Outside the Lines: David Bradford
From day jobs to evening gigs and volunteer duties, Outside the Lines, is a series of posts exploring MFA graduates' lives and literary work outside of their primary writing practice...
A little over a year ago in Toronto, I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on two white literary agents at The Common off Dovercourt. It was a few weeks after, back in Montreal, Anahita Jamali Rad had approached me to do this weird little chapbook, The Plot, and to maybe partner with her on a publishing project that might work to foster other weird little chapbooks. And for the better part of the two hours I sat next to the two of them in the coffeeshop, they wrung their hands, and sort of salivated, over where they might find, and how they might adequately develop and hock, the next really juicy, next-level exotic, potentially huge book by a woman of colour about her pain. In terms just as explicit as those. Because, as far as they could tell, the industry’s ravenous interest in acquiring such books was about to expire.
The timing of the encounter, for me at least, was impeccable. Their point of view, and what it held of the book market’s biases and checklists, was as clear a sign as I could ask for of the challenges our industry’s climate currently packs for any writer trying to grow and publish. Particularly for writers of colour, and especially for women of colour, the room to develop in any new or unusual direction can feel very limited. The purview to do so formally while staying publishable and/or fundable can feel like next to none. And this, even for poets.
To put it more simply if sadly: between those two agents and what CanLit culture they support, there still isn’t too much trust for, or much of a stake in, writers of colour being weird. Which to me always seems to connote there still isn’t much space for our writers of colour to be legible as much more than just “writer of colour.” Not much room for the complexities required to really attempt what most writers are attempting: to figure some stuff out.
As an editor, I think about that a lot. I think about it alongside my toxic bad time at Concordia University, where I was told over and over again to stop doing all the weird things I did, and to temper a number of colour-coded things too. I think about it when minding the years it then took me to make it back to poetry, relearn so many instincts put away, and discover some writers I could have desperately used all those years ago. I think about it when I consider how returning to those particular bents more maturely, and following them as rigorously as I could, carried me all the way to the MFA at Guelph, to making my weird talents more tangibly valuable, being of a real use to myself and other writers, and to about as fruitful and supportive a Master’s experience as I could get.
Somewhere along the way I became an experimental writer of colour doing decently well, but only after the conditions for me to do dreadfully gave way to decidedly further favourable ones. Conditions, turns out, are something writers are pretty vulnerable to. During my time editing at knife | fork | book and now with House House, and every time I pick up manuscript evaluation work or help fellow writers out when asked, I’ve tried, like those who’ve had a positive hand in my own work, to be the best possible condition I can be. I’ve done my best to provide empathy and a boost, if forcefully and critically, for what writers think is valuable about the work they’re pursuing, for the ways they’re trying to figure out what they’re trying to figure out, to help them get to the best version of that.
As Anahita and I have been fortunate enough to gain our respective, now-better-than-decent supports as writers, House House Press became our small contribution to growing the kind of publishing space where that work for other writers’ work can really come off. So, we’ve worked to give poetry practitioners, predominantly BIPOC ones, with a desire to develop more peripherally a place to land projects that might otherwise have nowhere else to land. We’ve done what we can to encourage a rigor in their more unusual impulses, with an assurance of print. We’ve provided a bit of extra room for them to legitimate and work out what new approaches might enter their practices.
Only a season in now, it’s too early to tell where the project might end up. But what I’m sure of at this point is we’ve helped our weird writers. And the big printings we gave their chapbooks are selling out. Both of those are pretty alright. But I only really care about the one.
David Bradford (2016 cohort) 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. Currently at work on Skin Folk, a black incursion into modern pastoral modes. David is based in Montréal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation.