“We were not causing the changes happening in the culture so much as documenting them”: 5 Questions with Di Brandt

Di Brandt’s poetry publications include the bestselling, internationally acclaimed questions i asked my mother, recently re-issued in a 30th anniversary tribute edition with Afterword by Tanis MacDonald, as well as Agnes in the sky; mother, not mother; Now You Care; and Walking to Mojacar, with French and Spanish translations by Charles Leblanc and Ari Belathar. Her numerous awards for poetry include the Gerald Lampert Award for “best first book of poetry in Canada,” a Silver National Magazine Award, the CAA National Poetry Prize, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, and the Foreword Gold Medal for Fiction (with Annie Jacobson and Jane Finlay-Young). She is also a scholar of note, and the critical anthology she edited with Barbara Godard, Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women’s Poetry, received the Gabrielle Roy Prize for “best book of literary criticism in Canada,” and was shortlisted for the Canada Prize in the Humanities. Di Brandt has taught at the Universities of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Alberta, Windsor (Ontario), and Brandon University, where she founded the Creative Writing program together with playwright Dale Lakevold. She has given readings, lectures and guest workshops across Canada and around the world. Di Brandt was recently named the inaugural Poet Laureate for the City of Winnipeg, for 2018 to 2019.  

1. What compelled you to start writing?

Like most poets, I began paying attention to poetry very early, in early childhood. I was lucky to grow up in a religious and literary extended family, where Bible readings and poetry recitations were part of our normal lives, and formally featured at holiday celebrations. Everyone  knew how to recite tons of poetry “by heart,” as the saying goes. Everyone knew how to compose poetry for any occasion, ribald poetry in Plautdietsch for the farmyard, eloquent expressions of praise and lament in German for churchy occasions like weddings and funerals and high holidays, poetry in English at school and among friends. It was a deeply poetic culture, as traditionalist cultures usually are. (It was also separatist-minded, so publishing books of poetry in English that talked about Darp life in any way was considered controversial when I began publishing poetry in the 1980s. I don’t think it’s as controversial now, everyone has assimilated to the modern in so many ways by now.)

2. You’ve traveled to many far-flung places for readings of your works. Do the people you meet on these occasions know anything about Mennonites?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It’s not usually the first thing people are interested in when reading my poetry. It’s not usually identified as “Mennonite poetry” by people outside the culture, it’s much more often thought of as “prairie poetry,” or “Canadian poetry,” or “women’s poetry,” or “eco-poetry,” or “feminist poetry,” or poetry about landscape, the body, spirituality, violence, the erotic, dogs, rivers, love, highways, the city, the neo-Romantic and the mythopoetic, and so on.

3. What has been the highlight of your career?

One of the most exciting literary experiences I’ve had was performing at the famous international Medellin Poetry Festival in Colombia, South America. They host a fabulous Festival, 10 days long, featuring 50 poets from around the world, all performing in their own languages, along with local performers reading the Spanish translations, often translated by the Festival translator for the occasion. The level of poetic intelligence and appreciation in the large, expressive audiences, ranging anywhere from 300 to 5,000 people, was astonishing, and eye-opening. It is poetry heaven on earth! It was so wonderful to meet so many talented poets from everywhere, many of whom I’d only read about, and never dreamed of meeting in person. The hospitality, too, was extraordinary. I asked one of the organizers how he accounted for the exceptional calibre of the Festival and the strong local support for it, when that’s so hard to come by anywhere in the world now. He said, See those four mountains outside the window surrounding Medellin like a bowl? There are poetry gods living in those mountains and they told us to hold this Festival and promised to help us with it.

4. Some have said your work didn’t cause a new zeitgeist in southern Manitoba Mennonite culture, but rather documented it. What are your thoughts on that?

As I’ve observed in my writing elsewhere, we, the new Mennonite writers of Manitoba, were widely accused 30 years ago by the traditionalist-minded Mennonites (not just in the Darpa, but in Winnipeg too) of attempting to “destroy” the culture. I think it’s really clear now, 30 years later, that we were not causing the changes happening in the culture so much as documenting them. Manitoba Mennonites were in the process of modernizing in every aspect of their lives at that time, rapidly, transitioning from a sort of “pre-medieval” thinking and life practice, and (at least in the Darpa) old German and Plautdietsch-speaking, peasant-minded ways of being, to the postmodern. That’s an incredible leap, and it happened so fast, it was dizzying for us all.

Each of us participating in the new Mennonite writing project of trying to name what was happening, and building bridges between our Mennonite identities and our emerging modern selves, came to it more or less alone. But then we found out there was a whole group of us doing it at the same time, and it was really great to find such imaginative collegial support in our creative work. That is to say, making art wasn’t a new thing for any of us, but making it in the hybrid context of Manitoba at that time, where we hoped to articulate our Mennoniteness while at the same time participating in the cosmopolitan, urban-minded postmodern we had been schooled in, that was new. That was the “hot” thing. And it was great, in the end, not to have to be doing it all alone after all.

Patrick Friesen, Armin Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, Vic Enns, Maurice Mierau, these were important “new Mennonite” literary colleagues and friends. But there were many other people who helped us, helped me specifically, to become a professional writer, the people at Turnstone Press, who were dedicated to the development of a local literature here in Manitoba, David Arnason and Dennis Cooley and others; Robert Kroetsch who had made a name for himself elsewhere and came back to the prairies to teach and inspire us here; Robert Enright of CBC Radio and Television, and founding editor of Border Crossings Magazine; Andris Taskans and Kate Bitney, founding mentors of the Manitoba Writers Guild and the influential Prairie Fire Magazine; Dorothy Livesay and the women at Contemporary Verse 2, particularly Pamela Banting and Jan Horner. Paul Hiebert, of Sarah Binks fame, was one of my early mentors – imagine that! I met him in the Carman Museum in the park, having wandered off from a family gathering, at the end of high school. He struck up a conversation with me, then a friendship, and a correspondence, that was very endearing and astonishing to me.

The Winnipeg literary scene was a really hopping place by the time I was ready to begin writing for publication (as opposed to writing for my secret drawer, as I’d mostly been doing until then). It was quite a different thing, addressing real live readers instead of the deep dark silence of the secret drawer! I’m very grateful to have been so well encouraged and mentored by so many lovely people, and to have been celebrated so widely for my poetry. It has been a hugely transformative and rewarding experience for me over the years, and I hope for the readers and other people touched by it as well.

5. I’ve noticed you have some pretty killer hats. Do you purchase most of them here in southern Manitoba, or have you found your favourites in your travels?

Thanks! Though you make me sound like a fashion plate when really I’m mostly a casual aging hippie! Mind you, fashion was always of great interest to the women of my family (as I’ve written about in questions i asked my mother) – partly because of the complexity of the official anti-fashion attitudes of the church, partly because designing and sewing clothes for the family was one of the loveliest outlets for artistic expression available to the women. A fancy balancing act for us all that required great concentration and ingenuity to accomplish. And well, hats, as you know Mennonite women were required to cover their heads in church until very recently, so our mothers spent quite a lot of energy on finding “killer hats” themselves. It’s great that fashion codes have become so mix and match nowadays, don’t you agree. You can wear your hemline anywhere from the mid-thigh to the ankle. You can mix and match anything, including pajama bottoms and fancy skirts. You can find cool hats for all occasions everywhere.