News and Interviews

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

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Last week we hosted the first half of an in-depth conversation between recent University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA alums Simone Dalton, an author and playwright, and David Bradford, a poet and translator. We're excited to present the conclusion of their discussion today, where they continue to talk openly about their writing process, diversity in publishing, and, in particular, how family, loss, and identity have informed their individual writing practices.

Raw, fascinating, and timely, this is an important dialogue for anyone writing and publishing in Canada today.   

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

Simone Dalton:

I’m learning how to protect what I am doing and who to share it with and how to share it with them because you realize just how much interference exists out there.

David Bradford: 

Input can really get in the way. Family input. Other people’s input. And a lot of those conversations, whether with other writers, whether with your dad, maybe even your partner, they can be good for you but they might be bad for the book, you know what I mean? And it’s tough to figure out how that’s going to work out, it’s tough to weigh it once you’ve had the conversation, tough to move forward. That’s part of the reason I showed up to conversations with my mother with specific questions. Do you remember this thing? How did that happen? What was the thing about that? Can you tell me about that? We’re not talking about all the other things. 

SD:

I need to remember that. 

I’ve also been experimenting with how to use images as anchors in my work. I noticed a number of recurring images in your book. The “good pleat,” the “Gabardine,” for instance, connected me to my childhood in a postcolonial Caribbean society. Can you tell me more about how these images helped you stitch the book together?

DB:

I proceeded very much in a vignette way, so each one kind of ended up having some things that would ultimately play off of other things in other parts of that material. Presenting the details and building on them did a lot to prevent the need for me to explain certain things. I would suggest that there’s not a lot of explaining in this book. There’s a lot of describing, but there’s not a lot of explaining.

For instance, when I describe the last room where my dad lived, in my godparents’ basement: the kind of basement, the makeshift apartment kind of situation; his roommates, that does more than trying to explain anything about that situation. I describe myself staying in that space for a couple of nights, subbing in, dealing with the roommates, having Klondike bars out of the mini fridge, while hearing one of them cleaning guns on the other side of the wall. All these things that feel oddly familiar but completely weird, and you’re imagining yourself in a different pair of shoes whether you’re trying to or not, you know, just having that there and just describing does a lot more than me saying everything I just said.

SD:

Tell me more about the “play” you just described.

DB:

There is this kind of network of echoes that happens. In one of the poems where I talk about the good pleat, I also talk about the ironing and all these demands that are completely unreasonable, completely patriarchal, and also coming from a completely irresponsible man, generally speaking. And then I pull the image, just completely recontextualize it inside of a standalone erasure of that poem—this frame of a very kind of wafty, sculptural language and it does something. It doesn’t do the same thing as in the other place, it kind of screws with it. I’m allowing it to screw with it. I am setting the stage for that kind of slantedness, or like you said, looking at the detail from the side kind of thing, to see what happens. It’s trying to pull these mundane details and then having them turned on the side, frayed, exploded, and oddly reproduced. 

SD:

I was also struck by your opening lines: “not knowing what to do with that...,” “the way I remember my mother’s mother…”. Is it fair to say that these lines reflect your pointing at something that you don’t have figured out?

DB:

Yeah...or, I’m pointing at a nearness as opposed to a knowing. [Simone gives David all the finger snaps here.] And also the way that this kind of near-knowing functions and versions anyways. You know, like this is one version and there’s an element of never kind of forgetting that. Not really wanting to forget that either.

On some level, it’s also care, right? It’s like, you know, I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back over those passages where my grandmother—who in the book is never my grandmother, my mother’s mother is my grandmother and my father’s mother is my father’s mother. That’s how the relationship functions in the book for housekeeping reasons but for bigger reasons also.

Anyway, so, in the re-reading and finetooth combing of those passages, I was also questioning whether I left enough space for people to know that the way this works is that I can’t ask her [my father’s mother]. The way this works is this information about these abuses is gone. He can’t tell me. She doesn’t remember, or at least claims not to remember. No one knows. I know what I’ve been told and things I kind of remember from the things I’ve been told. And I’m not wrong about the abuse, but the details, you start questioning. You start wondering, in the details, what am I betraying? So you go back over those passages, again and again, and you look for what you’re betraying. I feel like distance was really important to me. To just be like okay this is nearness, but it’s not knowingness. And in a lived experience version that doesn’t necessarily make a difference. But in the me-explaining-it-to-you version, it’s going to have to. 

SD:

Love that.

DB:

It’s weird though. It’s weird trying to do justice to abusive people. But it was important to me and it’s still important to me.

SD:

That feels dangerous.

DB:

Or it changes my position. 

SD:

Just before I read your book, I came across a quote by Sonia Sanchez: “The joy of poetry is that it will wait for you.” Sanchez is also mentioned in your book, so I wanted to ask: What is waiting for you, either in this body of work or with future work?

DB:

I’m always after problems I can’t quite figure out. Things that I feel like a lot of people are dealing with or trying to ignore. In this case, there were these family things that can’t really be resolved and I wanted to describe that. With the second book, it ended up being a certain way that contemporary Black artists, academics, poets talk about the transatlantic slave trade  and kind of conflate themselves into it and the way that those kinds of stories, the stories of enslaved people, the kind of philosophical, physical turmoils that they went through, are mediated into the present. I wanted to try to describe some of those things. Try to describe some of the dominant narratives that I see in the way we talk about that history and some problems I’m mulling over with that. Try to intervene on some of those things. I feel like I always end up writing towards an impasse, I’m trying to figure out exactly what that problem is and to actually fully describe it. That’s what I’m drawn to. I don’t know why but I’m not drawn to things that have solutions. So it does always work for you if you’re looking for problems I guess, because there’s a lot of problems. It’s always easy to find the next bit of trouble. And ultimately, I mean, who knows maybe this will become a weird libinal thing I will do with books. That idea of exhausting your own experience of the solutionless stuff. Exhausting your own thinking around that kind of thing appeals to me.

SD:

When the problems are gone, you won’t have anything left to write.

I want to go back to your process for a bit. On the prose side, I often look to poetry to teach me different ways to approach the work. I’m wondering if you felt any benefit in the reverse, going from prose to poetry. Has your poetry benefited from prose?

DB:

Part of me wonders if I didn’t cheat code things a little bit.  The perspective is really slanty and there’s these shifty things I’m doing, but stylistically, as far as how I write, it’s very straightforward—the prose is. That straightforwardness does a lot for me, but it especially does a lot for me when I don’t really have to settle on it because I’m intervening all the time by working on top of it. So it was interesting to go the opposite way, as far as my own path on this. I got to some of the things I felt were limitations for working with this in a fully just nonfiction space and I was immediately like, there are other options, you know? I can work with this in another space and that was liberating and good.

I think in some ways what you’re doing is maybe not harder, but it’s much more of a marathon. You know what I mean? If I had taken that essay and tried to turn it into a book, well that’s another story and I’d still be working on that. On some level I just didn’t want to be working on this for that long. I wanted to intervene on it, do everything I could possibly think of, and then try to, well, not move on like we were saying, but like, move on from the project.

SD:

I definitely have my marathon badge on.

David:

[laughs] Yeah, you’ve got your participation medals in the background.

SD:

That’s why I’m so grateful for this conversation and to hear that said because it’s very easy to forget that that’s what it is and to feel completely not productive or like you’re not making any sort of headway. Which leads me to the next thing I wanted to touch on because the theme of money is...

DB:

Prominent.

SD:

Yes, the theme of money is prominent. In this space of writing as a life, writing as a job, writing as something we do, how much fun and play are you able to retain while thinking about the market and who’s going to read the book at this stage of your career? How do you work through that balance so that you can still play and not be too bogged down by it?

DB:

It’s tricky. Between the one thing or the other, the hustling, the grants, the blah, blah, I’m making a better living than I’ve ever made. But that balancing act of like, okay, what I wrote in the grant application isn’t going to interfere with what I’m actually going to write. I had to figure out how to move from doing this work in the dark to getting grants, living off grants, and planning for the next one a few years later. I felt like it was really easy, for me at least, to have this kind of fraught feeling around that. Like feeling like I’m just a “subsidized-state-artist” person. And, what does that mean? What are the things to avoid? It just fucked with my head for a while, I think, while I was figuring out what was coming next. It took a minute to figure out.

It’s like another rung of professionalization to work out how to do this in the open and figure out how to do this when other people have an investment in it and still do what you’re trying to do. ‘Cause, you know, you’re trying to figure shit out, whatever that is. And most people don’t care if you figure shit out. They want a book; they want you to deliver the thing and they want you to keep publishing. They don’t care if you figure anything out. So that balancing act took a while. And part of that is just getting to a place where you give yourself over to that central effort and get that other stuff done. But there’s a lot of magical thinking sometimes, in between, where you’re kind like, we’ll see! There’s a lot of faith involved. There’s the faith involved where you can support yourself doing it. And then there’s the faith involved in, if I do it my way and I do it just to figure out whatever I’m trying to figure out or to deal with whatever I’m trying to deal with, I will still be able to deliver whatever the goods demanded of me are. And the goods will be good enough.

SD:

That’s the stuff I wish I heard more about in the classroom.

DB:

Right? That’s another act of faith that I feel most writers need to wrap their heads around, especially when they’re getting to a point where now people are invested, they want this first book, the second book; they want this piece, they want that piece, and all of a sudden it can feel a little bit like when you’re a teenager and you think you’re in love. But then that love becomes a possibility and you’re like, no, I don’t want this! You know what I mean? It’s a little bit like that. Like, no, no, no, no, no. I got my TV schedule. I got my reading schedule. This is not what I want. It’s a little bit like that.

SD:

[Laughs] That is priceless.

DB:

I feel you maybe get better at figuring out what are the right fits and you get better at figuring out how to have all the different things that you want somehow. The sacrifices to be made are not: I sacrifice my vision. The sacrifice to be made is the time, effort, the hustling between jobs, between this and that, all the other things that come. Life. All the other things that come and interfere. The energy to make your vision inevitable. Because you almost need to have that almost maniacal confidence that if you do the process and you get to the things you’re trying to get to, it’ll shine through. It’ll handle itself. You don’t really have to worry about it. That’s tough, though. It’s a work in progress.

SD:

This is such a beautiful end point, but I must squeeze in one more thing. Competition. We were the only Black students in our cohort, and please forgive the narrowness of that description, I know that your mother is white. But this question is about that reading of us as Black, the tug and pull of being the two of few, and how it might cause feelings of competition to bubble up. Is competition something you’ve thought about as you gain more visibility?

DB:

I thought about it a lot more when I was in the program and going through the motions of all of that front-facing stuff for the first time in a real way. There’s scarcity anxiety to be had. And you’re dealing with—and I think this is something for a lot of people to get over, and I think it needs to be gotten over—but you’re dealing with an audience of white people. Let’s be honest. They decide. There are ways in which they still very much decide and they’ve got limited attention spans. Let’s be real. Especially if you’re trying to get into those big mainstream, bigger publishing spaces, I feel like there can be really limited attention spans and it just doesn’t feel like there’s always space for you. And it’s much easier to explain to yourself why you won’t be let in than why you will be. So there was some work to be done around accepting this is what I do, here are the very real limitations of that, here are the places I’m never going to get to, here are the people, sometimes the Black folx, that I can’t compare myself to because we’re not doing the same thing at all and we’re not going to get to the same places and that’s fine. So accept, embrace, work with the place where I actually am and the places where I actually can go and where I’m valued.

SD:

One more time for the people in the back...

DB:

I think as people of colour and maybe there’s the particularities about the way that that’s true as Black folx and then there’s the ways that that’s true for you as a queer woman from Trinidad and for me as a light-skinned person from Montreal that talks the way I talk. The demands are different. People think they’re reading you. They do think they’re reading you. And they’re not. But the act in and of itself does produce something. There’s a social resonance, there’s something going on in that and it’s easy to think that’s going to get out of hand. That it’s going to keep you from doing certain things. That it’s going to get you things you didn’t want. The list goes on and on. But competition should not be where it lands. Because really I think we know we’re not reading each other. You know what I mean? And we know we have to read each other to read each other. That we have to have these conversations where we can get to a place where we feel like we can do a bit of that reading. Because we know it’s not that simple. The competition gets in the way of that. The feeling of scarcity, the feeling of this person gonna get this and I’m not gonna get anything, gets in the way of that. It’s a trap. Just like a lot of other traps out here for people like us trying to do this.

SD:

I agree wholeheartedly. I had a hard time giving myself permission to take the time to learn, experiment, try, fail, revise, with the visibility, feeling that I needed to hurry up and before the opportunity disappeared. 

DB:

With the pressures in the market, to get all these stories by people of colour out into the world, to get particular stories by people of colour out into the world, I worry about younger writers. Some of them, this is all they’ve experienced in the writing world and it feels like if they don’t get it done it’s not gonna happen. I don’t think it’s like that. I think if you get to the book you want to get to, someone’s going to want to read it, and it’s going to be the book you wanted to get out into the world. There’s no point doing this unless it’s for the books you want to get out into the world. Take the time it takes. You’re not going to regret it. I’m going to be 36 when this book is published—my first book. This is not how anyone plans it! But it takes the time it takes. For you to figure out what you are as a writer. For you to figure out what that first book is. For you to figure out how you want to assemble that. You do the process and you don’t regret it. I don’t regret it.

SD:

Now that’s an ending. I’m so proud of you and that I get to see you get to this point. It’s quite remarkable.

DB:

I appreciate you. It means a lot to me that you’re proud of me. Not everyone gets to be in these tandem places when they’re working these things out.

End of Part 2. Be sure to check out the first instalment of David and Simone's discussion from last week if you missed it.

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