Interview: KIE Deputy Director of Reference Martina Darragh on ‘poetry: usa’ festival

This month, Deputy Director of Reference Martina Darragh was invited to share her poetry at a festival, ‘poetry: usa,’ sponsored by Double Change and The Poetry Foundation. Reading from From corner to corner, a work billed as “a proposition of itinerary in the possible domains of language,” Darragh joined poets Marcella Durand and Tonya Foster in a schedule of lectures, readings, interviews, and finally, celebration of a book launch.

Founded in 2000, the festival serves as culmination of one of Double Change’s principal aims: to juxtapose, unite and reunite the poetries of France and the United States; and in doing so, represent in their forums poets and other artists who are in continued dialogue with their texts.

This week, we sat down with Darragh to find out more about the festival and her initial interest in poetry.

KIE: Could you share some background on how your career in poetry began?

Darragh: Well, I don’t think of myself as having a career in poetry. I’m not an academic poet. I like to think of myself as a DC poet, someone who started writing here and has “hung out” with the poetry crowd for over 4 decades now. Of course, now that I’m older I can’t go to as many readings as I once did, but I always enjoy the ones I can make.

KIE: From what I’ve read, you’re considered a key member of the Language poets movement–do you think this is a fair categorization, and if so, how has membership in that group influenced your writing?

Darragh: I started writing poetry when I was in college (Trinity College in NE Washington, DC – now called Trinity Washington University). I didn’t start out to be a poet. I was planning on being a political science major and working on Capitol Hill. Then my roommate said “Why don’t we take the creative writing class this semester? The new teacher drives a decommissioned telephone truck so it should be fun!” The new teacher – Michael Lally – was wonderful. He treated his students as equals, and focused on the movements at that time for civil rights, womens’ rights, and veterans’ rights (the anti-Vietnam war movement). Then one of my classmates committed suicide with a heavily underlined book of Sylvia Plath’s by her side. One of the nuns – Sr. Mary Hayes – looked at me and said “Today’s poetry glorifies suicide. You need to write a different kind of poetry.” I had no idea what to do. Michael Lally gave me a book by the French poet Francis Ponge – Soap. Ponge traces what soap does for 100 pages. So I started doing the same with dictionary pages – tracing the ways words related to one another on the dictionary page. When the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group got together in the late 1970s, they saw me as a kindred spirit.

KIE: You recently gave a reading from your work at the festival ‘poetry: usa’ in The House of Poetry of Nantes. Labeled as a book of 26 proses, each letter of the book corresponds to a page of the dictionary chosen at random and whose words, through the ties that you drew between them, generate a narrative. Double Change billed the book as a “periodical table of very unstable verbal elements” and a “proposition of itinerary in the possible domains of the language.” Could you tell me more about how the work came into development, and how it eventually led to your involvement with the festival?

Darragh: One of my dictionary projects was a set of 26 transcriptions – one for each letter of the alphabet – dedicated to Francis Ponge. It was called on the corner to off the corner and was published by Douglas Messerli as part of his College Park poetry press – Sun & Moon – in 1981. There was a group reading at the Hirshhorn Art Gallery last winter in honor of the surrealist exhibit they were having. Ponge had hung out with the surrealists, so I talked about how his work has sustained me over the years and held up my copy of Soap which is now bound together with rubber bands. The word got back to France that there was a US poet who credited a French poet as an influence. I think that’s why they asked me to read!

KIE: Much of your work seems to aim to find expression in the act of creating and re-creating the poem via interaction with its parts (i.e. the actual structures of language that compose it) rather than by deriving imagery from the provisions of the poet. How did you work to develop this particular style, and why was its propagation important to you as your career continued?

Darragh: Writing poetry is a responsibility for me. With Ponge as an inspiration, I move the human voice over to let in the world. In that way I hope to counter poetry as a “confession” that may encourage another person to commit suicide. I’ve tried several ways to move over the human voice including tracking error and partnering with non-human animal voices.

KIE: Lastly, “Language poetry” seems deeply related to, or reflective of, concepts in the philosophy of language, particularly language-games and debates surrounding meaning. Could you discuss that link, and how it might have been formative in your library science career, and in ultimately landing at a place like the KIE?

Darragh: It is the most wonderful thing for someone like me to work in the Bioethics Research Library. I’ve been here since the fall of 1995, and I still can’t believe my luck! Every time [KIE Technical Services Manager] Patty Martin sends out the list of new books she’s acquired for the library, I think “I’m going to have to live until I’m 100 to read all of these!” Many of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets remain close to my heart, and continue to write poetry that invites the reader to be part of the process (a big tenet of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.) Meaning is not contained in the poem, but is created there by an interaction of the poet and the reader. If the language in the poem is broken apart, then the reader has to decide how to read it. It is my responsibility to continue to write with the reader’s participation in mind.