David Bradford is a poet and MFA candidate at the University of Guelph. He is the author of Nell Zink Is Damn Free (Blank Cheque Press, 2017) and the forthcoming Call Out (Knife|Fork|Book, 2017). He splits his time between Montreal and Toronto.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
Can you tell me about Knife Fork Book in Kensington market?
Knife|Fork|Book is Canada’s only poetry-only bookshop, located inside of Rick’s Café in Kensington, and it’s a new chapbook imprint I help edit. Also, it’s Jeff Kirby, the owner and everything behind it, and he likes to say it’s him saying yes to the fantasy.
To me, it’s a place you can find certain things you aren’t gonna find anywhere else in town, but it’s also a meeting place. Poets in and out every day. Poets bringing their work in every day. They come to be with Kirby, but also, maybe, to be with each other.
I remember stopping in one Friday this past March feeling rundown and fed up with this city and Kirby was all smiles, and then Ralph Kolewe, a great poet, dropped in, and then Kate Sutherland, another great poet, dropped in, and we all sat in the sun together, looking at poetry, talking. And I instantly remembered why I was in Toronto.
How do you know when a poem is done?
Maybe it’s one of those annoying “you just know” kind of things? Though a “just knowing” that involves knowing it’s never finished. You just put it down when it stops feeling like you can get it somewhere better, maybe. Or when the next one creeps up on you.
For instance, I just finished one. I was near knowing it was finished and I just kept re-punctuating the last few short lines (which took me forever to figure out) and I just wasn’t sure. Then I recorded myself reading it. And it sounded done. And that was that. Moved on.
It’s kind of like ending a heavy conversation: you hit on a good ring you’ve been circling a little blindly since minute one, and you can tell ringing it again is going to drown out some of the good there. So you stop yourself.
How do you feel about the way poetry is taught in elementary and high schools? What was your own experience of learning about poetry as a child or teenager like?
Not good, lol. I’m just about nuts for poetry and it was taught so poorly to me I had to figure that out for myself—i.e., despite school, when I was already an adult. Still today, it’s all memorization, formal constraints, and figuring out the most boring things the poet may have intended. Which discounts the reader’s creative opportunities entirely. And discounts the writer’s too, frankly. And excites just about NO ONE. It’s invested, almost insidiously, in teaching it as something less or entirely different than what it is or can be—personal, creative, IT’S OWN THING. Which, notably, means it lends itself to focussing on poetry with digestable, followable, teachable, unremarkable moments. It brings out the brat in me. I got too many feelings about this!
Do your ideas for poems tend to hit you hard, in singular moments? Or do form slowly, over time?
They tend to start the way they do for most poets, I think: an image, a line, a word, something read, something overheard. In fragments. Those hit me in the moment, but I don’t think I know where it’s going to go. I don’t want to either. And even if I do have an idea, I’m not going to get anywhere worthwhile unless it goes somewhere else.
Fred Moten says something like “you got to let the sound of what you’re trying to say subordinate what the hell you’re trying to say.” The “sound” as in what the words are going to do when they come out loud, a quality they’ll include either way, but also what that conversation behind the idea (with your friends, people you’re reading, your partner, etc.) might bend into it. So, after an idea’s initial hit, then comes something like what I think he might mean there. I don’t want a closed circuit; I want to talk with those voices, somehow, and have us change each other. And move slowly.
What is the Unpublished City? What was your contribution to this anthology?
The Unpublished City is an anthology of emerging writers curated by Dionne Brand and put together by IFOA, Toronto Lip Up and BookThug. It’s centered in and around the stories Toronto has to tell but that we may not be seeing. In other words, it’s an investment in exploring particular narratives of what (and who) our future might look like. And in making those visible in a way they tend not to be. It includes work by Canisia Lubrin, Laboni Islam, Adnan Khan and Simone Dalton, to name just a few. I contributed a couple of poems.
Also: most of the contributors are going to be reading at The Steady, as part of The Speakeasy reading series, on September 28.
How does Toronto's literary community compare with Montreal's?
Something unusual about Toronto’s scene that struck me right away is that you don’t encounter much bitterness, you don’t run into too many egos, or turf mentality, and people are basically interested in what you’re doing. It feels like the consensus in the room is there’s enough room to go around. And you can be nice. That’s a big difference from almost anywhere else.
But also, there’s that Toronto protestant work ethic, lol, even in the lit community. Which can be good: things get done, meetings don’t get cancelled, readings get attended. But Montreal, in contrast, is cheap and cozy and not work-centered: people are there for different reasons. People get a different kind of thing done (and figured out) when they can and want to breathe. Can’t help to have a hometown appreciation for that, and for the community potential in it.
What imagery or themes do you gravitate towards in your writing?
Failure, I think, lol. What it opens up.
What non-writing art forms do you look to for inspiration in your practice?
I’ve been working on a series of visual poems called “The Plot,” sort of desecrating some of my failed poems I’m still sweet on into something else that’s not quite traditionally legible. Kind of translating the thought or feel that didn’t quite make it through into something new. This is something I’ve been headed toward for a while, I think. So art that works through something like a writing process, but visually, is increasingly useful to me.
But I also just like art, lol. Hard to watch Night of the Hunter and not hear poetry, you know? And I also once quit writing for two years and did nothing but take pictures three hours a day. Which taught me a ton about process. So I got thoughts from that I still go to (shout-out Joel Sternfeld!).
How do you think Toronto could be a more artist-friendly city?
Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction, Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack and Honey, and Lisa Robertson’s 3 Summers. But also of note: I recently finished reading Renee Gladman’s Calamities and it just about drilled a hole in my head. That book was a point of no return for me.
What are you looking forward to?
Figuring out what comes next (and how to get a lot of time for it) after this first book. And being back at Knife|Fork|Book. And leading our first Slo-Po reading workshop of the fall on September 21.