Who is Lightsey Darst? Well, besides her work as a dance critic, faculty member at MCAD and North Hennepin Community College, and host of The Works: A Writing Salon, she is also the winner of the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry for Find the Girl (published by Coffee House Press), her first full poetry collection. She was also a participant in the most recent Twin Cities edition of Literary Death Match, where although she didn’t win, she stood in excellent command of the stage, reading selections from her book while wearing a powerfully intimidating birdcage skirt, which accompanied the theme of her poems as well as perfectly as about any item of clothing possibly could. She is also a fantastic conversationalist.
Last week, I was lucky enough to sit down with Lightsey Darst and talk. Speaking with Darst, the daughter of a city planner and a botanist, is embarking on a trip through controlled wilderness—there are clear paths, and places to adventurously stray, but never a way get dreadfully lost. When I complimented her on her skill as an interviewee, she admitted that she knows how difficult it can be to interview, and thus tried to practice being more or less an open book (so to speak) when being interviewed. I really appreciated this about her.
While I didn’t arrive at the interview armed with any specific questions, our discussion lasted for quite a while, outliving the battery of my digital recording device. As much as I wanted this particular column to be a beautiful narrative about my hour in conversation with Lightsey Darst, every piece I’ve written and then subsequently deleted for this column revolves around how intimidated I thought I would be by Lightsey, and how silly I find myself feeling now in the face of her open and lovely nature. So, instead, I’m going to let her sweep you off your feet, too, and let her explain her love of dance and poetry, her process, and how she views the great poetry divide.
Tell me about dance and poetry, and how those things meld within you and then come out as more dance and poetry. That’s such an interesting combination.
[laughing] You know, it’s actually a far more common combination than you would think. I’ve met so many poet-dancers. I think it has something to do with…if you’re a creative girl…I think so many girls go into dance at some young age. And if you’re somebody who has that artistic desire, then you often continue with it more than someone else would. I think this sounds kind of pretentious to say, but I think that it was Louise Gluck saying that if she hadn’t been a poet she would have been a dancer or a painter or something else. Because, I don’t really know how this works, but if you have that desire to make things, you’re just kind of looking for the medium in which you will make things. And somehow, dance and poetry, I think they attract similar personalities. As for how they work in my life, I’m definitely a much better poet than I am a dancer. As a poet I feel more like I’m an artist. This is going to sound conceited…I feel confident of myself as a writer.
That’s not conceited. You won a book award. You’re fine….you can say you’re a talented writer without sounding conceited.
[laughing] I guess so. Maybe I’ve lived in Minnesota too long to feel like that’s an okay thing to say. In dance there are some things I can understand but cannot do. I can understand how this should fit, how this movement should travel through the body and how it should be initiated and how it should finish off in the tips of your toes and your fingers., but I can’t do it, I can only watch it. But in writing, I don’t feel that way.
You’re a dance critic. How does that work?
I love it. I think it’s so great, because I get to look at all these art works and try to understand what they’re doing. I’ve learned so much about art from this. I guess in some ways I’m too jealous a person to do what a lot of writers do which is, they look at writing. They review writing. They review books. I don’t want to soak in everyone else’s stuff all the time. Dance criticism gives me this way of studying what a lot of different artists do, and then I can do the really exciting thing of translating from dance to writing.
I’m sure everyone asks you this, but what is your process?
I believe that one’s process changes. And that if your process isn’t changing, it is not a good sign, because then your work can’t change very much. So, for me, the way I make things is always moving around. I usually have kind of a…oh, I have something with me [presents a notebook]. For a long time I’ve been doing something like this, where I have this…all this raw material, which is not poetry, it’s free writing. I’ll take all this stuff and type it up and try to make things out of it. So, that’s a basic thing that I do. But as far as how I generate the things that are in there, and how I go about making things out of them—that stuff changes. And also, the organizing principles of the things I’m making. Those change, too.
If you had to describe the type of poetry you write, what would you say?
I’ve thought about this too, because I feel like I don’t really fall in one camp or the other. In poetry there’s this really, unfortunate I think, division between the people who think of themselves as being oriented towards readers and the people who are more experimental in orientation…The experimental people call the other people the “quietists” ‘cause they have quiet, smooth poetry with all the edges rounded off, and the people over here call those people “elitists”…And when you get poets talking about readers, that’s when things really get nasty. The two different camps have really different ideas of the reader. And they have really different ideas of audience, the practice, and what goes on in the inside of a poem.
This makes me think I haven’t talked to enough poets. A lot of insider info here.
It’s really kind of unfortunate, because I don’t really think it serves anyone…I would say in some ways I more identify with the experimental camp, because when I look around in the art world, that’s the kind of thing that interests me. That’s the kind of dance I write about. That’s the kind of visual art I gravitate towards. But, at the same time—sometimes I think it’s my upbringing. I wasn’t raised with enough money to not make things that make sense. I mean, I’m from a middle class family. But, I’m really not satisfied just making an experiment. And I guess I wouldn’t really be satisfied if I made something that I didn’t think people could get into.
As a reader, that’s very respectable.
I think it’s fine if you make something and there’s no expectation that readers are going to get into it, or that it’s going to offer them an emotional experience. But, that’s what I want to do. That’s what I like.
Lightsey Darst will be reading a new original this Saturday, July 9th, at the Soap Factory as a part of Talking Image Connection’s Erasers and Other Memories, a presentation on the Soap Factory’s current exhibit The Erasers.
Photo courtesy Lightsey Darst