07 January 2013

This Can't Be Life

[I went to Buffalo to give a reading a week or two back], the opening piece from Dana Ward’s This Can’t Be Life (Edge Books, 2012), is a narrative about a poetry reading he gave in Buffalo, NY (obviously). Ward concludes his story with the following anecdote:
Anyway, after that part of the reading a man told me my writing wasn’t poetry. That it had formulations within it which were ‘poetic’, the thinking was ‘poetic’ but the writing itself, the long lines, the occasional prosaic sounds, these things had corrupted it completely. Poetry was vertical he said, & compact, & not full of messy articles or haphazard prepositions. (12)
Insofar as Ward writes this piece (along with a considerable portion of the book) in a manner both visually and sonically prosaic, he challenges commonplace notions of a poem's need to be “vertical” and “compact,” etc. A cursory glance through This Can’t Be Life reveals, instead, that Ward composes in a genre that we can't “really name,” or a genre that he “refused to name simply” (11). This desire to write in an unnamable genre, it seems, stems from an anxiety within the poet regarding originality and a fear of churning out just another tired poem; or, in his own words: “See why I’m nervous at the level of production? / Anything can be convention” (20).

Yes, anything quickly can become “convention,” and, to Ward's mind, such a drive toward convention undermines the purpose of a poem. The poet, instead, intends to create an undefinable space that defies aesthetic distinctions. Likewise, in the manner he conflates memoir with poetry, it “wouldn’t be wrong to…call” the space he creates “life. Nor would it be wrong to call it poetry” (12). The mixture of life and art, prose and poetic “formulations,” then, “makes the space awkward” so that “even the words seems to drain us of speech” (128) and their ability to name and provide formal designations.

To this extent, the draining-effect of Ward’s first book can be understood as an interrogation of and affront to poems and poetic sensibilities. But it’s not just the poem and its aesthetic traits that he questions; in fact, he problematizes the very notion of what it means to be a poet. In his epically-conceived “Typing ‘Wild Speech’,” Ward writes:
Take for instance the notion of ‘poet’. I’ve allowed a lot of myth to hold sway over how I perform that for myself…[I] make a deep claim on the mantle & with varying critiques & complicating models re-fit that space & thus [my] life. I used to see ‘being a poet’ as an intoxicating costume that was just over there & if I could inch ever closer to it I’d be contaminated fully & mixed with its essence forever. Often times I have nothing to add to this confusion beyond the lightning storm of my own political depravations, for which my poetry is an endless sea of waiting metal rods. So there’s the face of part of my trouble. (66)
To his mind, the term “poet” is at once a “myth,” a “contamination,” and a state of “confusion” that one must “perform”; but not without offering various “critiques & complicating models” that “re-fit” the complex space containing both art and life. Yes, to be a poet is to be in a state of “confusion” wherein one must “commit crimes against the position” so as to “open up…value” (68), which itself is complication. To be a poet is to destroy one's own ontology, then re-build oneself with different parameters.

But for Ward, the confusions and complications that create value in the space of the poem and the poet extend to the broader communities, institutions, industries, and worlds of poetry as well. In “The End of the Far West,” he writes:
What institutional worlds am I of, & asked singly, by me, does the question really matter or is it grounded finally in collective intuitions about the fate of poetry broadly, its myriad relational tensions scaffolding over some pulsing unknown?

I kept hearing in my head a voice that said “I just don’t care”, & I resented this voice for being cavalier. I was certain its intent was to trick me; to render institutional complicity invisible by shrugging like a beautiful teenager, a voice that had no clue its attitude was in some ways a production, an effect, of the institution’s power to establish itself as a point of relational departure. (107-108)
The poet begins by asking “What institutional world am I of,” all the while aware that the “myriad relational tensions scaffolding over some pulsing unknown” render the answer to this question more foggily intuitive than systematically definitive. Of course, to respond apathetically to the fogginess with “I just don’t care” does not absolve the poet of assessing his or her place in the broader poetic community. In fact, apathy can be understood as a “production, an effect, of the institution’s power to establish itself as a point of relational departure.” In other words, if one self-identifies as a poet, locating oneself in the complex continuum of aesthetics, personalities, and beliefs is, perhaps, a necessary task.

After all the questioning and interrogations, though, This Can’t Be Life succeeds because it is heart-felt, humorous, honest, and intelligent. Whether eulogizing a deceased friend, joking about the origins of flamethrowers, working through theoretical and philosophical positions, dropping an unattributed quote from Old School, or sharing the most intimate of personal moments, Ward constructs a complicated and awkward space that allows his unique and unnamable poetry to flourish.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Joshua. Love the book—especially for its determined indeterminacy, as you point out here.