News and Interviews

Guelph MFA Grads Simone Dalton and David Bradford on Family, Loss, Writing, and Community (Part 1 of 2)

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You've made it into one of the most competitive MFA programmes in the country. Now what? Recent University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA alums Simone Dalton, an author and playwright, and David Bradford, a poet and translator, decided to share what it is like to spend two years in a graduate-level literary environment, and what it means for one's work, community, and process. 

This in-depth conversation focuses on the writing process for David's forthcoming poetry collection Dream Of No One But Myself, out in September 2021 with Brick Books, and touches on topics that range from race and identity to family and grief.

We're excited to host this candid, wise, and inspiring two-part conversation between two of Canada's most exciting emerging writers. And be sure to check out Part Two next! 

For those considering applying to an MFA programme, Guelph is currently accepting applications. The deadline to apply is December 6, 2021

Simone Dalton:

Congratulations on the book! It's an absolute joy to be able to share this space with you at this moment in time. 

David Bradford: 

Thank you! Thrilled to get back into it with you, ha.

SD:

Let’s start at the beginning for us, as two MFA students at Guelph. I came into the program from a public relations career and was dealing with a great deal of imposter syndrome. That sense was a recurring memory of my time in the program for a while. What do you remember?

DB:

cover_Dream of no one but myself

I had been through another writing program, so I at least had an idea of what the environment would be like. 

At the same time, I did my BA at Concordia University at a time when things were at their worst, I would say. As a then pretty young writer of colour, faculty didn’t seem much interested in what I was doing. They were like, oh you seem to have talent, but you’re pointing it at all these things that don’t mean much to us. There wasn’t really someone there to read me. So I came into the MFA kind of girding my loins, expecting to just get through it. It turned out to be a more supportive place than I had anticipated. I hit the ground running in a way that maybe surprised [even] me. I wasn’t expecting to get acclimated so fast.

SD:

Ahhh, I felt that energy...

DB:

At the same time, I think it was kind of a “right time, right place” sort of situation. I came into the MFA with a pretty clear idea, finally, of what I was doing because I had been working at it intensely in the years prior. At the same time, I came in not having published much of anything at all. All that started happening while I was in Toronto and grew quickly from there.

SD:

It’s interesting how a move to a new place shifts things. 

DB:

It was a weird but good time. It helps that I knew where I stood and I wasn’t going to let anyone convince me otherwise. And simultaneously it was a good time to be in Toronto. I feel like things were more open than they had been in all the time I’d been trying to be a writer. People were receptive in a way they hadn’t been. It was 2016, right at the beginning of a surge of interest in writing by people of colour. Right reasons, wrong reasons, a mix? It was a good time to lock in and really make a go at it. But I don’t know that my experience [in the program] was typical. I think I got lucky in a bunch of different ways. Let’s call my experience particular. 

SD:

Is there anything in particular about our cohort that you thought was helpful or not to yourself and others? I understand changes are underway with faculty, courses.

DB:

I’ve noticed some of those changes from a distance. The thing that was the most helpful was the care, or what seemed to me like care, with which the cohort we were a part of was assembled. There was a good mix of people who had been around for a while. People who were figuring it out but had tons of potential. People from diverse backgrounds. Not all cis straight people. Everyone seemed open. It can be as fruitful as those things can be, but at the same time... I mean you remember the first year, it was the year that Trump was elected and there were all sorts of long, unsatisfying conversations to be had. I think we were in a space of feeling how our work might be impacted by the program, but where we could also talk about its limitations.

SD:

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I can’t imagine not having those conversations. The thing that was the most beautiful for me about the program was the community. It felt genuine and has continued in different ways. 

For me the MFA was ultimately a space for the work to happen. I needed the structure, the rigour, and the support to figure things out. I wasn’t thinking that the MFA would make me a writer, but I needed somewhere to begin asking who I am as a writer.

Given how disenchanted you were about the academic path as a writer, why did you decide to apply to the program? 

DB:

This kind of brings us to the book a tiny bit in a funny way, not that I knew it at the time. My dad died and there were some realizations that came with that. With the death of an estranged parent, there’s a nothing-to protect-against kind of moment. So, for me, a lot of things suddenly clarified. A lot of things that I wasn’t really in a position to safely accept before.

I started writing poetry again right after he died. I had kind of stopped for a long while because of some of the people I would have had to be around in Montreal’s English lit scene. I thought, if I’m going to write poetry, these are the people I have to fuck with and I don’t want to do that. It was a tough, charged period: he died; this big cushy contract job I had ended abruptly after a merger; and I broke my back. All of that happened within about a month. I spent the next six months living off savings, writing, and working to get my back right.

I started reading Nathaniel Mackey, Claudia Rankine, Fred Moten, Simone White. These people were doing things that reminded me of what I was doing at age 21, 22, and would have been the people I would have needed at the time. I started going in the direction of the kind of thing I do now and things kind of evolved fast.

When I applied to the program, I was very fatalistic about the whole process, thinking I wasn’t going to get in. The person who you met at Guelph is not, at least professionally, the person I was just before then. There were a lot of deliberate decisions to be just kind of different, more and more proactive. And my life since has been completely transformed. I don’t think that happens for everyone that goes through an MFA. I got lucky, I think there’s a timing aspect. Those were my reasons for applying: I had run out of other options. I had backed myself into a corner.

SD:

In an interesting way, we had a very similar spark send us down this path, even though we may have started at different points. The death of a parent loomed large for both of us.

DB:

Yeah...

SD:

You spoke about luck, but I also think there is something to be said about your attention to the writing once you got going again. The magical thing that happens to a life when attention is focused on where you want to go.

DB:

I was no longer like, this is maybe something I do. I’d made up my mind: if I do this in a hole alone or I do this in a super published, super recognized way, I’ll do this, whatever that ends up looking like. And that did make a difference. But there are things I said in class, same as the things I say in the jobs I have now because I don’t really care if I get too annoying and they decide it’s not working out, that’s fine, because I’m saying things that I think should be said and I’m being present in the way that I want to be present. There’s ridiculous faith in that, but maybe the kind that a writing life requires? That was a component. If I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do this. And if everyone is annoyed, that will be fine. And if they aren’t, that’s cool.

SD:

Speaking for everyone: We’re not.

DB:

[laughs] A lot of writers I’ve gravitated toward have a similarity: they do this alone for a long time and then they figure out their weird thing and then other people get to see it and they’re like: what the fuck is this, in a good way. People are like, where did you come from.

SD:

And now we have Dream Of No One But Myself and a second book already with the publisher. You quote a line from Dawn Lundy Martin that perhaps introduces the subject of the book at the beginning: “We must always consider the bigger book of grief.” Why that quote? What does it say about the book?

DB:

That quote is interesting. I came across it when I was working with Dionne [Brand] on the book [in the program]. I had already done this big lyric essay stuff and was kind of taking that apart and transforming it for the book. I started to do these kinds of erasures, working with the grey and black text and popping certain things out, others ghostly in the background. Having this new text interfere with the old text, which created a relationship between them. Even from the beginning, when I wrote some of that prose stuff that you saw when we were in nonfiction class together, the idea was like, let me put a lot of the unresolvable stuff in one place and just be like: See? This is why people don’t talk about this stuff. This is why there is no a-ha moment. There’s no insight that puts it all behind you. That’s a fiction we have about the way we write about trauma, complicated family situations, pain. It doesn’t really get behind you more often than not. So I was interested in, well, if it can’t get behind you, then what else can you do with it? What are the other options? 

SD:

The bigger book...

DB:

Yeah, and if I’m going to try to exhaust that possibility and move to something else, then what can I describe, what can I document? I came across that quote when I was starting to work on this more earnestly, with Dionne’s permission in a way, which is one of the things that she gave me, and I feel is one of the things that she gave you. Permission. The bigger book of grief is a book you're not getting to. You’re never going to find the right words. You’re never going to find the words that are big enough to fit the whole thing of “grief but this… and grief but that… but…” It’s not just as simple as grief. The book attempts, I think, to work with all that un-resolvability. Work with all that stuff that can’t be put behind, trying to exhaust it in the process of gesturing towards the ways in which it’s not going to get there. It’s not going to be enough, and I can’t get there but maybe I can do things that point to the fact that I know I’m not going to get there. 

I can write the one text and I can write the other text on top of it and I can write poems around that but there’s this thing that I noticed, and this took me a while to figure out, where the old text might not do it, the grey text might not do it and the new black text on top of it might not do it but their relationship to each other…the way the one crosses out the other and interferes with the other and then that one interferes back on it... that tension might do it. There’s something in that showing that it’s not going to get figured out.

SD:

The centring of your family surprised me the most based on what I knew of your work.  

DB:

Before I started writing the essay that became the nucleus of the book, I didn’t write about family. This is not stuff I wanted to write about. These are stories I heard over and over again in fitful ways, but they weren’t things I wanted to write about. So when I sat down to write about the abuse and trauma in my childhood, in my parent’s lives, in my grandparents’ lives,  it was really like let me write about how I don’t want to write about this basically. Let me get to a point where I exhaust all possibility of me ever doing this again. That’s kind of the idea. Obviously within the process of working with it, working with Dionne on it, then working with my editor on it, I cycled back through all of the questions, all of the what-ifs. Maybe if I modify this little thing here it gets a little more perfect and I can fit this little tiny sliver of extra nuance. You start asking yourself, you know, second guessing yourself. You sit with the details long enough and you start being like, did I imagine all this? Did I imagine this story? That’s just trauma response shit. You end up right back in the box. I wrote a book to prove that this wasn’t going to happen, but here I am thinking it's gonna happen anyway. Then you’re like okay, enough. Moving on. That was the idea of the book: Let me really point at that bigger book of grief and be like that’s not going to happen. I know it’s there, but it’s not going to happen. Does that make sense?

SD:

I felt that in my belly. Just stunning. I think I’ll be replaying your answer until I’m finished with my book. It speaks to exactly how I feel about my project. However, I do feel like I have another kind of challenge as a prose writer doing the literary nonfiction thing. I think there is an expectation by some to have a transformation happen. For the writer to present an a-ha. I’m attempting to push against this by leaning into a memoir of vignettes. It allows me to breathe. To leave things unanswered. To do the pointing you speak of at the bigger book of grief.

DB:

It’s tough that way. I guess I could’ve pulled in that [prose] direction at some point, but then I was like, nah, it’s not going to work. But at the same time it’s not that I think it can’t be done. I think maybe in a weird way the transformation can be the acceptance that there won’t be a transformation. And I think that can be super powerful and I think a vignette way is a good way to pull in that direction. The 99 percent of books about this stuff where there’s a transformation and the person becomes a sludge in the cocoon of the book and then they come out a butterfly—no. That ain’t happening. It just doesn’t happen that way. You can become sludge again. Become a butterfly. And then it’s like, oh, here I am, going backward, revisiting this old form. It’ll sneak up on you midflight. Those old forms and things are ingrained and they’re gonna surprise you again.

SD:

Okay, now that it’s clear a book you wrote about your family is about to be published and I’m writing one, let’s go all in. “Call your mother.” It’s a line contained in both of our books.

DB:

Ah, yes. 

SD:

You wrote about dreaming about when your mother dies; I wrote about calling my mother the night before she died. What is it about grappling with the death or eventual death of a parent that leads to an examination of your life?

DB:

On the one hand, like what I said earlier, I think there’s a basic shift in what the dynamic is when a parent dies. And I remember a little from what we’ve discussed and things that I’ve read about you and your mother. There’s a closeness there that is not present with my dad. So, I’m not going to pretend it’s the same, but at the same time there’s a danger. There’s a certain danger in the things that can be said and the things that can be withheld. That tension exists in a different way than between me and Brad. But at the same time, the person dies and the tension around those things changes, if not dissipates because the possibilities, negative or positive, kind of evaporate. For me, that was the big change. 

SD:

I think you’ve given me a new perspective.

DB:

When I wrote the stuff for the big essay that ended up being torn into smaller bits to be reused in the book I managed to describe the dynamic, managed to describe the symptoms of that whole three part abusive situation—what it was like for my mother, what it was like for me, what it was like dealing with him, what it was like preparing for the next whatever, which was all the time. But there’s a lot of work it didn’t do with trying to understand him. Suddenly, there were realizations after he died that probably he did do as much as he could do. Probably he’s dealing with all kinds of things that he can’t quite vocalize. There are also stories—and I mention this in the book—there are stories that you ask people about these things and they tell it a certain way, and then the eighteenth time it comes out completely different. For years my mother told this story about how he had gone to see a therapist, a marriage therapist or something, and the person had called him a bully and refused to deal with him. And I was like okay, that’s a story about Brad being Brad and just pushing people when they don’t buy his bullshit. That’s the story I heard for years. And then eventually, while asking about it again multiple times for the book, it suddenly became, Oh no, it was a psychiatrist and it was through the system. Now, it’s not easy to have a psychiatrist assigned to you from the system. Something serious has to be going on. And to have a psychiatrist say you’re a bully, refuse to deal with you, and basically throw you out of the system...Well, that’s a very different story. The point of the matter was he was Black and it didn’t go well and that was that. Knowing Brad, how he had to deal with institutions his whole life, I was like, There’s no way he did anything bad enough that it would get him thrown out of a psychiatrist’s office. 

SD:

A very different story indeed.

DB:

It’s not like I hadn’t thought about the racism Brad dealt with or things like that. But you start going back through it and you’re like, Okay, you know there’s probably significant PTSD from certain things. There’s things he doesn’t know how to vocalize. There’s things he hasn’t fessed up to. There’s things he hasn’t had the resources to fess up to. And you do what you can with that. And sometimes that’s not much. In some weird ways, the book got to that area of like there’s this weird triangle going on between me, my mother, my father where he is not really in a position to find his words for anything that’s actually going on and is only in a position to try to win arguments constantly and try to be on top constantly because he doesn’t know what else to do, probably. And there’s a dynamic where/when you see oh there wasn’t a way for us to get to anything else. Really. Maybe. I mean, who knows. Realistically it’s not surprising that we didn’t get to anything else. That’s a weird grey area that’s more dangerous than just like, here’s the bad man. You know what I mean? 

SD:

I do and more so because of your work in the book. Makes me think of your line like this one: “The way the injured gets a mind to injure.” It’s dangerous, not to put words in your mouth, but I couldn’t help but wonder how you manage to take care of the character of young David who experienced Brad, or all that Brad was, and then the writer David who can look at the situation sideways and say, okay, a lot more went into creating Brad. That is a challenging thing to come to terms with, I suspect. I’m definitely still figuring out how Simone the writer and Simone the character co-exist, especially when there’s a third Simone who is just trying to shut it all down. She’s super protective.

I admire how you’ve been able to trust the process to complete this work. To be okay with not knowing, no transformation, and all of that.

DB:

Yeah, this is true of the second book too. I think maybe it’s true of any book. Whether it’s family stuff, or other difficult stuff or not difficult stuff, there’s always options to stop. There’s a lot of slow stops at a station where there’s like a muffled voice that comes on the PA. Whirr-whirr. And you’re like, are we supposed to get off? And sometimes you just sit there, and you wait around, and eventually it gets going again. There’re a lot of those moments, I feel like, in writing a book.

I’m doing this in some ways similar to the way you are, which is to say I don’t have a lot of people to lean on who I can have these conversations with. I can’t have these conversations with my grandmother. She lives in her own world. She thinks I stopped talking to her because my father stopped talking to her for the last few years that he was alive. I’m like, that's not why. We’ve got our own shit. And writing this book did make me feel like, should I be talking to her? But I don’t think there’s a conversation to be had that will leave me not pissed off. And that’s tough. She’s my Black family. Period. It was me, her and Brad, and that was it. So it’s not easy to be like, that’s not really an option. There’s a lot of damage there.

SD:

The un-conversation with my mother is definitely part of the catalyst for the project. I felt like we were in the middle of a conversation, just about to start it really, and then she was gone. So I’m left looking at the remains and trying to figure out what I do with them. And every time I poke at them, something else falls out.

People often assume what I’m writing about once I mention that my mother’s death is a focal point; they think it’s a tribute book. That’s not what I’m doing, but sometimes I leave them with the assumption. It’s interesting to think about who I can have conversations with and how they can or cannot help.

DB:

There are books you could write that are to be avoided. There’s a book where there’s a transformation and it ultimately still ends up a tribute book. There’s the book where it ends up being a coming out story. There are all these other books that it can become very easily and that readers want, that certain readers want it to become, or will be invested in the idea of it becoming. Those aren’t books you want to write is what I’m hearing. 

SD:

Exactly. 

DB:

And then there are the conversations that you have with people who are here and you’re not going to write the book they’re thinking you’re writing either, right? You’re going to do something else with that. It’s tricky.

End of Part 1. Stay tuned for the next instalment of David and Simone's discussion, coming next week.

This conversation happened over Zoom and was edited for clarity and length. Guelph CW MFA paid an honorarium to the writers of this interview.

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David Bradford is a poet, translator, and organizer based in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal). His work has appeared in The Capilano Reviewthe tinyfilling StationThe FiddleheadCarte Blanche, and elsewhere. He is a founding editor of House House Press. Dream of No One but Myself is his first book.

Simone Dalton is an author, playwright, educator, and retired public relations professional. Recipient of the 2020 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Prize for nonfiction, her work is anthologized in Watch Your Head, Black Writers Matter, and The Unpublished City; and is forthcoming in ARC Poetry Magazine. Born and raised in Trinidad, she also leads a foundation which aims to support education for young steelpan artists and creatives.

For more information about the University of Guelph MFA programme, visit their website