Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Be a Free Fucking Agent: The Poetry of Daniel f. Bradley [1] -- The Early Years

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Okay, so today I’m going to introduce Open Book: Toronto readers to early chapbook publications from poet Daniel f. Bradley. These handmade volumes, published between 1990-1994, are the only source for Bradley’s early work. (Some of his later work is collected in A Boy’s First Book of Chlamydia [BookThug, 2005]) and I’ll talk about that in a later post.)

As aesthetic objects, the chapbooks vary from the painstakingly designed to more rough-around-the-edges productions. Bradley is an acclaimed visual and concrete poet, but I am for the moment only focusing on his surrealist, minimalist, and collage-based lyrics. In addition, as the bibliographic parts of my comments below indicate, Bradley has successfully steered clear of the CanPo production line, opting instead to “be a free fucking agent.” The mode of production, here, is just as important as the lyrics themselves.

In 1990, David UU’s Silver Birch Press publishes Bradley’s for e. who wanted a nice dress that fits. The book is distributed by Toronto’s Room 3o2 Books. The 4 ½ x 5 ½ inch book’s cover is designed by Greg Evason. It includes four poems: “but all the same yes,” “the old twilight zone,” “read socks,” and “wasping.” Here’s an excerpt from “but all the same yes”:

when was the last time. you really took a job?
like you took people.
like you really take in a show.
like you really take a ride,
enjoy the ride? god loves your lisp.

Bradley’s lyric expresses concern over a selfish mode of living in which nothing's ever “really” at stake. We become “yes” men and women, push-overs who just want to “enjoy the ride,” consequences be damned.

That same year, Bradley co-authors Clean & Tidy: Eight Poems with Greg Evason. The book includes front and back covers with visual works by Evason (front) and Bradley (back). Published by Toronto’s Ritual Subway Pangeon, it’s printed on 4 ½ x 5 ½ white sheets, stapled at the top left hand corner. The identity of the author for each poem is not stated. Some poems are titled, other are not. The quality of work is excellent throughout. The minimalist lyrics consistently tip, in tone, towards the scatological (e.g. the glorious “I bung my hole / with the whole bung”). But the book’s tour de force is the three-line “i work in a sausage fucking factory,” which also doubles as a wonderful analysis of how poetry is (sadly) produced:

churning it out
chumming it up
chopping it off

In 1991, UU’s Silver Birch Press once again publishes a chapbook by Bradley, and once again the cover is designed by Evason. Notes from the sick box is a single-page prose poem, divided into two paragraphs. This is Bradley at his most surreal, writing lines like “the cancer is eating my dream voices in female finnish. i’m not saying i was born to suffer; i sleep to suffer.”

If I have a favourite short collection of poems from Bradley’s early work, it’s 1993’s This One’s about Going to Thessaloniki and Getting Your Head Kicked In, published by Hamilton’s Mindware Press (a new David UU press). It includes excellent poems like “The Moon Cuts Across the Homeless Yard” and “Mickey and Cowboy, the Boy Pope”— titles that are representative of Bradley’s occasional veering into a campy tone, a quality that noticeably fades (for a variety of significant reasons) from his later work.

But This One’s about… also includes the exceptional prose poem “Recalculate Please!”

what if the world has only 12 hours left? [. . .] the first day of a new year. you have a fresh face and you sit a large room with 299 others just like you. a man from this new society gets up in front of you and yells ‘ARE ALL THE SENTENCES SHORT AND BLUNT BECAUSE THAT’S THE EMOTIONAL DEPTH OF THE CHARACTERS?’ it was not a love story; it was only about 2 people and one of them died very young. 11 hours and 45 minutes left. please bring all your purchases up to the front.

Ostensibly it’s an apocalyptic poem. In the end is the beginning— but as Bradley’s poem explains (with devastating irony), even the end of this world isn’t enough to make us change how we behave in any new world. We’re stubborn. So, once again sentimentalism rules the day; people demand surface encounters; language is a joke; and we make ourselves feel better by buying more and more and more.

Finally, there’s Bradley’s The Old Bull. It’s a single poem (an 8 ½ x 11 sheet folded in 4), no. 8 in the PUSHYbroadsides series. The poem was published on April 24 1994 as part of a Sunday night reading in Toronto at A Space.

The error is
in that anyone
with the smallest taste
for the intellectual game
can derive an amusement.

Then there’s the way
the frog sees it.
Phlop!

The poem (if I’m reading it correctly) contributes to the Canadian tradition of translating Basho’s famed frog haiku, a tradition that extends from Nichol and McCaffery through beaulieu and Barwin; however, in typical Bradley fashion, he levels an assault on that tradition and what he perceives to be its disingenuousness. In addition, the haiku is transformed into political allegory, with the “frog” occupying a street-level position in contradistinction to the “intellectual”. Bradley ends the poem with an ingenious visual pun, too: the “Ph” in “phlop” referencing the dubious “Ph”D, flopping like a fool in the pond.

As I noted earlier, these poems are only part of the work Bradley was producing during this period. There’s plenty of visual work, for example, that needs to be considered to provide a more comprehensive view. For now, though, this is good start . . . stay tuned for part II, appearing later this month.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alessandro Porco

Alessandro Porco is the author of two collections of poetry, Augustine in Carthage (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press, and the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey.

Go to Alessandro Porco’s Author Page