Others Letters: Dana Ward
This past month I started corresponding with Dana Ward, someone who I’ve felt myself in orbit with for years now, but who I only met this past summer at a party where he read with Brandon Brown and Cynthia Sailers. Dana lives in Cincinati where he publishes Cy Press, hosts readings, collaborates with local artists, and works as an advocate for adult literacy. When I saw him read his work over the summer I was struck by his skill as a performer, shifting effortlessly between voices, affects, and tones. “Doing the voices” as it were, but then somehow taking them back. Making us aware they are voices, revealing voice as a frame (if that makes any sense). Read his poems and I think it will.
Shortly after New Years, Dana got in touch with me to ask me about some comments I had made during a reading with Julian Brolaski for Julia Bloch's and Sarah Dowling's Emergency Reading Series at U Penn's Kelly Writers House this past fall. Given the liveliness of the exchange and the urgency of Dana’s poetics/person, I have wanted to post our conversation here. And so I do—the first installment at least—now!
So much to say, but one thing I'm curious as to yr thinking is the sort of standardized sense of how poetry becomes public. I've noticed, both in listening to your reading the other morning, & then in reading some of your notes at Harriet, perhaps in some of the comment fields there, that you talk about the absence of a standard trade edition of your work, or have a sense of its belatedness/potential, depending. Very interested in you talking about how Wild Horses of Fire performed some of that work in advance of/in tandem with the absence of, a more normative mode of tech. bringing it into the world--the perfect bound book. What's your sense of the latter’s import outside of its obvious practical use--having a physical object to put into the hands of others. Do you think/write at the scale of 'the poetry book' as it stands as currently administered thing 80-150 pages? As someone in a place similar to you--a lot of poetry with no real physical center of gravity--wondering what your desires are to this end? I have a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, centered primarily around the fact that the work I make rarely wants to open out over the course of 60 pgs. Shorter interrelated quasi-serial works, more like constellations really, seem for me to be the way correspondence/ togetherness exerts its magnetisms between poems. Then there's really from there but a 'stack dump' of shorter books into this form. Vexing! Always this beautiful problem of how to be public, my favorite problem.
Holla back if you get free.
Sorry to be in slow responding to you Dana. I have actually been savoring these questions--all very near to my heart--and wanting to give them adequate time for response. At one point I had a real desire for a first book. I mean, it felt very urgent to have one. But now I have mellowed about this. Through keeping a blog and doing so much online I have realized being in "circulation" (if that's what my sense of urgency was about) no longer hinges on having a book. And if anything, making books (60 pg. +) is somewhat antithetical to the problems I've been pursuing through my practice, which, like your own, finds multiple centers of gravity instead of only one through a constellation of others--people, institutions, community spaces/dynamics, sites of social and political concern.
The poems I write: they are very situational/evental/deictic. They hinge on having done something, something or someone having moved me. They are moments of conversation, or when something gets through to me. Less a ventriloquism or out of emulation, when I write poems I feel the presence of others--voices, bodies, words. Their lines/words overcome "me." I guess this would be like my own practice of "dictation." We are dictated to by the force of others. My sign is in gemini--sign of communication--so I chalk my practice partly up to this. I have also been thinking that my proclivities to write criticism are in the interest of building conversations, hooking things and people up, and putting out a set of terms which might be useful. How to talk about things?--that is super important. Where and when too. Contexts. Actual sites.
As I said in my talk with Julian [Brolaski] at Kelly Writers House, the blog is a book of sorts. What I meant is that it is perfectly suited to the kinds of books/poems poets have been writing as far back as Dickinson--serials, fascicles, convolutes. The blog--like the "poem of a life" (Zukofsky)--is an index too. An archive coming apart, recrudescing around certain words, terms, images, phrases, sounds. Accreting but also becoming. Calibrating, adjusting. I wish I had more skills as a web designer so I could break out of Blogger--a pretty aesthetically dissatisfying template at this point (not to mention the corporate monstrosity of Google). How does the poem, like the blog/website--design a space for attention? What if we are curating attention? The poem can do so many things, but like yourself I imagine ways it can shape attention, both for good and bad.
To go back to your "how to be public": I think this is a matter of attention. Right now I frequent two blogs, magazines (online and off), Facebook, have daily email exchanges, publish poetry and art criticism/essays, curate two series for poetry, sometimes give talks, often teach. These are all ways of being public, and they have different consequences. When I do something in these realms I don't want to be overly cautious, but I do want to think about consequences. Harriet has forced me to think about consequences because I have a wider audience there, and a certain audience of people who are not all that welcoming of things I have to say and ideas/ways of being that you and I take for granted as common ground. Obviously being at Harriet is an opportunity to make some connections with a new audience, and speak up for one's community/friends/colleagues. So I have given a lot of thought how to be responsible there.
What are you thinking about in terms of being public? Or being "before" the first book? You do quite a lot of activist work (with prisoners?). How does that work affect your sense of going public as a poet? Something I have been wanting to put out there--in terms of thinking how we are "post avant garde"--is to really think more clearly about poetry as a social commitment that feeds back into socio-political actions/consequences. Poetry not as useless, but useful. Poetry as a tool. Poetry community/economy as a model economy for sustainability.
And the "avant garde" as having its future anteriors--things that could have been; futures that were once possible for it. Eleni Stecopoulos said this beautiful thing at a panel two autumns ago: "what if the avant garde had chosen beauty over difficulty?" To extend her thought: what if any group-based aesthetic practice chose a different set of problems and ways of going public with these problems? What, for instance, if the "avant garde" gave up the ghost of antagonism? Aggression? Expenditure? Non-use? The rhetoric of antagonism and non-use seem particularly unvaluable right now, whereas collaboration, conversation, and creative exchange seem more important than ever. How to pool resources and produce out of shared senses of responsibility? If the avant garde (so called) has any future I believe if will be in this problem...
Well, sorry to talk your ear off here Dana. I chalk it up to having a little more time than the work day usually allots for correspondence and having coffee late in the day. Looking forward to having this conversation with you more!
Let me just start by pointing to a place of (I think) pretty astounding overlap, which is that there is for me, as it is so apparently for you, this central thing of collapsing [Jack] Spicer’s occulted ‘outside’ with the fact of the social. Spicer’s basic dynamic has always been axiomatic for me, obtains I should say, as experience, though it’s the fact of others that arranges the furniture, ‘bloodies up’ the décor they find, by which I mean, its bodies, the physical fact of the living AND the dead. I wrote a little note to David Brazil once concerning the use of the word ‘parousia’ in a poem of mine, & I’m including it here, because I, very tentatively, get at some of my detourned & make believe eschatology of friendship. Anyway, I just wanted to begin by marking this lovely similarity in terms & thinking between us.
The whole notion of publishing presents a pretty funny ring of changes on the matrix that’s most familiar to us— technology/desire/exhilaration/commerce/administered prestige/access. If those things mark our most familiar intersection (there, where the traffic lights all signal a long sick green ‘go’ for violence/exploitation) it can be at times difficult to order my attentions, & my thinking toward ‘having a book’ as it is normatively understood. Of course there’s always this funny thing of how generosity gets mixed up in this, which is to say I write for others, & want my work to be read in the sense that I want it to have a life in the lives of others as the writing of others has such irreducible life in mine. I appreciate so deeply your affirmation of other modes of doing this, & your sense of their vibrancy for achieving that kind of affective presence. That’s a boost for me, as I often look at my own work, sort of scattered out to the wind as its been, & wonder if I’ve gone about things in a useful way. But still I love getting published! Also, as it is w/ you I’m sure, shit, I just love books! But mine are shorter I guess in conception, & this leads to being pretty fugitive, which I value in general, though I don’t want to put TOO much Utopian freight in that place, as if I feared I’d break it’s restless charms. So to answer your question, I think I’m basically done with the narrative of ‘first book’, or I consider the shorter books (chapbooks) I’ve published to be ‘real books’ of the kind that are again normatively marked by their relationship to commercial form/technology/career.
I think the figure of ‘curating attention’ is a fascinating one, & pretty powerful, & gets to the heart of things as far as the web as concerned. Of course we know that curating attention is a first principal of spectacularization, the latter having marshaled all manner of beautiful, radical modes to its own ends. The absorption of any of these modes doesn’t speak, AT ALL, to foreclosure, but what I do think it demands is great care, some qualitative fusion of gentility & wildness that begets a presence steeped in complicity, some dialectical figure that continually acknowledges where it assimilates & where it resists all at once, & I’m always trying to think through a poetics for this, not just for the verse work that I do, but too, for my daily lived way of being in the world. & for me this gets plainly to your sense of ‘how to talk about things’, how important that is, to have some kind of wild, almost feral, discursive life.
The questions you pose about the avant garde & the discourse around use/non-use are incredibly vexing for me, in that my sympathies there are quite obvious in one way, but I have a (problematic, to be sure) relationship to the imperative when it comes to art making, or I fear the well meaning tyrant that disables an imagination that my have little need for the dynamics of use & attendance as I, or anyone, may figure them. This suggests a whole range of big big political & social problems that I may not be able to fully unravel here, but I have tremendous affection for, & need of, certain avant garde writing done under a different (though related) set of signs than those that animate aspects of my own thinking. For instance I was thinking of Flarf yesterday as a rapture in which the buoyant & refreshing silliness of our culture were taken up along with its massive & corrosive toxicity to a kind of semiotic heaven, revealed, in a sense, through the wondrous effusive joy of prosody. (pardon the verticality of my metaphor!) But I think it’s quite clear that one of my interests is in how work like that makes available, as a kind of unstable Eros, the contours of the semiotic place we’re always in, & so the paradox becomes that I believe being delivered into terrified humor is useful! Which I’m not sure is what is intended? But for me is where the pleasure, revelation & hard-core of problems all collapse together into that art, thus my love for it. So I guess what I’m doing is reinscribing the rhetoric of non-use? I can’t ever quite seem to parse it, & again my pleasure beckons persuasively, densely packed up, or then later, strewn about the room. So it’s as if to say, I have my feelings on this count, & then there are universes of art making I find so invigorating, although they achieve their vibrancy, & even their necessity, somewhat differently. I too have a thing for decadence that I’m always trying to investigate in my writing, & in myself. I so love what you quote from Eleni, about what if the avant garde had turned to beauty?!?! It’s a startling question, & I think, historically at least, we know why they didn’t, it invites something like speculative fiction, perhaps fan-fic of the avant garde, which we could simply write as our real works!
I’ve left out A LOT here of course, so this is untidy, provisional, as it must be. I was trying to think through a dialectic of the provisional recently, where one unit, the radical unit, would be contingent upon any thought not given to, as in a gift economy, another to be attended, re-worked, moved & changed, those facts would determine its provisionality. The other unit would concern the endless provisionality of any thought-figure in corporatized neo-liberal democracy where any thought figure is rendered endlessly provisional by being subject to the leveling effects of a discourse mediated by forces intent on seeing radical thought never obtain beyond being a set of effects turned toward marketing, absorption, spectacularization. Does poetry offer some means for a synthesis? & isn’t friendship a laboratory for it as well? That’s been much on my mind of late, & I think it’s deeply related to what we’re talking about.
I’m attaching a couple of other poems here too that work through some of what we’re discussing. Very grateful for all of this Thom, & for all of your writing & thinking.
Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...