Dave Church (1947-2008)

01/02/2009

by George Held

Opening the envelope containing the October 2008 Barbaric Yawp, I first took a look at its newsletter, "From the Marrow," and my eyes lit upon the phrase "the late Dave Church" as a contributor to Free Verse. I was shocked and needed confirmation. Before looking for the editor's phone number, I first checked out the bio notes in the Yawp and saw an editorial insertion in Dave's bio note, saying he'd died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day. Then I checked the last letter he'd written me, and saw that it's dated November 17, 2008--ten days before Thanksgiving.

I was overdue to answer it. Dave and I had for the past ten years exchanged one or two letters per month, commenting on the small-press scene, sympathizing over our many rejections and other disappointments in po' biz, and trying out new poems and short stories on each other. Occasionally a published poem would be the result of our silent collaboration. In his last letter, by the way, he mentions the six poems the Yawp's editor included in the October issue: "John B[erbrich] from the YAWP wrote to tell me he would be publishing a bunch of short poems I sent him in the next issue. What I sent him was not a submission, but a sampling of poems for [a] possible book." That book ms. and probably dozens of unpublished poems constitute part of Dave's considerable legacy.

Judging from the memorial comments I've read online, Dave was much admired and will be greatly missed. He corresponded with a number of other poets, and a collection of his letters would chronicle, in his caustic yet dead-pan way, the small-press poetry scene of the past 25 years. His letters to me were full of evaluations of other poets and brickbats aimed at those he considered frauds, hustlers, or wannabes. He also didn't suffer dilatory editors easily: "I no longer cut these publishers any slack. If they don't respond within the time stated in their guidelines (with a two-week grace period), I'll resubmit elsewhere. I don't care anymore. And fuckem if they don't like it. They're not paying me." His indignation was earned by decades of presence in the small-press world and his fundamental sense of fair play. He also had a wry sense of humor that made his letters, like many of his short stories and poems, highly entertaining. If he was at times irascible, as one online memorial claims, it was because he honored poetry so much that he lost patience with those for whom writing poems was a therapeutic mind-game or a means of self-aggrandizement.

We first started corresponding when, in the late '90s, he wrote to ask me to send him some poems for an anthology of underground American poets that he hoped to edit. In 2000 he printed a few of my poems in Full Circle, the occasional broadside he published on his own dime from Represst Publishing, in Providence, the city he inhabited for the past few decades. It was where he set up shop as a bard who supported himself as a hack, a word he loved for its slangy authenticity and the irony of its reference to him as a "hack" writer. But as his collection of short stories Hack Job (2002) shows, he was a writer who took himself as seriously as he deserved, but not too seriously. A series of vignettes of the life of a Providence taxi driver, the collection shows him to have mastered the short-short story as deftly as he had the short poem. In what might have been one of his own scenarios, he died at the wheel as he waited for help after his Checker cab had broken down.

Dave was originally a dairy farmer, working on the family spread in Rhode Island. He had also been a teenage vagabond and was later a house painter in Providence, before he became a cab driver. The mix of jobs and his travels proved more valuable to him as a poet than a degree in creative writing.

As the editor says in his Yawp bio note, Dave had recently been writing a lot of short nature poems, many based on the haiku, like the six printed in this issue. He was able to switch from his mostly urban poems to haiku, because he had no set agenda for his poetry: he found a subject wherever he looked, and his eyes were always keenly open. His openness to subjects and poetic forms made him an original, as did his ornery, independent outlook on life, politics, mores, and poetry itself. He both resisted and rejected classification. Though some might see him as a neo-Beat, a descendant of Bukowski, or a street poet, he eluded any such categories and he was critical of all of them.

Because it eludes any particular school of poetry, the element in a poem he valued most was what he called "mouth-feel," which he mentions in his blurb for my chapbook Grounded. "Mouth-feel," he told me, is the quality of writing that makes a poem sound and feel natural when read aloud, and that quality might be found among poets either known or obscure. Rare as it is, "mouth-feel" resonates in at least one of those last six nature poems in Barbaric Yawp:

     Dark sunrise.
     Last night's fog and rain,
     Lingering.

This brief lyric speaks for no school, except maybe the ancient one of Basho, whose classical simplicity it recalls. Neither Beat, Buk, nor Street, this is just plain great poetry. These words, and many others uttered and authored by Dave Church, will linger at least as long as we do.