Some Questions for David Bradford on the Publication of his Call Out

David BradfordDavid Bradford is the author of Nell Zink Is Damn Free (Blank Cheque Press, 2017) and Call Out (Knife|Fork|Book, 2017). His work has appeared in Lemon Hound, Prairie Fire, Vallum, and, most recently, Faded Out and Toronto Lit Up’s The Unpublished City. An MFA candidate at the University of Guelph, he splits his time between Toronto and Montreal. Call Out launches in Toronto at Knife|Fork|Book on October 6th. This interview was conducted electronically during the heatwave that engulfed Toronto and Montreal in late September, 2017.

Poeta Doctus:  Which poems or poets are important influences or models for you, i.e. which inform what and how you write and why? Are there other arts—music, cinema, theatre, etc.—that influence or inspire your poetry?

David Bradford:  In a way, this is a tricky question. I came back to poetry about three years ago, after years away from it fiddling with a bunch of other things that weren’t quite my thing. So, when we talk about my influences we’re talking about the people that got me back here. Wallace Stevens teaching me about opacity. Fred Moten and Nathaniel Mackey teaching me about the music I was taught to leave behind. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets teaching me about self-incrimination, new narrative depths, hybridity. Tyrone Williams teaching me about complicating identity. Mary Ruefle teaching me about emergency. Renée Gladman teaching me about slipperiness and the generativeness of failure as a subject. Rebecca Wolff’s Warden jostling something in me about a mean kind of speed I’ve been moving toward this last year. Dawn Lundy Martin slowly creeping up on me, like an ear worm. These are some of the folks and things I’ve been in conversation with for a while.

Then there are the things I know continue to impact me, I’m just not sure how yet. A.R. Ammons’s recording of “The Mechanism” comes to mind, which I’ve returned to dozens of times.  Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels is one of the most riveting, brutal, oddly tense films I’ve ever seen, and tells me something about mannerist political strategies in collaboration I’m still unpacking. But sometimes it’s just a principled practice that inspires, you know? Like in Gerhard Richter Painting—how the painter claims, now fifty years into his practice, to still have no idea what he’s doing. I remember him being asked when he knew a work was done. And he said something like, “when I can’t think of anything to do to it anymore.” I deeply relate to that kind of desperate, intuitive grappling with the work. That way of working has been a crucial influence in me figuring out how I work.

PD:  Lately, you’ve moved to Toronto and expanded your poetry-related activity, as an editor for the Knife|Fork|Book chapbook series, as a contributing editor to the newly re-launched Lemon Hound site, and as a delegate to the International Festival of Authors. How has this move and expansion influenced your writing?

 DB:  I’ve been lucky. I think the place I’ve made for myself in Toronto has been a matter of right place and time for me. It’s interesting to think I only had a few weeks in Toronto before Jeff Kirby opened up the bookshop. So, in a way, I don’t really know a Toronto poetry scene that doesn’t have K|F|B in it—both as a poetry shop/hub and publisher—and that’s made a big difference in how open the Toronto poetry community feels to me. There’s a real excellence in how generous the scene is right now, and I’m glad to have learned what folks like Kirby, Hoa Nguyen, Jacquelyn Ross, and Kate Sutherland have taught me about what community can be. And the work of what that can look like as a collaborative component of my practice is something I’m invested in figuring out.

Being involved in Lemon Hound, on the other hand, has given me an opportunity to delve into research I’ve been circling for a while. I’m currently finishing up some work about Fred Moten’s latest, The Service Porch, in preparation for his visit to Montreal. It gave me a chance to reread several of his books, track down some harder-to-find lectures, and earmark work and people he’s in conversation with that I need to look at more closely down the line. I’m also looking forward to writing a couple of things around Renée Gladman’s writing and drawing practice, and am pondering something about M. Nourbese Philip’s upcoming book of essays, Blank. I think I’ll be doing that kind of work indefinitely, with Lemon Hound, elsewhere, and on my own.

As for IFOA, I’m still not sure what to expect. I’m hosting a handful of talks and attending a bunch of roundtables. I’ll also be writing a piece for the IFOA blog about my experience as a delegate. Otherwise, I’m very much looking forward to the chance to meet some more of my people.

PD:  One element of poetic art of concern the past hundred years has been the line; there was even “a conference for writers” held at the University of Winnipeg this spring, Writing the Line. I know you have reflected explicitly on how you articulate the line in your poems. How do you handle this element of the art? Which others (voice, diction, imagery, figures of speech, etc.) are important to you and why?

DB:  I think I learned from a handful of people that I want my voice to give way to what moulded it. And I’m always invested in resisting or questioning the kind of personal-wisdom-making rhetoric we see in a lot of lyrical poetry. At best, I’m trying to collect and arrange the debris of an inquiry, a kind of rigorous not-knowing. For me, that means often taking advantage of the jarring construction of figures of speech, an often jagged, deliberately messed-up grammar, and a very physical, simple diction deployed way out of its wheelhouse.

The line, though, is probably the most crucial element in deploying all of it effectively. It’s the building block to the architecture that will make the above as relationally disorienting and generative as I want it to be. In a way, I think it’s a matter of my process getting me farther from the sentence and closer to words as a material—all in an effort toward a non-linguistic end, with the line as a key mover in that mix.

Like, I think a lot about the imprecision of language—the inevitable gap between exactly what we think we mean and the word(s) we use to say it—and find it increasingly useful to think of it as a built-in feature to exploit. As in, talking and writing come alive when we take advantage of English’s inadequacies as we arrange its pieces together—experiment with them, really—in working through what we’ve got to say. Short lines (four to five words, in my case, most of the time) can help me multiply the tension of the arrangement. And give it the brain/breath rhythm to hold it in movement. And work against any rhetorical display of knowledge that I find emerges in more easily recognized and legible formal structures.

PD:  I wonder if your feelings about “the imprecision of language” might spring in part from your being fluently bilingual, raised as you were on Montreal’s South Shore. Speakers of more than one language know first hand how languages fail to map one-to-one onto each other and consequently how there’s a gap between word and world. Does your being bilingual play into your poetry? Can you detect any way French might exert an influence on your English texts?

DB:  Ha! You know, I’m reminded of how when John Ashbery died just a few weeks ago, my first reaction was, “He wrote some of the best translations of French poetry I’ve ever read!”

Interestingly, I think the biggest impact of French was as my point of comparison in realizing how highly manipulatable English is. I can honestly say I was a better French speaker (and writer) right up until I entered an English CEGEP (where we first met!) and started writing. At which point the excess of French’s Latinate influence on English became apparent—not to mention how much English has, over its sprawling colonial history, soaked up from other languages. But also: English is nimble. French is one of those languages that’s just difficult to write—and one that it can feel like you can only write two ways, correctly or poorly. With my starting to write English, suddenly style came into the mix. And coming from such a rigid, rules-heavy language—one which cannot be figured out by ear—I took to it quickly. And suddenly I was a writer.

 PD:  Despite the relative rigidity of French for you, have you attempted to write prose or poetry in French, or given thought to translating your own work (the example of Samuel Beckett comes to mind)?

 DB:  Unilingual English-speakers ask this a lot. I find it astounding that Beckett managed it. And managed it well. I’d love to think I’m a Beckett, but let’s face it, none of us are Beckett. Although, ironically, my favourite Beckett novel, Watt, was composed in English.

Honestly, I think the rigidity of French put me off the writing-in-French idea terminally. It’s a language I had to work very hard—and which a lot of people, honestly, have to work very hard—just to write adequately. Let alone artistically. French literary culture (not to mention Québec’s) reflects that pretty starkly, I think. So, yeah, no thank you.

I’ve started digging into French poetry, though, with an eye toward translating into English. Slowly, I’m finding things I may like to work on. Time will tell.

 PD:  At least one of your poems deals explicitly with race. Is this consciousness of race a constant? What about other, related, concerns, such as gender or class? Where do these considerations leave a trace on your work?

 DB:  There’s this thing bell hooks said in a talk once that stuck with me. She spoke about how it may feel like your exceptional enough when you’re young that race won’t matter in your day-to-day, but you’re going to figure out how false that is as you get older. I feel that. I came up in some very white places and very white schools and a lot of these predominantly white liberal rooms were wholeheartedly invested in convincing us we were done with all that race stuff. That at least those in the room were done with it. That we were beyond that. As long as we kept acting white enough.

That disconnect between the post-racial, “we don’t see colour” point of view and the simultaneous imposition of white criteria is a mind-fuck. And being back in an institution now, I’m reminded how much it can also be gendered, class-based, middlebrow liberalist criteria.

I’m also reminded how Concordia was one of those places for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back I realize my time in the school’s creative writing department did a number on me, and the extent of it took a long time to map. I remember opening up Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio for the first time, maybe 6 months after I got back into poems, and thinking, “This is the kind of stuff I was trying to work toward when I was 20, and was told to stop…” The poems there thrived on precision over clarity, as well as disorientation, music, code-switching, improvisation, an overt blackness, all wrapped up in very complex philosophical and political inquiries. At Concordia, I’d been told to: back off the music, make sense, be clear or die. Over and over again. Things that didn’t seem coded at the time but were. And the worst part is it was just passive; a kind of white wash slurping over everything. The general consensus from my teachers was I had talent, but the place my work was headed back then—a place invested in music and experimentation, a haptic relationship to others’ work, precision over clarity—was nowhere. That there was an inherent misconception in investing myself in what read as musical, improvisational, dense and “colored” work. That’s how I entered the program as an experimental poet and left it as a conventionally lyrical one. And stopped writing poetry for a long while. And had to relearn many things, and unlearn many more, when I came back to it.

So the traces now: they’re everywhere in my work. In a roundabout way, I think I needed those years between stopping and starting again to get started on understanding what mattered to me. I was 24 when Obama was elected and I stopped thinking of myself as a poet. I quit drinking, I quit the Montreal’s very white, very turfy writing community (I was only ever on the inner edge of its periphery), and with the help of friends, mentors, and partners, I worked my way into conversations with feminism, intersectionality, and vulnerability. I grew more radical and less angry. More receptive and less difficult. I learned to critically engage with the privileges I lack, and to better interrogate those I have. Ultimately, I figured out how to start writing my blackness by figuring out how to write about things like class and gender.

So, when I write poems, they’re always coming from an intersectional, experimental, black voice, whether or not race, gender or class are addressed directly in the work. That relationship to language I described earlier, it’s there in the trace of the parts that make me. It’s there in the people and traditions worked into my flesh, trying to decolonialize the language that was never intended for me. And it’s there working to align my aesthetic concerns with my ethical ones, even in a poem about being sad in the bathtub.

PD:  You seem, here, to relate musicality to race, to a certain extent, but this seems odd:  there is undoubtedly a kind of workshop aesthetic that stresses plain-spokenness, but there is, at the same time, a very strong tradition of sonorous verse in (white) English-language poetry, both canonically and in contemporary Canada:  it wasn’t too long back that the influence of Seamus Heaney on the poetry of Ken Babstock or Tim Bowling was lamented. And, in terms of the fetish for clarity, one can point to the recent debate between Matthew Zapruder (championing a kind of accessibility) and Johannes Göransson (who argues for strangeness). What then is, I wonder, the relation between race and a poetry of the signifier over against a poetry of the signified (to use a somewhat old-fashioned language)?

 DB:  Hm. I don’t think it’s odd. I think I relate a certain kind of musicality to race, but not in a preternatural sense. I just mean the musicality that goes into my poetry isn’t white-coded. And I’m not interested in writing stuff that’s white-passing.

For instance, I’m reminded of something Andre Alexis said in a talk last year at IFOA. A friend asked him, in a master class, if he felt a responsibility toward a Caribbean, and more specifically a Trinidadian, readership. His answer was a flat no.

I think it took hearing him refuse the responsibility to start going full tilt in the other direction. I think the most radical, powerful, helpful thing I can do for writers of colour who are just starting out and looking for their voice and coming up against the latest iterations of white (and gendered, class-based, middlebrow, etc.) criteria that it took me years to recover from and work around is: try to provide them with an example of a writer of colour working hard to be themselves, to voice their concerns, to live an intellectual, literary life, without erasing their colour. To help convince them their point of view, identity-wise, can and should exist without bleaching it out.

Moten and Mackey are examples of that I’ve pointed to above that were formative for me, Simone White and Nikki Wallschraeger are excellent ones I look to now, but I’m also happy to say it goes beyond poetry. A book that comes to mind is last year’s Man Booker winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. It’s such a smart, political, intellectual, hilarious-but-dead-serious, razor-fucking-sharp book, all while being written in one of the blackest voices I’ve read in years. It’s hard to describe how powerful it is to read a book like that—to see that part of yourself represented without hearing it watered down, without any other part watered down. It’s a book that was turned down by 18 publishers, he claims. A fact that speaks, as he puts it, “to the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write.”

I just want to allow myself to write whatever I need to write. And what I need to write, turns out, is increasingly best placed in the black radical tradition. And there’s a sonic trace to that, and it’s not Seamus Heaney’s. Hopefully, that helps enable a handful of 20-year-old black and brown kids (and white kids too, of course) to stick to their fucked-up music. And not lose the years that I did.

Anecdotally, when I asked Alexis if he had read The Sellout, he said he hadn’t. But he was really, really looking forward to it.

PD:  How would you describe or introduce Call Out? How does the work in your new chapbook relate to others of your poems?

DB:  It’s funny: Call Out is the oldest part of the manuscript I’m working to finish up. It says a lot about a few places I’ve been headed in thinking through the intersections described above in discussing voice, race and process. It’s political and personal, and highly invested in a kind of ontology of uncertainty I’ve come to really need and value.

In reality, Call Out became my way of grappling with the implications of call-out culture by turning a necessary call on you, one of my oldest friends, to explore the complications inherent in the nuance at play where the target is a loved one and not merely reducible. It’s not something I thought I might ever share. It’s something I needed to write essentially to you, and which you were incredibly accepting of, and generous in talking out—speaking to the full portrait I tried to present, I think, in the work. So, with your blessing, I sent it out into the world.

While the long poem emerged as a series of slow, fugal false starts building toward a sequential whole, soon after K|F|B acquired it I decided the work wanted to be modular and set on cards. In fact, I have never read the work in sequence and have arranged both short and long versions of it to perform, dramatically altering the focus of it along the way. With K|F|B publishing it, I wanted to ensure the reader could physically reorder, omit and emphasize the poem’s parts in order to construct a different poem as I have in performing it. I wanted to force them to investigate the shifting tone and ethics of the work as they, too, rebuilt it. I wanted the cardholder to face the biases they were authoring as they took shape.

Kirby, amazingly, has gone all-in in indulging the concept of the work as a kind of choose-your-own-call-out. I’m happy to say it will appear as a set of 20 or so gorgeous cards, numbered on the back. And will force the reader to implicate themselves as they choose what parts to leave in or out, and which to shift into and out of focus. Considerations I experienced when I composed it.

 

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