Monday, April 26, 2010

Dana Ward, Typing Wild Speech (2010)

I lent my copy of this powerful little chapbook to a friend last week, so I’m unable to quote it directly, or mention the publisher—but I had to skip forward in my alphabetical reading binge, as I couldn’t wait longer than a few days to read this book after I got it.

Ward performed in Madison a few weeks back, in the Deceptively Wall-Shaped Poetry Reading, along with John Coletti and Jess Mynes. The reading blew my mind, took my breath away, made me tear up, laugh and think hard. I’d been reading Coletti and Mynes and loving their stuff, but hadn’t yet been able to get my hands on much of Ward’s work. It’s a real revelation in its kind of honest persona-based directness, its talkiness—what is it that works so well in this writing? (Tapping tab key gently with middle finger while thinking—softly enough that it doesn’t get depressed, or even glum—pardon me, I just rode sixty miles on the bike and my mind is erratic). Ah, ok—what Ward read at the Mercury Lounge, and the writing in this book, is often—usually—centered around the speaking “I,” but—and—I get no sense at all that what’s being talked about is supposed to be important simply because it belongs to that “I;” instead, it’s more that only what’s important about the experience of that persona will be discussed, or that anything that comes into the poem will be pulled into the gravitational field of something urgent. That’s a special kind of integrity, which probably wouldn’t be enough to make great writing if it were not also characterized by surprising turns of thought, really sneaky ways of ending us up somewhere without it being clear how we got there—or the occasional screeching swerve into some other trajectory—less a letting-thought-go-where-it-will than a driving while just barely touching the wheel.

Typing Wild Speech is a prose work with a few embedded poems, a “New Narrative”-influenced piece of—I assume—autobiography. In the process of being thrown back into trying to deal with the past suicide of an old close friend (by the resemblance to the friend of the actor playing Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in a film about Curtis’s last days), the narrator (Ward) also tries to break a deadlock in his writing, and part of this attempt is a repeated typing-out of David Larsen’s poem “Wild Speech.” The poem, as it appears in Larsen’s excellent book The Thorn (which I read immediately upon finishing Ward’s text), is handwritten—so Ward is typing a handwritten poem about speech in trying to interrupt his own mental chatter. Though Ward claims that the attempt failed to get him anywhere, the overlaying of these forms works in the finished text as an model for the layering of levels of thought throughout the work.

Ward is skeptical about his own project, suspicious that he’s using the death of a friend as material or impetus for writing; that the concepts he comes up with along the way are insufficiently thought through but sound seductive and effective enough that he’ll end up employing them for a long time; that his notion of what it means to be a poet might be damaging his relationship with his lover Sarah—all important considerations that fall into the general complex of questions about how writing relates to everyday life, to the social and political world, to the larger culture. The self is always doubled by something else—Dana’s recollections of Geoff (already doubled by Curtis) are doubled by a story about the a rich man’s daughter who becomes obsessed with Kurt Cobain’s death. Dana’s perspective is doubled by Sarah’s and called into question by it. A daydream about the perfect crime is doubled by a short love poem that repeats it but takes its narrative in a completely different direction. The entire work is doubled by Larsen’s poem.

Hell. This is one of those books whose excellence is very hard to explain. I give up here, and close by highly recommending that you read Ward’s important work. It’s challenging in ways I didn’t expect, and still don’t, even as those ways recur in me.


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