The Di Brandt Interview

Di Brandt has published more than a dozen books of poetry, fiction, creative essays and literary criticism, and has received numerous prestigious awards in several genres. She has held prestigious appointments at several Canadian universities and has given literary readings and lectures at festivals, conferences and other venues around the world. She was honoured to serve as Winnipeg’s inaugural poet laureate for 2018-2019. 

Di Brandt is a proud mother and grandmother. She grew up in a traditionalist Mennonite farming village in southern Manitoba. She has travelled widely and lived at different times in Edmonton, Windsor (Ontario), Toronto, and Berlin (Germany). She lives in Winnipeg and teaches Canadian Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Winnipeg. 

The Sweetest Dance on Earth (New and Selected) is out now with Turnstone Press. 

What was it like going through your past collections and thinking about the new pieces, and what was it like in isolation looking over all this self?  

I thought it would be easy and fun to put together a New and Selected, a more or less “free” book in the sense that much of it had been published previously. All I’d have to do is cherry-pick my favourite poems published over the past several decades, and add a few new ones, and voilá!  a new book!  In fact, it was a deep and occasionally wrenching experience, sifting through all the earlier books and re-placing poems written and published in a particular historical context into the contemporary moment. Many times I felt I was reliving the moments of their original making, except with more overview of what it all cost, and also what it all created or transformed. The process became a kind of “life review” for me. Who have I been, what have I thought and said, what does my life’s work add up to so far?  I suppose it must be like this for every writer who puts together a Selected or Collected, but I didn’t really know that before, and now I do!  And so now you know too!   

What were some of the challenges of working with so much poetry at once?

Some of the challenges of recontextualizing was about claiming my own aging, and coming to appreciate in a deeper way the beautiful visionary benefits available to elders, grandmothers, and older women! The recognition of time passing, the way everything changes and also the way many things recur in the next generation. I think I want to write a book about elder poetics, about grandmother poetics, now. The delight of getting to see and appreciate all that in a deeper way.  How fascinating an experience to have arrived at!  

Were there any poets you kept in mind as you put the final poems together?

I keep thinking of the great Dorothy Livesay, whom I was lucky enough to know personally during the last brilliant decades of her life.  She was such an inspiration to me, and to so many others, women especially. She brought so many new topics into poetry in English in such stylish and grand ways, grandmothers, a frank depiction of women’s sexuality, and intergenerational relations, as well as many political topics that women weren’t used to writing about at the time, geopolitics, labour politics, war, the Japanese internment, etc. etc. Her beautiful, Selected The Self-Completing Tree has been a companion to me in my literary life since it came out.   

Were there any poems you thought you simply couldn’t include?[Text Wrapping Break] 

Sometimes writers feel embarrassed to include early poems in later collections because they’ve grown so much in their craft since those earlier poems were written. I didn’t actually feel that way, I think my early poems are as good, maybe better, craft-wise, expression-wise, than my current writing!  But I did feel a bit of a cringe rereading some of the work, thinking that I have certainly grown in maturity and overview and I think kindness since my early work.  At the same time, I wanted to honour who I was then and how I got from there to here in the most generous and perceptive way possible. Sarah and I agreed that we couldn’t include all the poems we still like a lot in the oeuvre, so there are many more good poems in the books being cited in this one!  So hopefully this Selected will inspire readers to go seek out the previous collections as well.      

We live in a virtual world now. But some of us, born in the 20th century, remember a time 30 years ago when virtual reality was ushered in as the future. How do you view the tech boom with the ever-changing landscape of Canadian poetry? 

Well, it’s exciting, of course, to be living in a time with so much change.  Also bewildering at times.  For a person like me who experienced the transition from traditional orality to text culture, the shift to digital feels both familiar and strange. My peasant farming parents would warn us about the dangers of reading books and getting distracted away from the immediate real world into made-up fictions of places and times far away.  Now parents and teachers warn the children – and each other – about getting distracted into the endless rabbit holes of the internet.  And reading books is often construed as somehow virtuous. 

The thing about poetry is that it predates the printing press by millennia. We can imagine it’s the original human language.  If you look at the way little children come into speech, you can see how they begin with rhythm, sound, babble, rhyme, and all kinds of silly wordplay that is the envy and wonder of grown-up poets everywhere!  The novel was born only a few centuries ago, with the advent of the printing press, and more or less depends on print and text culture to flourish.  Poetry can easily exist orally, textually and also digitally.  It’s a quantum language that operates in so many dimensions at once. It can be deep, silly, fantastical, realist, long, short, childlike or epic, it can be satirical, funny, philosophical, dreamy, spiritual, irreverent, and filled with innuendo, sometimes all at the same time. It can be written down, performed, recited, and mixed with other media. It can be experienced alone, in a small group, in a huge crowd, on paper, on a screen, or “by heart,” as we used to say. We don’t have to worry about it ever going out of style. 

It’s of course interesting, worrisome and curious that the literary market as we’ve developed it in Canada is becoming more difficult to sustain at a time when literary production as such has become super easy compared to how it used to be.  Our understanding of what a literary text is, and what it’s for, is also in a radical shift at this time.  Again, that’s both exciting and a great creative possibility for new envisioning, and inventing, and also worrisome, especially for those of us who’ve been in the business for a while and have known it in a particular way.   

I’m interested in the way digital production is returning us to a kind of performative “secondary orality,” as Walter Ong called it. Literacy, even though it is so central to modern life, is quite a difficult skill to acquire and practice. Digital literacy, by contrast, is super easy to practice, every little kid can do it. Sesame Street was a fascinating exercise in bridging text and digital literacy at the time the internet was just coming into social use. And it ended up contributing to the emergence of a new zone of mixed media poetic practice that poets like bpNichol and Lllian Allen and Christian Bők each in their very different ways, took brilliant advantage of! To the great enjoyment and inspiration of us all.  

What is the oldest and the youngest poem in your New and Selected. 

The oldest – or earliest, youngest – sequence is from questions i asked my mother, my first published poetry collection, and my “break out” book, as they call it nowadays. I was a young, very shy, very scared in fact, writer, who’d lose her voice every time she had to stand up and say something in public.  That was because she grew up in that traditional Mennonite village where women were not allowed to speak in public, or to have independent opinions about anything, really. Though it was at the same time a poetic culture, a musical culture, saturated with artistic appreciation and practices, so a great inspiration as well.  

I was living a dual identity in Winnipeg, the part of me that grew up in that culture and still carried it around with me in every cell, in my bone marrow.  And the modern Canadian who was enjoying the wild new freedoms and opportunities of the 70s counterculture, and working hard to acquire a modern university education and figure out how to deploy that into a professional career (at a time when that wasn’t common for women, so not much advice or support forthcoming anywhere on how to accomplish it). 

My aspiration was to figure out how to bridge the gap between these two identities through the poems I was writing. And I did accomplish that, I think, eventually, but I hadn’t realized how volatile and risky that gap was, how hard it would be to reach across!  There were many enabling movements happening at the time, which I’m hugely grateful to, such as the emergence of “multiculturalism” as an official Canadian policy, the women’s movement which encouraged women to learn how to speak in public and tell their stories despite whatever teachings they’d been given about the virtues of keeping silent. The appearance of CanLit in universities. The emergence of local literary publishing on the prairies.  The invention of writer’s guilds and unions and associations and leagues and literary performance series. Public funding models for literary creation and production, like the Canada Council for the Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council. A robust and well-funded international Canadian Studies program.   

The youngest poems in The Sweetest Dance on Earth – or the eldest, going chronologically according to my age when writing them – include a fun sequence of poems I wrote a few years ago when I enjoyed the privilege of serving as the inaugural Poet Laureate of Winnipeg. Writing poems “for” a city is quite different from how I usually think about writing poems, and I enjoyed the variation and challenge of it very much.