News and Interviews

"That Edge of Freedom" David Bradford on The Ups and Downs of Poetry

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David Bradford's hotly anticipated debut poetry collection, Dream of No One But Myself (Brick Books) is a work of stunning creativity and self awareness, delving into family trauma and complications, race, identity, and memory. 

Eschewing perfection and embracing the fragmented and hybrid with a kind of energy that infuses the collection with vibrancy, Bradford's frank and lyric examination of his experience growing up in a racially diverse family is essential reading. Through a commitment to being deeply personal (including modified family photos and erasure pieces), Bradford paradoxically creates something universal, relatable, and welcoming of every reader's own family wounds, pressures, tenderness, and complexities.

We're excited to welcome David back to Open Book (be sure to check out his fascinating conversation with writer Simone Dalton, published earlier this year) in celebration of the publication of Dream of No One But Myself, which is available for sale today.

He speaks with us as part of our Poets in Profile series, telling us how the end of a poem can be like a piece of music, about the poetry collection he recently read and loved, and why poetry can be a "mess of ups and downs, doubt and faith." 

Open Book:

What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?

David Bradford:

A couple of poems, a couple of Black poets, come to mind along similar lines. I’m thinking about Fred Moten’s “the salve trade,” from hughson’s tavern, and Renee Gladman’s titleless Calamities poem that begins, “I began the day thinking about the university level—where it was and who was allowed to go there.”

They're both, for me, about what people like us are doing—can or can’t possibly be doing, must avoid a fall into—navigating institutions like universities. They still give me questions and words for dangers I’ve still been trying to pose or put words to for a long while.

For instance, Moten writes, “what they bring your ass up in here for if you ain’t gon’ / tear shit up?” Gladman writes, “You had long forgotten about the sun.” They make me wish I’d written up the possible traps/challenges of those places. But then there they are, waiting, just like that.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

DB:

Honestly, family stories—good, bad, terrible. I never wanted or thought I’d want to go there, and then it all came out. And out and out. And then I dug for more. And now I hope I’m done.

OB:

Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?

DB:

I’ve definitely moved toward writing/thinking each bit out with a view toward a larger project.

I would say my first big shift in that direction happened a ways into the Dream of No One but Myself process, when I had a bunch of standalone pieces—verse poems, a series of lyrical prose vignettes, visual pieces—that needed to start building up together. So many pieces got sharpened and altered in that phase, and all the self-erasures in the book, as well as all the standalone prose poems, were written during that time, with the aspiring book shape in mind.

I found that really worked for me. I really loved bouncing between pieces, between forms, tuning it all to add up. I’ve been mostly thinking in books since. Though I’ve learned for myself I have to try to let the individual pieces take up their room too or I end up banging my head against the wall a bit too much.

OB:

What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?

DB:

Oh, it’s got to be the way it ends. Beginnings, I find, don’t need to be that precise. They tend to be easy enough to pin down or get right enough—they might need just need some truncating, a different point of attack, etc.—but endings actually have to land and look finished all while opening up somewhere new, like a flourish that doesn’t too forcibly look like a bloom.

For me, in completely clichéd terms: it’s often a completing-the-musical-phrase kind of thing. Almost like you often need that, at first, off-sounding, surprising note that’s then made inevitable-seeming by the way you follow it up before stopping. Endings can easily take as long as the rest of the thing, often enough.

OB:

What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?

DB:

Victoria Chang’s Obit. There’s a super structured scaffolding to the collection, but there’s an abandon inside of the tight prose columns she pours the work into, one elegy soaking through at a time. It’s a back and forth of entangled grievings—for her father’s mind, for her mother’s life, the bits that flake off, waft about unsettled, along the way. It’s sad and masterful and brimming.

OB:

What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?

DB:

Sometimes the best and worst things about being a poet are a little married to each other, and interchangeable: starting out with a complete lack of given constraints, and translating what you’re after into a tangible, unmistakable shape.

Travelling between the two can be pretty great when that process meets you where you’re at with whatever thinking you need to be doing, but there’s also these not-knowings and second-guesses that come in and out along that edge of freedom. For me, it’s shifty, trying to line up the life of a certain thinking with the right shape, to line up a right shape to get to the right thinking. Almost inevitably, it goes poorly for a while. It gets heavy.

It can be a mess of ups and downs, doubt and faith. But as long as it’s going, when you get good with sitting with all that not knowing, describing and wondering out loud as a poet can feel like a way into/through the middle of anything, something for you and readers, in different times and places, to momentarily hold onto, sink into, take in and grow out. At least until the next go round.

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David Bradford is a poet, editor, and organizer based in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal). He is the author of several chapbooks, including Nell Zink is Damn Free (Blank Cheque Press, 2017) and The Plot (House House Press, 2018). His work has appeared in The Capilano Review, The Tiny, filling Station, The Fiddlehead, Carte Blanche, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Guelph and is a founding editor of House House Press. Dream of No One but Myself is his first book.

Buy the Book

Dream of No One but Myself

An expansive, hybrid, debut collection of prose poems, self-erasures, verse, and family photo cut-ups about growing up in a racially trinary, diversely troubled family.

Dream of No One but Myself is an interdisciplinary, lyrical unravelling of the trauma-memoir-as-proof-it’s-now-handled motif, illuminating what an auto-archival alternative to it might look like in motion. Through a complex juxtaposition of lyric verse and self-erasure, family keepsake and transformed photo, David Bradford engages the gap between the drive toward self-understanding and the excavated, tangled narratives autobiography can’t quite reconcile. The translation of early memory into language is a set of decisions, and in Dream of No One but Myself, Bradford decides and then decides again, composing a deliberately unstable, frayed account of family inheritance, intergenerational traumas, and domestic tenderness.

More essayistic lyric than lyrical essay, this is a satisfyingly unsettling and off-kilter debut that charts, shapes, fragments, and embraces the unresolvable. These gorgeous, halting poems ultimately take the urge to make linear sense of one’s own history and diffract it into innumerable beams of light.