Syntax Grammar and Power

Dora Malech and Kristina Marie Darling talk about Malech’s new book Flourish

photo by Joanna Chattman

DORA MALECH and I met at the American Academy in Rome in January of 2020, around the time that her most recent book Flourish launched.  Before meeting Dora in Rome, I had followed her work as a staff blogger at The Kenyon Review Online and admired her commitment to championing innovative poetry. Flourish is unique among recent poetry releases in that this thought-provoking book marries postmodern experimentation, narrative, and affect. Here, through a provocative approach to syntax, the rules of grammar are challenged and interrogated for their implicit power dynamics.  At the same time, we encounter the work of a master storyteller in Flourish, and innovations in poetic technique are revealed as a tool for crafting a powerful narrative arc. 

Her gorgeous writing, of course, has inspired my own craft as an experimental feminist practitioner. Needless to say, I was eager to learn more about Flourish and Dora’s craft. After the residency concluded, Dora and I chatted about poetry, grammar, power, and community via email–Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling:  The poems in Flourish frequently appear as pristine grammatical constructions. Perfectly ordered clauses and neatly punctuated lines accumulate before us. But what’s so remarkable about this collection is the way you interrogate and challenge the logic that is implicit in grammar. We are led to expect a particular causal structure from the book’s familiar syntax, and that expectation is skillfully thwarted and carefully examined.  To what extent is grammar philosophically laden for you as a poet?

Dora Malech: I appreciate you noticing that there’s a fundamental uneasiness in Flourish, even when—especially when—things appear ordered and peaceful. In my previous collection, Stet, I had gone in the opposite direction with grammar. The language was shaped by constraints like the anagram, and it became very fragmented. When a complete sentence swam up out of the chaos, it was like a little syntactic life raft. In Flourish, I wanted to create a very different relationship with grammar. I think there are many moments in Flourish when you might feel like you’re “following,” only to end up somewhere unexpected and unsettling.

Both of those poetic experiences—the searching for order in chaos, and the troubling of assumed or received order—weren’t just aesthetic exercises for me. They were the systems—and in this sense, they feel practically physiological to me, since without them I can’t digest or circulate or even really respond in language—that enabled me to process my experiences and observations beyond the page.

I think grammar and syntax can enact thinking and feeling, and they can engage a reader as an active participant in that meaning-making. So yes, in the sense that I think grammar can orchestrate what we know and how we know it, or—more importantly, perhaps—can attend to what we thought we knew and how we thought we knew it and why life is often more complicated or mysterious than that, I do feel grammar as philosophically laden for me as a poet.

KMD:  You also reveal grammar and syntax as politically charged.  In poems like “Uprising,” “Lake Roland Park,” and “Country Songs,” a revolution begins at the very foundations of the social order:  language itself.  Do you see experimentation with language and syntax as an inherently feminist endeavor?  How so?

DM: I see grammar and syntax as having an inherent relationship with power. It’s how we explain and describe that which we do, or how (in the case of passive constructions by politicians or headlines) we obscure actors and actions. When I say “the blank blanked the blank” (the subject verbed the object), the “blanking” sounds like sexual innuendo to me, unless I am told otherwise! I imagine this is due to some combination of my “natural” temperament, my lived experiences, the media to which I have been exposed and its relationship with what gets censored or left unsaid, etcetera. I also feel like the potential for violence is ever-present when we start talking about who does what to whom, so the potential for violence and subjugation, as well as more positive action of all kinds, is latent in the way we construct language. Grammar and syntax also shape how we move through a text, as I said before—often literally, with speech and sight organs—but also as motions of mind and a kind of embodiment of the articulated action. To complicate, interrogate, or reimagine grammar and syntax—or simply to draw attention to the way grammar-and-syntax-as-usual functions—gives a taste of what that might feel or look like in the world beyond the text as well.

I will say though, I don’t think any particular syntactic moves, including experimentation of all kinds, have an “inherent” value. Experimentation is not an outcome in and of itself; it’s the interplay between form, content, and context that activates its value. But yes, authors may use experimentation with this interplay to question authority, white supremacy, the patriarchy, capitalism, the normate—absolutely; and we can use it to articulate embodied experience; and we can use it to imagine as well.

KMD:  What is the greatest risk you took when drafting Flourish?  What was its reward?

DM: I think that for me, the greatest risk I took when drafting Flourish was to go more discursive than I had in previous collections. The discursive has negative connotations, but I think that digressions can be a way of being true to a mind in motion. I’ve always engaged in associative play in my poetry, but I wanted to scale that play up in a more conversational way. I wanted to open up my tonal and emotional range within a single poem. I mentioned my previous collection Stet before in the context of grammar; I also think that there is some risk in releasing books of poetry that are formally quite different from each other—departures, not sequels or encores—but there’s great pleasure in that risk for me, as it allows me to keep growing and learning.

KMD:  You’ve traveled the world attending residencies, with fellowships from the American Academy in Rome and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, as well as an Amy Clampitt Residency Award.  Can you speak to the value of artist residencies beyond the admittedly crucial time and space to write?

DM: With a residency, you’re stepping out of your daily life for a moment, into another version in which your own writing is your number one priority. I’ll admit that there’s a motivating element of gratitude in the residency’s vote of confidence as well. Being in a new place can shake you out of mental ruts, and fewer personal responsibilities means that you can take responsibility for being more present and attentive. And getting a glimpse into other artists’ creative processes and practices, whether that’s through actual collaboration or simply through conversation, has been hugely important to me. Artists are meeting across aesthetics, across disciplines, across generations, across cultures and borders, which is beautiful and inspiring.

That said, there’s work to be done (and I know that the folks involved with many residencies are engaging with this issue) to make residencies more accessible and welcoming to working writers (particularly working class writers) outside of academia and to those trapped in the adjunctification of academia, to parents and caretakers (particularly those doing that work solo), to low-income writers, to writers with disabilities, and to underrepresented minority writers. (All of these questions of access and community are true of the larger publishing and literary world as well.) These days, I am very aware that there are residencies I can apply for and accept only because of my academic schedule, and because I have a partner (and a mother!) who believe my writing matters and are willing and able to step in and fully parent my young daughter in my absence.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you teach in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.  What has mentoring others opened up within your creative practice?

DM: In terms of my creative practice, mentoring means I’m immersed in ongoing conversations with individuals who are at a point in their writing lives where they are thinking really deeply and passionately about what they value as writers and readers. They’re hungry for new experiences in their reading and their writing. I aspire to be more like my mentees every day. Shouldn’t we all try to hold onto that energy throughout our writing lives? This connects with what I said earlier about grammar and knowledge; I don’t want to be too sure of what I think I know, either in a poem, or about writing poetry. So, what my students and advisees open up within my creative practice is an ongoing relationship with the value of openness and vulnerability and risk in my own writing.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What can readers look forward to?

DM: I like to have a few projects going at any given time; one can be an escape from another, and they can inform each other as well. I’ve collaborated for a while now with composer Jacob Cooper, and I’m excited to say that his second album, Terrain, was just released from New Amsterdam Records in July. It’s three long tracks, and the track for which I wrote the text, “Expiation,” is the seventeen-minute middle track, sung by Jodie Landau. The voice takes a listener through these different idiosyncratic ritual acts, atoning outside of a received belief system. To me, the song gives a taste of release and relief, but with the knowledge that these acts only “mean” within the world of work, and perhaps not even there. It’s a wishful expiation, as is perhaps all expiation. The song is also part of a larger vocal theater work called Threnos (for the Throat), a collaboration between Cooper and director Karmina Šilec, for which I wrote the text. A pre-premiere, performed by the Carmina Slovenica choir, was held in Slovenia in the last days before the pandemic shut down live performances, and a video version was aired at Operadagen Rotterdam, but I look forward to the day when I (and others) can experience an official in-person premiere.

I’ve also been writing poems out of the current moment as I experience it, trying to reflect it and process it. In some of these poems, the massive scale of collective grief and anxiety (and distrust of our own bodies) in the pandemic overlays a personal range of emotions around multiple missed miscarriages. (A missed miscarriage is when a fetus is no longer alive—or in some cases never was—but the body hasn’t acknowledged that loss yet and isn’t getting rid of the “products of conception.” These missed miscarriages can require the surgical procedure of a D&C—dilation and curettage.) So those are two threads. I’ve also been writing from the “domestic,” a literary and literal space often relegated to “women’s work,” which has taken on these added pressures and focus during lockdown. And of course, America is also in a moment of long-overdue reckoning with systemic inequality and racism, one part of which is State-sanctioned violence and who the State is (or isn’t) designed to “protect.” This is to say, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to believe in something or want to believe in something that is or has been proven otherwise. I want to be very, very careful not to conflate or equate any of these experiences, of course. But these are some of the threads of thought that weave through my recent poems. Some of those poems are included in my folio of work in the anthology Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic, forthcoming from Tupelo Press.

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