Here I get the chance to talk to Kristina Marie Darling and Carol Guess about collaboration and their book X Marks the Dress: A Registry, forthcoming from Gold Wake Press in 2014. Our conversation takes place via e-mail over a period of about two weeks.
Carol Guess is the author of eleven books: Seeing Dell (Cleis Press, 1995), Switch (Calyx Books, 1998), Gaslight (Odd Girls Press, 2001), Femme’s Dictionary (Calyx Books, 2004), Tinderbox Lawn (Rose Metal Press, 2008), Love Is a Map I Must Not Set on Fire (VRZHU Press, 2010), Homeschooling (PS Publishing, 2010), Darling Endangered (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2011), My Father in Water (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2011), Doll Studies: Forensics (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), and Index of Placebo Effects (Matter Press, 2012). She teaches Creative Writing and Queer Studies at Western Washington University, where she is professor of English.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of eight books: Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010), Compendium (Cow Heavy Books, 2011 and Scrambler Books, 2013), The Body is a Little Gilded Cage: A Story in Letters and Fragments (Gold Wake Press, 2012), Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), The Moon & Other Inventions: Poems after Joseph Cornell (BlazeVOX Books, 2012), Palimpsest (Patasola Press, forthcoming in 2013), Correspondence (Scrambler Books, forthcoming in 2013), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, forthcoming in 2013). She also edits Noctuary Press.
Nathan Moore: Hi, Carol and Kristina. I’ll start by mentioning that X Marks the Dress is a wonderful book—completely fascinating. Having been involved in a number of collaborations myself, I’m really interested in how they happen. Can you say something about your process?
Carol Guess: Thanks so much for interviewing us! And for your kind words about our book. On process: Kristina and I work together really gracefully. We also have a lot of fun. With both book manuscripts, we conceptualized the book together, brainstorming to discover topic and structure. With big decisions like choosing a title or cover art, we chat back and forth on e-mail, sharing ideas. But we do the actual writing separately. Sometimes it’s call-and-response, writing poems or stories with interlinked characters, each of us speaking in one character’s voice. Sometimes our connections are visual or thematic; we deliberately borrow each other’s objects, images, and settings, recasting them in new guises. We tend to leave each other’s lines alone; so the collaboration isn’t about editing or revising each other’s work, but about creating new materials. One of my favorite things about working with Kristina is that she’s hyper-attentive to detail. She’s also quick, which is great; there’s no lag time. This allows me to be obsessed and stay obsessed with the project. Both of us are really energetic, and I think there’s an energy to the work on the page. Oh, and we’ve never met in person! Just thought I should mention that.
Kristina Marie Darling: This is actually my first time collaborating, and I’ve really enjoyed it. Carol’s been a wonderful collaborator, and we work extremely well together. I really value how different the collaborative process is from my normal writing practice. Normally, when I’m working alone on a project, I’m a very deliberative writer. I’ll think about a poem for days at a time, making small adjustments, agonizing over tiny details. What I love about collaborating is that it’s a much more spontaneous process than writing alone. Carol and I usually write back and forth, responding to each other’s poems, appropriating and recasting one another’s images, phrases, and lines. Since I never know what Carol will send me in response to my piece, the manuscript becomes something that’s constantly changing, evolving. Carol is one of the most inventive writers I’ve encountered, and I love when she throws me curve balls. With that in mind, collaboration has challenged me to be more spontaneous with my writing, to experiment more and deliberate less. It’s been a really liberating experience.
NM: It sounds like the collaboration creates its own energy, its own voice out of multiple voices. And there’s a real momentum at work in the book—a coherence that comes from variations on certain images and themes. I’m thinking of the way the first half of X Marks the Dress is structured around objects, human narratives radiating from various wedding gifts and favors. During your initial brainstorming, what drew you to focus on the wedding as an overarching theme?
CG: Let me ground my response by saying that marriage is a political topic for me; the answer I’ve written is entirely mine. I’m speaking only for myself, not Kristina. I actually have no idea what Kristina’s thoughts on marriage are; I don’t even know if she’s married! Part of the fascination of our collaboration was not knowing her as a person, in pushing certain boundaries without knowing how she would react. There was an edge to the project. Once we’ve gotten to know each other personally I think that edge will be gone, replaced by knowledge, so this collaboration stands on its own as unique.
Speaking for myself: Marriage is a vexed institution for me as both a feminist and a lesbian. I think about marriage a lot, but not in a dreamy, can’t-wait-for-my-special-day mode. I think about ways that I’m discriminated against as a queer person, and how angry this makes me; I also think about how my aims as an activist have never been centered around marriage equality. I’m more interested in civil rights, in universal health care, in changing popular opinions about queer lives, in creating sex positive culture for all people. I think we live in a very sex negative culture here in the U.S., and I would like to see that change. Marriage doesn’t help that at all; maybe it makes it worse. In the queer community, it creates a divide between “good” gays (who mow the lawn and have sex once a week after the kids are asleep) and “bad” gays (who fuck, who sleep with multiple people, who live alone or in groups, who resist assimilationist models of relationships). My own relationships don’t fit into marriage models; I also know lots of people who are in non-monogamous and/or sexually adventurous relationships that don’t fit into little government boxes. So yeah, I think about marriage a lot, mostly critically. I feel all kinds of mixed emotions when I get wedding invitations—joy for the happy couple; resentment at my exclusion from federal benefits; confusion as to why heterosexual women still participate in this institution; bafflement at customs like wedding registries and bachelor parties. I feel like such an outsider. I am an outsider. This shapes my view of “innocent” customs like asking guests to pay lots of money for a blender.
So with all this in mind, all of this weight, I’ve mostly avoided writing about marriage, because I get bogged down in a didactic voice really quickly. Writing with Kristina was amazing. We just sidestepped all of that, and played with words, played with characters and images. Kristina has such an elegant aesthetic; she’s comfortable working with a variety of different voices and topics. She’s got an amazing eye for detail and a wicked imagination. So I felt free to explore angles of marriage without trying to send a message or explain myself. I knew that whatever I wrote might be changed by what Kristina added or subtracted, so I felt free to tell stories and play with language. I enjoyed creating our characters together, and was as surprised as Kristina by the twists and turns of our storyline.
Ultimately, collaborating with Kristina has freed me up a little from this feeling of political responsibility, from feeling like I need to be a good role model or spokesperson for some community all the time. I’m bored with that stance now, and grateful that Kristina gave me the opportunity to think in terms of pleasure—joy at a perfect line, humor in twists and turns, excitement in creating fictional lives.
KMD: I definitely agree that marriage is a very political subject. One of the most important goals of our project was interrogating marriage as a cultural institution, its underlying assumptions about gender and relationships. But I was also drawn to this subject because of the elaborate cultural rituals surrounding weddings. So much of it is really strange to me: the parade of domestic objects at bridal showers, the superstitions, and the vestiges of political ideologies that manifest in these ceremonies. So much of the time, we don’t think about how the conventions surrounding weddings are historically sedimented, that we’re seeing the vestiges of past social and political movements on parade. And I think that seeing weddings as a historical construct was an important component of the goals Carol mentioned.
The bridal registry theme also gave the manuscript a nice sense of unity, and I’m so grateful to Carol for suggesting it. I loved how this theme allowed us to defamiliarize many of the objects, rituals, and conventions associated with weddings. By defamiliarizing the most familiar romantic tropes, I hope that we prompt the reader to become more aware of the ways that weddings are historically constructed, and to see the ways in which many of these assumptions about gender and relationships are anachronistic.
NM: As a reader, I definitely get a sense of this interrogation/defamiliarization. It seems it happens so successfully in the book, in part at least, through the act of collaboration—that you were able to get at it awry rather than, as you mention, Carol, through a more direct didactic voice. I love the way sections of the second half of X Marks the Dress are labeled with terms from academic writing (appendices, glossary, index). There’s a great tension between these academic terms/forms and the content of the sections. Did this arise from your call-and-response technique?
CG: Great question, Nathan! Those labels were Kristina’s idea. She’s done so much to introduce me to alternative structures. I’ll let her speak to the method behind her concepts. Kristina, the floor is yours! (The dance floor, that is.)
KMD: While we drafted the manuscript, Carol and I were each in charge of one appendix to the main section of the book. Although we frequently appropriated and recast images, lines and phrases from one another’s pieces, Carol wrote most of the lovely flash fictions in Dictionary of Nuptial Slang, and I worked mostly on the appendix containing marginalia and fragments. I looked at this section as a continuation of some of some of the themes that had emerged already, particularly the provocative discontinuity between form and content we were trying to create. By appropriating the forms of academic discourse, this section of the book evokes the hierarchies of knowledge and power that accompany them. But the text itself questions the cultural authority we invest (or refuse to invest) in certain types of lived experience. Just as our “bridal registry” contains numerous critiques of marriage as a cultural institution, the footnotes, glossaries, and other marginalia interrogate the process by which cultural knowledge comes into being.
NM: Right! It think it’s so smart in light of this exploration of continuity and discontinuity, fragmentation and unity, that the reader ends up in a field of erasures in the last section. It also sounds like you kept the rules of the process open. I mean, I’ve done some collaborations that had strict constraints—word-by-word or line-by-line kind of constraints. And I’ve participated in collaborations that were less defined at the outset. What are some of the benefits you found in keeping the rules open as you progressed?
KMD: That’s an excellent question. I can’t speak for Carol, but I loved the fact that the rules were wide open throughout the collaboration. This allowed for a greater degree of spontaneity and invention throughout the writing process. It was exciting to see the ways that our manuscript was constantly changing, evolving. I’ve worked with some tight constraints myself, and all too often, a writer working in such a way knows what the end product will be like, and simply writes toward it. The fact that neither of us knew how the manuscript would unfold made the writing process extremely unpredictable. For me, this forced me to write from a place of greater vulnerability, and to place greater trust in my collaborator.
CG: This collaboration echoes the way I work on solo projects. I begin with a guiding structure, then let the project dictate how it moves forward, usually based on what the lines sound like. Kristina and I wrote the first section first, then realized that we’d crafted a narrative, complete with plot arc. So we wanted to unravel that arc in the remaining sections. I thought often of the hem of a skirt, unraveling while someone runs, the thread creating its own design. So the book was constantly in dialogue with itself; for example, Kristina crafted footnotes that hinted at backstory, and by erasing our original narrative, we suggested that the plot arc of a conventional heterosexual marriage isn’t the only way to structure a book about romance.
NM: Okay, one last thing: let me say first that it’s been a real pleasure talking with both of you. Thank you! The book is amazing. One of the things I take from my reading of it is the real sense of joy that must have come with writing it. You know that sense that some books give you? That you get a sense of the rush of creation? I get that from X Marks the Dress. It makes me wonder if you would recommend collaboration to those who haven’t tried it. What, finally, as a writer is to be gained by the collaborative process?
CG: Collaboration is about joy for me. My first book-length collaboration was co-written with poet Daniela Olszewska, poems based on wikiHow, titled How To Feel Confident With Your Special Talents. I’d been in a slump when Daniela and I started exchanging work, and it was just extraordinary to feel motivated to write again. Working with someone else made me accountable. We wrote every day, so I knew both that I would write daily, and that my work would be read and responded to daily, too. When Kristina and I decided to write together, I was determined to maintain that feeling of joy, of playfulness, of pleasure. To work fast enough that I was always thinking about our project. Kristina is so brilliant, so hard-working, and so creative that it was a great match from day one. I recommend collaboration to anyone, writing at any level in any genre. I think my suggestion is to find someone who’s a good match before committing to a large project. It doesn’t really matter if the person’s aesthetic is different—what matters is discipline. You both have to feel invested in the project and stick with it, supporting each other, and sharing visions for the manuscript’s unexpected twists and turns.
KMD: I would definitely recommend collaboration to other writers. My first collaboration was a project I worked on with visual artist and fashion designer Max Avi Kaplan. Max would make objects in response to my poems. Once he even made a pair of turkey feather pumps. It was really beneficial for me as a writer because I was exposed to ideas, images, and texts I would have never normally encountered. Working with Carol has been wonderful, too, for many of the same reasons. Collaboration helps me to expand my horizons, and to experiment in ways that I would have never thought possible if working on my own. While writing with Carol, for example, I’ve tried out new forms, experimented with new narrative structures, and have learned a great deal about how to structure a book length project. Carol is one of the most inventive and innovative writers I’ve encountered, and I’ve been thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from her.
You can find some of Nathan Moore‘s work at Heavy Feather Review, Pudding Magazine, Everyday Genius, Menacing Hedge, and Fleeting Magazine. He posts paintings and other things here.