accessible to so many more readers than a print periodical with similar resources. As a result, I think that writers can feel more like they’re joining a dialogue, responding to the work of other artists they would have never encountered given the limitations of many print publications. That was definitely my experience.

CR: Another essay that touches on your experience as a young female writer comes from Strange Gospels, your collection of essays from Maverick Duck Press. “Thomas Pynchon’s Girlfriend” was especially funny because this is something so many women writers can relate to (on the surface, what’s not to like about the brooding, tortured artist type…who more often than not, turns out to be trouble). I admit to being a bit surprised at the ending, which indicates that your experiences pointed you, at least in some way, toward feminism. Can you comment on this direction and whether it’s an approach you do take? If it is, how does it inform your writing?

KMD: I’d certainly consider myself a feminist, in part as a result of these lackluster dating experiences. Although I’m in no way speaking for all men who are writers, I’ve been in so many situations where a self-involved literary guy, thinking he’s the next Norman Mailer, asks me to proofread his stories, act as his personal secretary, or become absorbed in the new Jim Shepherd book he’s currently enamored of. And all the while these guys have had a general tendency to view my poems as somehow less important than their own art, and expected me to let them fall to the wayside so that I could better appreciate their genius. This is something that I bought into as a young woman quite a few times, and always regretted. But these types of experiences helped me to realize that respect not only for oneself but one’s own writing and artistic goals is something that young women need to learn. It’s also a quality that’s not really fostered by most workshops or writing classes.

I think these attitudes that you see in literary settings—that a male writer is more likely to be published, or that a girl’s poems aren’t just as important as a guy’s—are a result of there being so many received images of what a successful writer supposedly looks like. And, as a young person, I’ve definitely witnessed both men and women buying into these stereotypes and trying to live up to them. I once had a poetry teacher who, although not even thirty years old, wore a different sweater vest to every workshop session. It’s almost as though he was acting out what he thought a writer was, or needs to look like in order to be taken seriously. As a nonfiction writer, I jump at the chance to write articles or literary criticism that will chip away at these ideas that artists of any kind should be a certain gender, or need to dress or act in a specific way. Because I think that these perceptions limit both men and women alike.

CR: How necessary do you think feminism will continue to be for women writers if and when an equilibrium is reached in the career field?

KMD: Well, it’s clear that there are a lot more opportunities for women writers than existed for previous generations. When thinking about creating an equal playing field, organizations like the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and A Room for One’s Own Foundation, which provide grant funds to emerging female artists, and feminist art colonies like Millett Farm and Soapstone are a step in the right direction. I think that now it’s more a matter of giving literary women the opportunity and encouragement to take advantage of these resources.

With that said, I see female mentorship and a sense of community among women writers as increasingly necessary manifestations of feminism, which are just as essential as material support in the arts. While it’s great to offer special prizes and fellowships for women, it’s also crucial to create an atmosphere that fosters a sense of respect for the female artistic process. In this respect, I see feminism as always being an important presence, even in a literary landscape that offers equal opportunities for men and women.

CR: Strange Gospels touches on three hot topics—that of work (in this case, a first job), relationships, and body image. The latter seems to be an ongoing debate and topic of torment for women young and old. You hit on some things that are particularly relevant: namely, body image as a business that people buy into, much as they do pop culture icon worship. The positive self-esteem, mentioned in your essay, that is openly declared by figures like Beyoncé Knowles and Tyra Banks is heartening. Do you see their influence as affecting change in the weight loss business, and more importantly, women’s self-esteem?

KMD: There seems to be a general shift toward advertising products for everyday women who want to maintain a “healthy” weight, rather than a bone-thin figure. I think that this focus on helping the average female look and feel her best is a step in the right direction. When people see Queen Latifah and Ellen DeGeneres advertising beauty and weight loss products, they tend to set more realistic goals for themselves, but it also promotes respect and appreciation in the general population for women who don’t look like supermodels, and perhaps don’t even wish to.

Only a few years ago, it was so commonplace to see ads for weight loss plans that would feature a lady who lost more than half her body weight eating tiny pre-packaged meals. I really think that these images of dramatic transformation promoted an unrealistic expectation among women for their own bodies, but also a more general attitude that an everyday female could transform her appearance if she was only willing and bought the right products. As a young person who struggled with her weight, I know I found these types of assumptions from others very damaging to my self-esteem. I’m glad to see that this is changing and that the dieting industry is promoting attainable goals, as well as a more sensible expectation of women’s ability, or even desire, to match the images of beauty that we see in the media.

CR: Anything new in the works for you?

KMD: I’m currently working on a full-length collection of prose poems, most of which deal in some way with opera or classical music. While a number of the individual works have appeared in short e-chaps from BlazeVox Books and Gold Wake Press, I’d love to see the project take the shape of a longer book.

This summer, I’m headed to Salem Art Works in upstate New York and the Prairie Center of the Arts in Illinois to continue writing and revising. I also received a generous scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in California, where I’m very much looking forward to receiving feedback on the project. Hopefully, I’ll end up with a lot of new poems, as well as some ideas for organizing and structuring them. In addition to that, I’m likely to draw on my experiences this summer and write a nonfiction article about the role of artist colonies in the current literary landscape.

Read a review of Kristina’s essay Traveling with Virginia Woolf, forthcoming as an e-chapbook from Ungovernable Press, here.

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