I’ve heard Lightsey Darst referred to as the “reigning queen of the local poetry scene,” and she’s no mere figurehead if that’s the case: She organizes the Works, a literary salon at the Bryant Lake Bowl, runs the What Light poetry contest on MNArts.com, writes about theater and dance, teaches English, and has picked up several prestigious awards, including a NEA fellowship, for her poetry. So it seems a little surprising that she’s only now coming out with her first book of poetry, “Find the Girl” (Coffee House Press).
“My personal metaphor for writing this book is the city of Troy, built and destroyed over and over in the same place. From the first poem to the last substantial revision, it took me five years to write this book,” says Darst. “Since I was pretty naïve about book publishing, it took me another two years to get it to Coffee House. I feel like a bit of a late-bloomer. [But] when I remember that I’ve really only been writing poetry seriously since 2001, I feel pretty lucky.”
Of course, there’s the matter of all those distractions. Other poets might prefer to hole up with their work, but Darst thrives in collaborative environments, and says community building is part of a poet’s job.
“I got started creating opportunities for other writers a bit by accident, but as soon as I did it, I realized how important it is to work for the field you hope to practice in. If you’re not helping others, how can you expect to be helped yourself? A literary journal, a review blog, a presentation, teaching, whatever — you’ve got to contribute to your art form,” she says.
The poems in “Find the Girl” hang on a single, unflinchingly disturbing theme: society’s obsession with dead girls and women. Yet Darst doesn’t wring her hands sadly over the topic; instead she dives in, turning gruesome forensics into the filigree of poetry, and examining the strange pall that dead-girl culture — like Jon Benet Ramsey, “The Lovely Bones,” and the 24/7 news cycle — throws over the adolescence of real girls.
Every morning another story
On the milk carton, alert on the interstate billboard —
You’ve got to look hard, a waitress at Denny’s says
She spotted that girl eating onion rings, you’ve got to
Listen closely for police bulletins, she might be
Starving, stealing in the candy aisle, crying in the crawl space
Of the house next door, she might be you — [From “Fill Your eyes”]
“I was writing about middle school, and I started connecting that with the public image of girls around 12 to 17 or so. Girls that age are strangely both everywhere in our culture and nowhere; they are all surface, no inside; and the most absolute form of that split is our fascination with dead girls,” Darst says. Creepy stuff, hmm? You might think living with these literary corpses might trouble Darst, but note this: She hails from Tallahassee, Fla.
“I just have a gruesome imagination. It’s the birthright of the Southern writer, I suppose,” she says. “I do occasionally worry what people are going to think of me. But there’s not much I can do about that.”