Rhythm of Unearthing: An Interview with David Bradford

David Bradford, author of The Plot (House House Press), his third chapbook of poetry, speaks with Shazia Hafiz Ramji about unearthing family histories, “untellable grief,” and personal debris.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: What is The Plot?

David Bradford: “The Plot” is actually the title of the poem, in four parts, spaced out throughout the chapbook­—a title bigger than the piece but smaller than the cumulative parts of the bigger book. When I wrote the poem I had yet to write a single self-erasure, but gestures of the manuscript’s slippery grief—their pointing to a bigger, untellable grief—were already coming alive. My mannerist bent had begun to find its taste for refuse and what it could generate—for the mutual intervention of a kind of exhumation and renewal—before it found the project’s bones.

So, “The Plot,” to me always connoted a lot of what this project amounts to processually: a family plotting, the runaway versions of versions of what we think happened to us, the rhythm of unearthing and burial a history of abuse has intimated for me, or which I think it has locked in for the lot of us. So, the “plot” of the matter in every sense of the word.

SHR: What has been the most life-changing experience for you as a writer?

DB: Starting to write poetry again, after five or so years away from it, when my father died four years ago.

SHR: What was it like to write about your family?

It was sort of like digging for proof that there’s no real bottom to the thing. I really had never really written about family at all when I started, but I did it with support (and nothing but cooperation) from my mother, but also with my father having passed, without which this project probably wasn’t possible. And I did it without talking to his mother, whom I cut out of my life when I was a teenager. So, for me, from the get-go, I felt unimpeded (at least by family) to lay it all out. And that all began with a long winding lyrical essay about all our bad stuff, and what we think might have happened to us, which I spent several months putting together as carefully as I could, ultimately to be like, “see, this is why this is unresolvable, this is why people don’t talk about this.” It was centered around my mother and me just still being here—that idea of “we’re just still here”—all about a kind of not fully tellable emotional debt between us, and it pulled off some of the emotional things I hoped it did. But then it still felt way too editorialized. And, later I would realize, painted my father’s behaviour patterns very well but flattened their causes, along with most of the rest of him. And so the integrity of that essay started giving way for me. And I began really wanting to cut across memoir, more particularly trauma books, and the idea that kind of work as a commemorative space for progress, a-ha moments, ownership, etc. Which gave way to the formal practices deployed here. And then exposing more material. Which all led to much greyer, more dangerous depths.

SHR: Some of your poems are prose poems written in gray font, with a few words that stand out because they’re in a black font. Can you speak a bit about this decision?

DB: I came to it pretty early on after deciding to tear into the essay. I was interested in what this kind of erasure might make possible in terms of documenting the projects own personal and processual debris. And more than that, working with it—using as much of it up—and forcing these texts to encounter the topography of the versioning aspects of this kind of family story, and the inevitable proliferation of those aspects in my own story. The essay and turning a number of its parts into an ur-text was a way for me to really begin to show how there was never going to be a truest version of what happened, that there were things words weren’t quite going to get just right, and that the one thing I could do pretty clearly was biff across my first effort as I generate something new out of it, and leave all parts legible to intervene on each other. Leave all this work striated with the digging. A kind of raising up that will also never be the final picture. A kind of completist urge that already knows it’s going to fail. So might as well try to show what whole that generative failure might make possible. So that I can really move on from this as a material.

SHR: What do you hope your poems can do?

DB: I hope they give a reader 1) the space to move through some of what the at least gestural alternatives might be to tidy resolution, progression, and epiphany, and 2) a bit of music.

SHR: How do you know when a poem is complete?

DB: When I can’t think of anything else to do to it. Which usually means when I’ve read it out loud and recorded it a half dozen or more times tweaking back and forth as I go, and then finally can’t think of what else to do to it.

SHR: Why poetry?

DB: Because everything else didn’t/doesn’t work. I think poetry is how I stay out of all kinds of trouble. It’s a place where the extent of what I know or don’t know can’t quite kid itself, and one invested in the texture and movement of inquiring and answering and a kind of optimistic irreducibility of the unanswerable.

SHR: Who and what are your influences?

DB: I think reading Fred Moten’s poetry and theory changed a lot for me. I started to see the extent to which everything I got told to stop doing in my poetry early on (coded and coloured things) were things I never needed to stop doing, and which required different reading lists than the ones I was being presented with. From there, poets with a good hold on me include Renee Gladman, C.S. Giscombe, Rachel Blau Duplessis, Harryette Mullen, M. NourbeSe Philip, Nathaniel Mackey, Mary Ruefle, Nikki Wallschlaeger, Allison Titus, and Danielle Pafunda. Art is a whole other big influence, but I’ve been thinking about Antiguan painter Frank Walter a lot lately.

SHR: What are you currently working on?

DB: I’m writing a cycle that works through the strain of reading around and distilling anecdotes and narratives of slavery examined through a black radical lens and mediating the experiential gaps and points of contact between those anecdotal figures and my own life. It’s all about trying to expose and reconcile my simultaneous experience of racial conditions and orientations that put me on the same philosophical continuum as those enslaved individuals and my comfortable, certainly privileged, compromised existence here in this wholly-funded poet body.

SHR: How does where you live alter your sense of belonging as a writer?

DB: I think I first and foremost feel the effects of being somewhere the time and resources required to be a writer are somehow financially possible. I was born in and recently moved back to Montreal, which, turns out, remains pretty much my best-case scenario for that possibility in Canada. And this city has since been altered for me as a writer by a number of poets friends I love and admire who also recently moved down here. All that goes a long way toward making me feel like I may be in a better place to work on stuff than I’ve been before.

SHR: Where does a poem begin?

DB: Increasingly for me—and certainly with the family material and this cycle around subjection mentioned above—I find myself starting with an experience. An experience that can become or be exploded as a container, or both.

SHR: Do you have a ritual or habit you follow when you write?

DB: When I was drafting and redrafting (and redrafting) the soft- and self-erasures for the big family project, I found myself watching a lot of TV in the background. Namely Star Trek DS9 and Fraser. ’90s TV is unparalleled for pleasant ignorability.

SHR: What advice would you give to emerging writers who are hoping to put out a chapbook?

DB: Don’t be too precious about what it means to get the work out there. And don’t assume the chapbook’s work will make it into the full-length you’re working on. Take the chapbook as its own form, and an opportunity to do something you might not be able to do in a journal or other publishing context. And don’t assume it means the work included is done.

SHR: What is the best advice you’ve received?

DB: To be serious about writing, not about myself as a writer, and to always keep a handle on telling the two apart.

David Bradford is the author of Nell Zink Is Damn Free (Blank Cheque Press, 2017), Call Out (knife | fork | book, 2017) and The Plot (House House Press, 2018). He holds an MFA from the University of Guelph and his poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Lemon Hound, Vallum, Poetry Is Dead, The Capilano Review, The Unpublished City, and elsewhere. He lives in Montréal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation.

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