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Interview: Lightsey Darst

by: Whole Beast Rag

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WHOLE BEAST RAG: We at Whole Beast Rag are creating and publishing our first issue with the theme of Hunger. So let me ask you first: how does this idea inform your work as a poet?

LIGHTSEY DARST: Are we talking about any kind of hunger?

WBR: An open-ended hunger, let’s say.

LD: If I can transpose that into desire. …

WBR: Please do.

LD: … I would say that I always write what I want to read, so my writing is very much driven by desire. Because I’m writing it so I can read it—which sounds very selfish, but if I don’t actually want to read it, that’s a bad sign about something I’m writing. So yeah, when I came to that way of thinking, that I would just write what I wanted to read, that was really satisfying to me because it kind of put the whole question of taste in a totally different category. If you’re writing for what you want to read, you really can’t worry in the moment about whether or not you have good or bad taste; you just have to satisfy the taste that you have. I think one should worry about taste, but you should worry about taste when you’re putting things in your mind, when you’re creating, when you’re reading, when you’re going to museums, when you’re taking the world in; that’s when you can worry about taste, to try and build a better taste and more subtle mind. But when it comes to writing I think it has to be all about satisfying that desire.

WBR: Excellent. I’m glad you brought out desire, because that’s something we get out of your poetry a lot. You allude to or directly name desire as a force in both your dance criticisms and poetry. What leaves you wanting more as a reader or writer? Incidentally, you’ve answered part of that question above, but is there anything you want to add for the other side of the coin?

LD: Do you mean wanting more in a good way or a bad way?

WBR: Well, in a good way but if it’s more intriguing to say in a bad way…

LD: Yeah, I think a good way is better. I’ll tell you, the kinds of things that typically leave me wanting more are experiences. Sometimes I can take in a text that’s very thin, that’s very much about what the writer wants to say—which is different than what you want to read—but mostly I like to be enveloped in things, to have that experience. I go to a lot of dance performances and I enjoy the feeling of being immersed in them. It can be as strange as it likes, it can have its own internal way of working, but the feeling of immersion and the feeling of being inside an experience—that’s really intoxicating to me. I also really love things that push with form in some way or another. And form is such a huge category. I think when we say the word “form” people often think it has to be a sestina or sonnet, but you know, it can be something like repetition. Form can be syntax, form can be how your titles relate to your poem, form can even be the kind of content you allow in, because you can have a formal rule for what kind content gets in [to your head]. To me, anything that pushes formal boundaries in some way, that’s something I hunger for.

WBR: Thank you for alluding to that. So speaking of defining things, your chapbook: Ginnungagap. This Norse word has several definitions but two that stuck out to me are, “vast, primordial void” and “creative, power-filled space.” So, to me that (re)presents two distinct sides to the coin.

LD: You know, I was going off the Kevin Jones’ “Norse Myths” in which Ginnungagap is the “void.” So it’s this place in-between. That chapbook came out of some depressed years and it’s kind of a strange thing in that at once it’s sort of autobiographical and also very performative. It’s me, trying on this persona; so I think the title for me had to do with feelings of losing my religion, for example, because Ginnungagap is the void between heaven and hell, a nowhere zone. And having to adjust to the adult world too, because when you’re first moving into this world it does sort of feel like Ginnungagap, like, “how did I get here? In this emptiness?” But maybe later in your life you can start to see it as that other definition, which I’ve never heard before.

WBR: I just Wikipedia-d it.

LD: [Laughs] I never thought to do that.

WBR: Well it’s probably better to come across it in context, rather than taken out of it. There were a lot of very interesting definitions that came out of that search; gave me a lot to think about. So you take on personas a lot it sounds like, when you perform. Do you have any favorites?

LD: [Laughs] Well I love the “Find the Girl” [her poetry collection of the same name from Coffee House Press] persona. The last time I put that on was in January and it was weird because I wasn’t sure I could do it. …This is going to make me sound like I’m a lunatic, but I actually have a particular perfume that I wear when I’m that character.

WBR: That’s awesome.

LD: [Laughs] And you know, putting on that perfume and getting dressed the way that character dresses, she has a particular color palette and so on…

WBR: Does she have a name?

LD: No, not really. I think of her as being sort of an angry Lolita type. She’s the voice of the book. She’s “that age” and she’s mad. So I wasn’t quite sure I could do that character again because I feel like now I’m not just two years older than I was when the book came out—I’m like twenty years older than the voice and it’s starting to be further and further away [from who I am now]. But! When I started reading it was there again, so I’ve got to put a limit on that character [laughs]. Because it gets a little scarier every time I go there so I think I’ll stop. But I like that character.

WBR: I personally love [performing] characters as an artist and it’s something seen a lot onstage, obviously, but less so in the written form.

LD: I just can’t not be a character. I mean the minute you start talking, you’re lying to some degree. Right now I’m writing a books column which is called “Thousand Firs” and it has my name on it and it uses “I” but it’s not me. It’s her. It’s Thousand Firs. So it’s sort of this books column that’s also fiction but it doesn’t say that it’s fiction [laughs].

WBR: Well, I think the lines are easily blurred.

LD: Yeah, I’m curious to see what she’ll do next.

WBR: Do you find that these characters come to you? Are they associated with or do they arrive out of a certain phase in your life or come out of particular moments or situations?

LD: I think they come out. I mean I don’t want to make it seem like I’m possessed [laughs].

WBR: We won’t make it sound like that.

LD: Or like they’re fully-formed creatures or something like that. It’s just like aspects that you either try on or push away. Choices that you don’t make and so you imagine that parallel path for yourself.

WBR: Definitely. Trick question: If you could define your reason or motivation as an artist in one word, what would it be going forward?

LD: My desire I guess. I’ll stick with that.

WBR: [Laughs]

LD: It’s a good word. It rhymes with a lot of things.

WBR: It stands for a lot of things, embodies a lot of things. Okay, last question: What is one thing you wish your interviewers would ask you but never do?

LD: I don’t think I’ve been interviewed enough times to have a sense of that [laughs].

WBR: Okay then, what’s one thing you want to talk about? What’s one thing you want to say? About your work or anything else you desire?

LD: I think one thing I would like to say is that I’m a teacher and I heard this open mic just now of people—mostly students—reading, and you know I have my aesthetic, my way of writing, and of course I love my aesthetic—I think it’s great [laughs], but I think it’s very important for people to trust whatever it is that they do, even if it’s bad. Because you have to go further into it. You know, I wrote some really bad poetry; I’ve written tons of really bad poetry. But you have to go through it and be with it. I think the worst poetry comes from getting away from [that fear] and actually engaging with what it is that you do. And all the elements of what you do, whatever that happens to be. I see that a lot in my students, that they engage and I saw that a lot tonight. And that’s a great thing, it’s great that there’s diversity of voices and that they do all kinds of different things.