Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Review of 'Dodging Traffic' and Interview With Poet Jesse Bradley

Jason Cook, at Ampersand Press, seems to like backing readers up against the walls of their own comfort zones and giving them a good solid push. I suspect he’s always curious about whether the wall or the reader will give way first. Dodging Traffic, by Jesse Bradley, is another of his offerings, and here I am, definitely in a space I wouldn’t have entered on my own.

Dodging Traffic is a story of love turned ugly. It’s the bitter dregs of what might have been a sweet drink – you can taste bits of the sweetness in the sticky residue on the sides of the glass – imbibed in the sort of establishment you wouldn’t admit to frequenting. Lines like “Who made your hands stammer/ the first time they cradled a waist/ on the last day of summer?” give us glimpses into a past that has given way to sexual encounters made sordid by language and insults and pain. Many of the poems reek of disappointment and resentment – “You should know I kiss/like a fistful of mistakes” - and they don’t mince words. In “What Makes a Man a Man” he gives us a frank appraisal of his approach –

Chasing butterflies
With automatic weapons.

There are lighter pieces, even some whimsies – The Bride of Dracula’s Gynaecologist on Career Day – but Bradley’s main theme is bitter experience with the death of love. There are several poems in the collections that give (perhaps questionable) advice about love and sex to the young, often to the narrator’s son, but the poetry itself acknowledges the pointlessness of such advice. In ‘Another Poem About China’ he says;

When I finally go to China
I will pollute the Yangtze
With the ghosts of my
unborn children.

I hope a fish swallows
A daughter
So she can teach
all my sons

how to commit
to something
other than suicide.

The wisdom he passes on has the feel, at times, of religious instruction from a priest who’s lost his faith but can’t quite manage to give up hope, in the clear awareness that “the entity known as Hope/ feloniously spread[s] the infection/ known as optimism. It is his ambivalent relationship with hope, I suspect, that lies at the core of the collection. He addresses the problem directly.

Dear Hope...
Thank you for showing
that sometimes you need a lie
to float above the truth.

Love may be dead - “that’s why,” as he says in 'Why There are no more Unicorns, My Child,' “you can’t quite wipe out the aftertaste of extinction,” – but he lives, probably in spite of his better judgement, with a belief in its perpetual resurrection.

An Interview With Jesse Bradley

T.T. The collection as a whole reads like the diary of a very intense relationship on the edge. One side of a love story. Dodging Traffic veers between tremendous physical/sexual/verbal tenderness and violence on all those levels, sometimes in the same poem. It operates outside my comfort zone, which I take to be the point of the exercise. It’s combative. It plays with the old trope ‘the battle of the sexes’ and pushes it in all directions. What do you feel is gained, poetically, by the pushing? Any comments on your philosophy of love? Any other comments?

J.B. Congratulations, you are the first person who gets how I put together Dodging Traffic. It was a love story about my ex-wife and I, the dating and adventures I had before and then while with her. We had a very intense relationship and the poems show that. Now, it's a time capsule of my relationship with her.
The battle of the sexes is an old trope and with old tropes, the challenge is to address them differently. What is gained by pushing poetically is a new pair of eyes that lets you see everything, address everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I love incredibly hard and I also let go incredibly hard, like cutting the limb off before the gangrene spreads. I just had my first amicable break up ever, and it was nice not to have to cut off my arm, for once.

T.T. Many of the poems in Dodging Traffic present bits of a slagging match, perhaps like the African American “playing the dozens” or “signifying,” an artistic hurling of insults with the reader as audience. They share some of the formulaic patterns, the use of rhyme (often subtle in your case), and the shift in speech rhythms away from the natural, of that form. This sort of exchange – assuming it’s meant to be seen as part of an exchange and not just as an assault - is supposed to be a way of harnessing aggression with the constraints of form and language. How do you see your use of it? What is it doing, in the context of relationship story presented in the book?

J.B. I'm not someone who is into saying 'fuck you' directly. There are better ways to say it and, when I want to write a punch, I write it to where you are misdirected and distracted enough until it is too late and you can't dodge the hand coming for your stomach. I only write these sort of poems when provoked. I'm not into starting but I will finish.

In the context of the relationship story, they are kiss-offs to various lovers, people in my life, roadblocks on the way to the destination.

T.T. Simile is the rhetorical device of choice here, often used to add punch to an insult. You look worn, like a youth hostel mattress. Your face looks like a swine flu outbreak in a small town. Like a necrophile the day after Katrina hit New Orleans... He wore his skin like a strop... But they are almost always implicit, leaving the reader to worry about what, exactly, you intended. In a slagging match the poor sod on the receiving end of some of these lines would have to stop and figure out just how offended he/she ought to be. In other words, the poems feel immediate, but are not. They suggest something tossed off, but can’t be taken in as quickly as they’re thrown out, which is part of the point of the contests I mentioned earlier, but in the context of poetry they leave the reader a little unsure of his footing. Comment?

J.B. They aren't all insults. They are different ways of saying things without being explicit because saying you want to ejaculate on someone's face is too obvious and dirty. The context of the poem determines whether the simile is insulting or jaw dropping in its own way. You have to read all of the poem to get the flavor.

T.T. There’s a sub category of poems in Dodging traffic – a group of poems not called “Advice to the young on conducting themselves in life.” “Son, scrotal sweat makes a poor calendar...” “But honest to blog, you’re keeping the baby?” Poems as explicit as “Lesson Plan,” “One day, you will wear hickeys like a varsity jacket.” Obviously they’re all taking the mickey, but perhaps you could comment further.

J.B. The "But honest to blog" line comes from "Juno MacGuff to Bristol Palin", where the main character from Juno addressed an at-the-time pregnant Bristol Palin. The two were very similar and it was appropriate at that time for Juno to address Bristol's pregnancy.
Other than that, there is an advice section and yes, these are things I wish I knew, that my mother and stepfather would have told me.

T.T. You do a lot of performance work. How has that affected the way you write? And has it affected what you write about? The immediacy of your audience and critics must make a difference, the lack of barriers between the poem and the minds receiving it.

J.B. Performance work helps give a better attention to how the poem or story sounds aloud. Originally, when I was neck deep in slam, it affected what I wrote about, trying to write what could win now and again. Now, I write what I want. My flash fiction chapbook The Serial Rapist Sitting Behind You is a Robot shows an evolution in my style. I think I'm only going to get more interesting.

T.T. In Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of New York City Poetry Slam, by Cristen O’Keefe Aptowicz, poet John S. Hall comments on his first experience with slam poetry. “ ...I hated it. And it made me really uncomfortable and... it was very much like a sport, and I was interested in poetry in large part because it was like the antithesis of sports.... [I]t seemed to me like a very macho, masculine form of poetry and not at all what I was interested in.” There’s something in his observation that relates to the narrator’s attitude in Dodging Traffic. What do you think about what Hall is saying here?

J.B. Slam is a gimmick that uses competition to get people to listen to poetry. It is a feast or famine sport and if you stick with it for awhile, you get better. It's not for everyone because of that and that's ok. I recommend to everyone to try slam a little. It will make you sharper, more human, more aware on how to interact with an audience.

T.T. In her book Ms O’Keefe says of slam, “One of the more interesting end products (to me, at least) of this constant shifting is that poets in the slam always worry that something -- a style, a project, a poet -- will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new.” Do you agree with her on the challenge aspect of slam, and maybe of writing poetry in general? Dodging Traffic is no longer a new book. What are you working on now? What directions have the challenges moved you in?

J.B. Aptowicz is absolutely right. Slam is a constantly evolving game. I remember watching in 2007 a two time Individual National Poetry Slam champion sacrifice at a bout with a poem he used in his run to the championship. It got one of the lowest scores of the entire night.
I'm working on a lot. From a book perspective, I'm shopping around a flash fiction/poetry hybrid called We Will Live Like Our Ghosts Will Live, which is a sequel to Dodging Traffic. I'm also writing new stories for a chapbook called The Internet Is A Dangerous Place To Live, my second chapbook coming out through Safety Third Enterprises (http://safetythirdenterprises.com). I'm also working on my first short story collection called We Will Celebrate Our Failures, a linked short story collection about people who use Craigslist to break up their engagements, in a messed up pay-it-forward set up. From an events perspective, I have a new fiction reading series starting here in Orlando in May called There Will Be Words in conjunction with Burrow Press. This last year has pushed me into new and interesting directions that I will continue exploring.

T.T. In Poem seeking Poem for NSA Encounter you wrote “I’ve been very bad and I need a poem that knows how to edit me?” Have you written one you feel manages it?

J.B. Yes. Some of the work I've written post-divorce has made me pause and look deep at myself and it has changed the way I deal with relationships.
This poem was just featured in The Scrambler.

The Astrology of Running Into Your Exes

Cigarette ashes grow
from tongues, curl around
gums and gullets.
As the beer bottle empties,
it will remind you of her hand,
his stare.
When the beer bottle smacks
the wall adjacent to a trash can,
do not study the constellation
of brown glass, do not say
‘It sounds just like you.’

Dodging Traffic by Jesse Bradley is available, with his novel The serial Rapist Sitting Behind You is a Rapist, from Ampersand Press.