The Dominique Bernier-Cormier Interview

Entering Entre Rive and Shore: a Brief Interview with Dominique Bernier-Cormier 

In the Spring of this year (2023), Dominique Bernier-Cormier published Entre Rive and Shore (Goose Lane), a tour de force on translation and displaced Acadian identity. You can find a review of the book on TMR here by Jami Macarty. Displaced anglophone New Brunswicker Shane Neilson reached out to Bernier-Cormier to discuss the unique and mesmerizing structure of his sophomore collection, and Dominique was kind enough to provide the following generous response: 

Can you comment generally on the structure of Entre Rive and Shore?   

The central, load-bearing column of the book is a series of experimental translations. I take a poem I wrote in French about my ancestor’s escape from a British jail during the Acadian Deportation, and I put it through different translation filters/processes to figure out what that story has to teach me about linguistic disguise, bilingualism and the translation of the self. Each translation is accompanied by a “note” that explains my thinking around these issues.  

Those translations are dispersed at regular intervals throughout the book; and although they don’t constitute the majority of the book, I consider them to be the central element. The rest of the book is composed of a few long poems, an essay, bilingual fragments, excerpts from an email my dad sent me, and a series of self-portrait poems as various historical figures. 

What models guided you when it came to structure?   

For the multimodality: Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Layli Longsolider’s Whereas. For the polyphony: anything by C.D. Wright, David Seymour’s Inter Alia. For the meta-textuality: Klara du Plessis’ Ekke, Monica de la Torre’s Repetition Nineteen. For the visual experimentation: Diana Koy Nguyen’s Ghost Of. In general, I’ve always appreciated books that deal in many forms, but still feel cohesive. I like to feel chaos slowly organize itself. I like to see the patterns emerge somewhere down the line. Shapelessness finding its shape through accumulation, through convergence. 

How does the structure advance the aims of the book? Can you give a couple of specific examples, to help demonstrate the principles at work? 

The structure settled very late in the editing process and was the result of two important breakthroughs about the subject and aim of the book. My first book had a very strict structure that I wrote “into,” or “onto.” For this second book, I knew I wanted the structure to emerge more organically through the writing process. I wanted to try different forms, modes, and voices without worrying about how they’d fit together. I wanted to trust that patterns and order would emerge through accumulation. I wanted to roam, pick, gather. 

The problem was that when I turned to structure, when I finally emptied my basket on the kitchen table to see what I’d gathered, there was no discernable pattern, no organizing principle. So, I arranged it however nicely I could and sent it off to my editor, Sheryda Warrener. At our first meeting, Sheryda asked me a simple question: Do you know what this book is about? And I said: Oh, it’s about so many things! Language loss, black holes, fate, Acadia, invasive species, disguises. And she said: Yes, all those things are in the book, but it’s not what the book is about. The book is about translation, in its many forms: translation of language, self, culture, land. That was the first breakthrough. 

The next thing I had to figure out, then, was what my poems said about (self-)translation and bilingualism, and I quickly realized that they said many different and contradictory things: translation was good, bad, inevitable, a choice; translation was a rift, a joining, a disguise, a crossing, a prophecy. I struggled with that for a long time. How could I write a cohesive book without a focused message? 

Then, I remembered someone saying that a poem isn’t an end-thought, but rather, that a poem is a record of the poet’s mind in the act of thinking. And I remembered what Mary Ruefle said about the lines of a poem: that they don’t speak to the reader; they speak to each other. And I realized that my book shouldn’t try to present a defendable thesis about translation. That rather, it should take the reader through the evolution of my thinking about translation and bilingualism, that it should be a record of my thinking about these issues. 

And so, the book started organizing itself along those lines: from the feeling that (self-)translation is a violent rift to the hope that it can be a prophetic joining. Every part of the book follows that progression. The experimental translations go from “Rift” to “Vision”. My father’s letter goes from his angst that I had written my first book in English, to a peace about me finding my way through language. My Notes go from wondering whether Pierrot’s dress symbolizes French or English, to understanding that it represents neither, and both, but mostly our ability to use language in new and liberating ways. The book also becomes more “bilingual” as it progresses, ending on a poem that fully blends the syntaxes of both. 

The varied forms within – code-switching lyric, opposite self-translation, lyric essay, transcribed email conversation, erasure, overwriting – what guided your arrangement of these in terms of sequence? 

I guess I mostly answered that question above.   

But I’ll add that I tried to balance the different forms, to spread them out, to braid them evenly. My lyrics poems can be pretty dense, and Sheryda and I both had the feeling that they needed to be balanced with more straightforward prose pieces (like the correspondence and essay). I’m comfortable with putting the reader in a state of near-understanding (that’s what poetry does!), but there were also some things that I wanted to say very plainly. I’m hoping that the prose grounds the readers from time to time, while the more lyric pieces put them back in that unstable poetry dream-state. 

I also tried to produce some echoes by placing some pieces in proximity to each other. So for example, I placed my poem about Sainte Bernadette and my essay about Young Thug (who both claim to have visions) close to each other; my father’s email about Acadian French mirroring the cadence of the sea next to a poem about an art installation predicting sea level rise; a line about bilingualism as betrayal just before a poem about Mata Hari, the spy who was unjustly executed for being a double-agent.  

Where does this book fit into the tradition of Acadian poetry? Where do you want it to fit?   

At our cottage on the Cap-de-Cocagne, the bookshelves are filled with sun-bleached Acadian poetry journals and books from the 70s and 80s. When I started writing poetry in my early twenties, that was a treasure trove. That Acadian poetry felt so free, so electric. Often, the books weren’t made of individual poems, like polished pebbles, but fragments, rants, dreams, like a frothing sea. And they were as focused on the aesthetic as the political.  

For me, the poetry of that generation is defined by the two polar charges of Gérald Leblanc and Herménégilde Chiasson. I’d like to think I’ve inherited something of both: Leblanc’s ability to freely wander from language to language, city to city, to write about Acadia in New York, in Vancouver, and his romanticism; Chiasson’s political streak, his experimentalism, his engagement with the visual, and his ambition to write books that move culture. 

At the same time, I hope that my book can contribute, in a small way, to a new movement in Acadian literature that propulses its aesthetics and politics into the future. The traditional themes of Acadian literature are more relevant than ever: displacement, resilience, hybridity. What can the Deportation teach us about climate change displacement? What can Chiac teach us about the future of languages, including Indigenous languages? Those are the kinds of questions that interest me. 

What kind of epic poems stemming from Acadian identity do you want to see more of?   

Like I said, I think Acadian people, writers, and poets are perfectly positioned to write about the future. So I’d love to see an epic, speculative Acadian poem about linguistic and climate resiliency, something that projects itself forward, that moves back and forth between the past and the future, between languages, between displacement and belonging.