review + interview /// Compendium by Kristina Marie Darling

Posted By jatyler - 21st July 2011

Let’s start with a comparison: Your first book, Night Songs, was released from Gold Wake Press in 2010 and is what I would term a thematically linked poetry collection – a solid collection that nicely highlights your strengths as a poet; Compendium reads more like a derelict story to me (a compliment to be sure), with a narrative thread that is woven into the piece then buried then relocated again and again throughout its pages. What kind of narrative direction were you pushing in Compendium, and how else does this new book differ from Night Songs?

You’re absolutely right that Compendium reads more like fiction than Night Songs.  When I wrote my first book, I was interested in creating an imaginary world that the reader could enter, one that would be consistent throughout the collection.  Compendium was an attempt to refine this idea, and to offer more of a payoff for the reader who enters the strange little universe I’ve created in that particular text.

The term “payoff” is definitely unclear, so I’ll explain what I mean by it in more detail.  For me, one of the great joys of reading is experiencing a sense of agency, especially when one is asked to imaginatively reconstruct plot elements.  I love works like H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, Anne Carson’s Nox, and Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, texts in which a story has been obscured, and must be uncovered by the reader.  In Night Songs, I felt that I had created an imaginary world, but that the book didn’t look closely at any one part of it, definitely not enough for the reader to be able to excavate this kind of hidden narrative from the text.

When I set out to write Compendium, I hoped to experiment with this idea.  I wanted to present the reader with an imagined world, but to be more specific about it, and return to some of the same characters, images, and ideas.  It ended up being a challenge, one that pushed me to try new things, especially literary forms I had never used before. With that said, Compendium is not only more narrative than Night Songs, but it’s also much more formally diverse.

You employ a wide variety of modes in Compendium – the book starts with vignettes, moves into a series of poetry based on the erasure of those vignettes, then turns to notes, footnotes, and a glossary of terms – how did you come about this type of book-length array, and how difficult was that to maintain and then to revise into the final solidified text?

That’s a great question.  When I first started writing Compendium, I tried to return to images and themes that I had written about in previous pieces.  As a poet, I’ve always strived for projects that have some degree of internal resonance.  Returning to images, characters, and my own obsessions seemed like a good way to promote unity among the individual poems.

As I depicted these same items in piece after piece, I found myself wanting to experiment with form.  I think most people would say that different literary forms allow writers to make different observations about the same subject.  For me, it seems like choosing a particular form also allows one to leave certain things unsaid, and this might not happen exactly the same way if the writer had chosen differently.  Because I was trying to create and obscure a narrative that ran through each individual piece, challenging myself to experiment in this way seemed almost inevitable.  And the more adventurous I became with using glossaries, footnotes, vignettes, and notes, the more useful it seemed to limit the scope of the project, and focus on fewer themes and images.

There is also a certain intense focus on colors, especially in the first sections of the book:

‘Alone with her sanctimonious parcel, its blue paper wrapping, and cluster of green ribbons…’

‘Snow falling outside the great white house…’

‘…with its faint music and array of red velvet chairs…’

‘Her music drifting farther into the cold blue arms of that evening.’

How often do you use colors in your writing, and how else does the visual world work its way into your texts?

While I use colors in some of my poems in Night Songs, it’s especially important for Compendium.  The work started as part of a collaboration with a visual artist, Max Avi Kaplan, who finds a great deal of inspiration in Victorian material culture, particularly the fashions and conventions associated with mourning.  As a result, the book is filled with not only colors, but textures, fabrics, and strange objects.

The other staple of this collection is its insistent reference to classical styles

‘The Blue Sonnets’

‘Footnotes to a History of the Victorian Novel’

‘An Introduction to the Lyric Ode’

There are those subtitles, along with a multitude of other loud allusions to classical literary traditions, yet the collection itself does not follow or perpetuate these approaches. So if the intent is not to reproduce or duplicate, what do you want your readers to get from these myriad references?

I think of every poem as an act of deconstruction, a conversation with the literary works that came before it.  For me, this potential for dialogue and community is one of the most exciting aspects of contemporary poetry.  With that said, I hope that the reader sees my references to classical styles as conversation of just this sort.   By invoking classical forms—such as lyric odes, sonnets, and Victorian novels—I hoped to explore their relevance to a new literary landscape, one that’s filled with hybrid texts, found forms, and fragmented narratives.

To wrap up our discussion of the book’s content, help us define this book: A ‘compendium’ is loosely termed as a concise treatment of a subject (a summary), or a full list on subject (an inventory). I can see both possibilities, but which one of these is your Compendium, and in either case, what subject does this book summarize or inventory?

I had intended the book as both, a concise treatment of a subject and an inventory.  This is because the fragments that the reader is presented with are the whole story.  With that said, the book’s subject is a love story between two characters, one that the reader is invited to reconstruct from the fragments he or she is presented with.

If we shift to the often unseen side of getting a new book out into the world, how was it working with Cow Heavy Books and Donora Hillard? Can you give us a little insight into the publishing and editing process with them? And what are the differences and similarities working with one press (Gold Wake) over another (Cow Heavy)?

I had a fantastic experience working with Cow Heavy Books, and Donora Hillard is a great editor in addition to being a great poet. Since I’m a huge fan of the authors that they’ve published in the past, I was really excited to work with them.  As for the unseen side of book publishing, the press using a professional design service for book covers, typesetting, and printing.  I was impressed with the production quality every step of the way.

While I had a wonderful experience working with Gold Wake Press for my first book (so much so that I’m publishing my third book with them also), the two presses are very different to work with.  The editor at Gold Wake Press, Jared Michael Wahlgren, places a great deal of trust in the authors that he publishes.  I think this is wonderful, and I have so much respect for  editors like him.  After hearing many of my writer friends complain about the cover artwork that their publisher had chosen for their book, for example, I was thrilled when Jared said he was open to whatever I had in mind for the cover of Night Songs.

Donora and the design services used by Cow Heavy, on the other hand, made some aesthetic choices during the production Compendium.  But I was always happy and thankful that they did.  Since my specialty is writing poems, I would have never thought to ask for some of small touches and flourishes that make the book itself so beautiful.

Your next book The Body is a Little Gilded Cage: A Story in Letters & Fragments is already available for pre-order from Gold Wake Press. Can you tell us a little about this forthcoming title, provide us with a synopsis as a sneak peek or some other enticement?

The collection, which is even more formally adventurous than Compendium, is inspired by the life of Modernist poet H.D.—a patient of Sigmund Freud, not to mention Ezra Pound’s girlfriend.  That’s reason enough to read the book, in my humble assessment.  If you do, you’ll find erasures, word collages, and notes on psychoanalysis with the original psychoanalyst.

Thanks for chatting with us. Compendium is a wonderfully quick read with a sharp tongue and a lovely musical underscore. A book that both poets and prose writers will enjoy, which is a difficult feat to accomplish yet one you’ve done with prowess and clarity.

Buy this book here