Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
In these poems, there is nostalgia of place—whether of landscapes or buildings, or rooms within buildings. However, we’re aware that we can’t stay in these places and must keep moving forward with the speaker. Could you talk about the movement between past and present in these poems?
Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question, and a very perceptive reading of the text. You’re absolutely right that many of the poems explore the relationship between memory and place. As we worked on the poems, I was actually traveling from Nebraska City to Wyoming, the Long Beach peninsula in Washington state, Mexico, and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. There was a very real feeling of displacement and nostalgia in my life during this time, and it certainly found its way into my sections of the collaboration.
John’s poems, which often had titles like “No Nostalgia,” would usually shift the text from the past back to the present moment. He definitely has a way of reflecting on what’s happening in the manuscript, anticipating the reader’s response, and addressing those readerly expectations in unexpected ways. With that in mind, the humor and self-consciousness in John’s poems created a perfect counterpoint for the more lyrical and nostalgic sections.
John Gallaher: Past and present! Funny, this is the first I’ve thought of it in that way. I have this dream of existing in an eternal present, of having there be no such thing as a past, and in that dream, it’s a great place to be, where everything just IS, you know? But as soon as I have that dream, I end up messing it up, messing up that presentness, by slipping out of it, into wanting things, like chocolate. Kristina’s poems have a way of bringing me back. Of saying, LISTEN. And that’s what, I think, centers the poems as a sequence.
This collaboration found the two of us in very different life circumstances. As we worked on the poems, I mostly was moving between my living room and my yard, with occasional stops in the kitchen. That undoubtedly played a part in how we each were processing our mutual fascinations with landscape, ghosts, houses, guilt. Ghosts are a good way to illustrate the idea of past and present. A ghost is someone from the past who didn’t die right, who then ends up in the present without the ability to change, without the ability to have a future. It’s why, I think, we’re drawn to them as stories, as metaphors. Or at least that’s why I’m drawn to them. That, and the fact that they’re mostly, in our stories of them, practical jokers, opening and closing our cabinets.
Are these poems part of a larger project? If so, how do they fit into the larger narrative you’ve crafted?
KMD: I’m so glad you asked about the larger project! Yes, the poems that appear in Connotation Press are part of a full-length manuscript, called GHOST / LANDSCAPE, which will be published by BlazeVOX Books in 2016 (just in time for AWP!). The book’s narrative arc involves a bank robbery, a road trip, and a whole lot of landscape. Seriously, though, the collection explores the idea of landscape as projection, a manifestation of the speakers’ various interior states, which are externalized and allowed to unfold before the reader as picturesque gardens that are also fraught with tension, dimly lit corridors, and nerve-wracked pastorals. And as John has so eloquently mentioned, there are also ghosts of kinds, reminding us of the many forms that haunting and being haunted can take.
With that in mind, the poems for this issue pose several questions that are crucial for the larger project: First, what does it mean to haunt one’s own text? When a text is haunted (by memory, place, affect, voice…), what does this make possible for those who inhabit its pages? For me at least, these poems represent a recognition of these possibilities as well as resistance to them, a wish to remain in what John has described as a kind of “eternal present.”
JG: I agree completely. The questions these poems ask of themselves (and of the reader) are necessarily unresolved, as behavioral questions must be. It’s a negotiation, right? The way we each navigate between a kind of freedom and domesticity, or wildness and servitude, without the questions becoming exactly those oppositions . . . why not be both? Or, better, where is the danger and safety in both, the growth and possibility, and how can they coexist in a larger, integrated whole?
One of the things I really like about this project is that writing with Kristina, making the writing itself the social act that the poems are wondering with, keeps these questions from resolving themselves as I might have tried to do otherwise. The personal, direct voice that Kristina adopts in this manuscript, the parts where she’ll directly address the conversational qualities, often with failed telephone calls or heard, remembered conversations, are my favorite bits, going back to it. They ground the manuscript, not in the questions themselves, of guilt or mutability or whatever, but in the created meanings, the social interactions that are the real relationship at the heart of this and all our human endeavors (at least that’s how I read it). It’s a return that, for me, keeps the more jarring images and divergences in context. Context as a kind of freedom, especially in these poems, as there are no tags for which of us wrote what.
I’m very interested in collaborations between writers. Could you discuss how your collaboration began?
JG: Blame Kristina! To be honest, I’m a kind of directionless sort. Left alone to my devices, I’ll just kind of sit here. People have to prod me out of that, and Kristina, whose work I’ve long admired, sent me a poem, and I responded, and we were off!
One of the things I really liked about these poems is that we were writing in prose, and Kristina’s highly lyrical prose style is delightful to write with. I jumped at the opportunity.
KMD: “Blame Kristina” is totally right. I should probably mention that I’ve admired John’s work for quite awhile, but I was always too intimidated to ask him to collaborate with me. I’m delighted that I finally did approach him about the possibility of working on a manuscript together, because I didn’t know that writing poems could be so much fun.
I think part of the reason that our process went so smoothly was that we knew each other’s work before we started working on GHOST / LANDSCAPE (for example, John was kind enough to write the jacket copy for my Selected Poems, and I’ve reviewed several of his books for literary magazines). Since we were familiar with each other’s writing, it was easy for us to imagine a structure for the project (in other words, we decided that all of the poems would be in prose, with each of us contributing whole poems to the manuscript). Once we started working, the only real challenge was keeping up with John! I was amazed at how effortlessly he writes such complex, incisive, and engaging poems.
What is one of the most valuable things you’ve learned about writing from working with one another?
JG: I find meditation difficult, though I’m drawn to it. It’s why I’ve loved writing with Kristina. She has a meditative ability to turn an idea, to think with it, which gives me the opportunity to toss in other things, and, with that, her work reminds me of the value of keeping with something. Otherwise, I have to settle, when I’m left on my own, for a kind of intellectual tourism. This also comes out in the differences in our phrasing. Kristina brings a lyricism that I’m incapable of, which I now, through collaboration, am able to be associated with. It’s a stylistic win!
KMD: I’ve so enjoyed working on this manuscript with John (in fact, I’m trying to talk him into doing another collaboration sometime in the future!). His poems have this amazing ability to place very different types of language, rhetoric, and imagery in conversation with one another. I tend to overvalue consistency in my writing (meaning consistency of voice and tone), so it’s been instructive for me to see John create narrative spaces that allow fragments of popular culture to exist alongside scientific data and allusions to literary works (like Goethe’s Faust, for example). With that in mind, his poems have shown me that what seem at first like discordant types of imagery, and vastly different textures of language, can strike sparks against one another, creating poems that are as luminous as they are thought-provoking.
JG: Absolutely, I’d do it again!
In Wyoming, No One Can Define “Agency” with Any Precision
So if you're offered a choice between a book of matches and some knives, choose the knives. There's really no question about this, since we won't be able to start a fire in the middle of a deserted highway. After the decision has been made, you'll need to ask around for directions. We're both lost, only you don't realize it yet, and I'm counting on you to do most of the work.
Around us, the landscape is like a dusty armoire, and it extends indefinitely. When the anxiety sets in, I can't stop opening the icebox, looking for some Twizzlers and another Diet Coke.
Later that day, you'll start to feel like you've been cheated, but you don't remember what was at stake. You just keep looking over from the driver's seat, waiting for me to say something.
Atlas of Daily Prayer
When looking for the true nature of things, you’ll always be looking. Like how we were driving across New Mexico, and then Utah. “Is this it?” we’d ask. And then, “Is this it?”
The house seems so much older when we get back, like we’ve betrayed it or something by staying in hotels. “No, I was just joking. I feel fine, really,” you say. But somewhere back there is Thermopolis, Wyoming, as if Thermopolis, Wyoming, is a way to laugh and point.
In one of these stories there were kids, and they ran up the hillside, racing to the loop of the natural bridge. In the movie version, one of them is going to fall and in the real version, you just imagine one of them falling. “Which one?” haunts you from the corner of your eye, as if you had a say in such things because maybe you want a say in such things.
Listen! We Have Heard of the Might of Kings
This is the land I remembered. The dogs were hiding behind the veranda. They thought they had us fooled. Even slow, expected moves startle us though, so there’s reason for their optimism. I wished to live there once, so that the idea of it is claustrophobic.
That’s the mark to shoot for, that “I’m telling you something” voice, because what is the reason? We think we have reasons for things.
I have this great idea for a doomsday machine. It’ll be nothing but a big red button with DO NOT PRESS written in bold letters above it.
Next Time You Hear the Alarm, It is Not a Test
When I walked into the room with that machine, things changed. You stared at me from the veranda, & didn't even mention the weather. Or how much you dislike nostalgia. No, you just sat there & watched as I assembled the various parts: the gears, the elaborate silver wires & eventually, a little sign to warn each of our guests.
It goes without saying that you startled easily. Once I pressed the button, you had little appreciation for the broken glass & housefires, even after a lecture on aesthetics.
Can things still turn out happy? Be honest.
Yeah, it’s all coming back to me now. Because horses want to be broken. It gives them a sense of purpose. I have these questions as well, as people like certainty. What the streets smelled like back then. Not that, really, that’s just what came to me. It’s more how I can sometimes feel lonely when looking at old photographs of cities. “Sometimes” is really all the time. I just want to give myself an out in case you see me looking at an old photograph. I hate having people know what I’m thinking. Look where you’ve left us, all alone, they say. We have to dig things up from the yard and guess at their original purpose to say our names. The future feels much the same way, only we’re the ones in the yard. I was worried about how the conversation was going, but thinking about how others were likely worried as well was oddly comforting. Because even small, innocuous things have these consequences, sometimes catastrophic consequences. And doing very little doesn’t absolve you.
When you told me to stop thinking about the past, I didn't quite know what to do. At first, I tried talking about the weather, but that left both of us feeling lonely, as though we'd entered the wrong living room, filled with the wrong guests. Now they're asking you to come closer, have a glass of wine & some crackers.
It turns out that there are only three anxiety dreams in the psychoanalyst's lexicon, and this is one of them. Would it help if I reminisced about childhood? Watch, if I clasp my hands in such a way, it looks like a little house. It looks like a house that's burning.