Di Brandt discusses her illustrious career, collected in her new book, The Sweetest Dance on Earth, in our latest Quatrain Questions interview.
1. Congratulations on the recent publication of The Sweetest Dance on Earth, which spans and celebrates your incredible literary career. Can you tell us a bit about what the selection process was for distilling your body of work into this collection?
The editor Sarah Ens, herself a talented poet, was extremely helpful—and opinionated—in lending her readerly eye to this monumental task of selecting which poems to include from a forty-year writing and publishing period. We went back and forth a lot, with much laughing along the way (and some crying)! The process became a kind of life review for me, tracing a challenging and hugely transformational trajectory in my poetry and poetics over four decades. Painful, exhilarating, enlightening! I recommend such a review to everyone, whether you’re a writer or not. Who are you, where have you been, what have you done so far with your life, what does it add up to, where are you going? What else do you want to do before it’s all done??
My first “breakout” book was the best selling collection, questions I asked my mother (1987). I was part of the first wave of children from the traditionalist Mennonite colony of southern Manitoba from the so-called West Reserve, in the fertile farmland of the Red River Valley, to have access to free English language high school education. The year I finished high school, the Canada Student Loan Program became unexpectedly available. Suddenly, after the strict lifestyle controls of the villages, I found myself at age 17 financially independent and able to pursue higher education as I chose.
I was almost fated, in a sense, to blaze the new trails from that traditionalist world to the modern, and to the larger world we’d been hearing and reading about in school, in a woman’s voice at that. I feel very privileged to have found so many wonderful teachers, mentors, and fellow writers, to help accomplish that task. And publishers like Turnstone Press and Prairie Fire Magazine and Contemporary Verse 2, willing to take a chance on promoting a new literature like the new Mennonite writing that came into being in Winnipeg in many voices at that time. Dankschein.
It was all a big shock to the villages, and also to the urban Mennonites of Winnipeg, where this new writing and publishing was happening. All these years later I think everyone recognizes the huge changes the whole culture was going through at the time, and the valuable contribution we made to naming those changes experientially and conceptually in our poems and stories. Most of the culture was modernizing, industrializing, anglicizing in the villages and churches (the ones who refused to modernize moved to other less developed economies in Central and South America, but as we know their stories are coming back to us in a very public way now as well).
Coping with all that and moving ahead from there became a major theme in my subsequent poetry collections, Agnes in the sky, and mother, not mother. These collections relied heavily on the liberatory strategies if the women’s movement, which was itself much enabled by the Indigenous cultural renaissance happening all over North America, Turtle Island then. Then my life moved on. I was given the opportunity to travel widely, and to participate in the development of the new regionally and multiculturally inflected Canadian Studies and Creative Writing programs at the universities both in Canada and abroad. My poetry acquired a wider, more contemporary, intercultural, globalized focus.
Living in southern Ontario for a decade jolted me into sharper awareness of the environmental crisis and impending climate change. My 2003 collection Now You Care (published the same year as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake) introduced a new track of environmental poetics, soon to be widely emulated by others since. Walking to Mojácar, with French and Spanish translations by Charles Leblanc and Ari Belathar, blended together regional, environmental, interdisciplinary, transnational, and ecopoetic concerns, influenced by the luminous spiritually inflected poetics of Réne Char and Federico Garcia Lorca, and also helped promote in the now current fashion of multi-language/English poetry publishing in Canada.
Returning to Manitoba and my beloved home landscape of the prairies and Winnipeg led to my appointment as the inaugural Poet Laureate of Winnipeg, and I was delighted to take up the challenge of writing specifically site-based poems about and for Winnipeg during that time.
This is the long trajectory of poetic interest, experience and development we were hoping to capture in glimpses in this volume. There was also a bit of weeding out that went on – some of the angrier or more confrontational poems in the oeuvre no longer seemed au courant now, no longer necessary to say it that way. Above all, we wanted to highlight the “sweetness” of the project in its larger end vision.
2. What was it like revisiting your poems and the contexts in which they were written, and (re)engaging with your younger self? Did you encounter anything (artistically, emotionally, etc.) that you hadn’t expected?
God, yes. I felt I was reliving that whole trajectory of exploration and invention again, and if anything, feeling the challenges and pains and joys of that intense life of creation and invention all over again, perhaps more keenly even than at the time, given how much busier I was for so many years, raising children, building a career. It became a kind of life review, a deep time of self reflection, of who I was at different times of my life, who I am now. What I’ve accomplished (so far), which parts I was most proud of and which I wouldn’t mind doing over, differently, if such a thing were possible. Many more things to figure out and explore, and not nearly done yet!
3. What lasting impact do you think/hope your body of work (thus far) has had on the landscape of Canadian literature?
Well, I do see that I so often have found myself at the cusp of something, and stepped over that edge into new subject areas and forms of expression, not knowing what would come of that, and often without much support from others—what on earth is she up to now?? And then seeing these new things become more common—and widely celebrated—later. That happened many times. Something to be proud of, I guess. Some of it’s just chance, or fate of a sort: I happened to be in a particular place and time with my particular set of eyes and ears and pen, just when something big and new was about to be born. A great privilege to be given that kind of opportunity (and responsibility) over and over.
To speak of this oeuvre and its accomplishments in the larger sense, let me say what a great grand opportunity and privilege it has been to get to participate at the ground level in the primary creation of a new country’s contemporary literature, to participate in the heady moment of our new multicultural and interculturally illuminated literature in the inspiring company of so many other talented and courageous writers. I do not take the grand privileges of this work lightly.
4. What do you see as the next step for your poetry?
I’m halfway through a new poetry manuscript called BAREFOOT: Poetic Meditations. The new poems are coming through me with quite a different voice and sensibility and mode of address than in previous collections, and involve a rethinking of everything I’ve thought and known and written previously. A new internal revolution in the making ha ha. I’m still getting used to this new poetics, what it means, its new possibilities. The poems feel inhabited by a stranger, by strangeness. Who am I, where am I, where is this, all over again. This manuscript was born during the lockdown, and bears the marks of that time of social isolation and sheltering in place – a mostly happy time for me, a sort of rooting in, coming “home,” to the earth, to myself, my mortality, the miracle of life, the larger cosmos, the earthy, the divine. I won’t say too much more about it now—there are more poems to be written first!