AOTM: Di Brandt

The author of six books of poetry, and numerous critical collections and collaborations, award-winning writer Di Brandt is our May Author of the Month. Di, whose groundbreaking book questions i asked my mother won the Gerald Lampert Award for Best First Book nearly thirty years ago, continues to push the boundaries of Canadian Literature.  She shares with us a few thoughts about her creative process in 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Di Brandt.

The author of six books of poetry, numerous critical collections and collaborations, award-winning writer Di Brandt is our May Author of the Month. Di, whose groundbreaking book questions i asked my mother won the Gerald Lampert Award for Best First Book nearly thirty years ago, continues to push the boundaries of Canadian Literature.  She shares with us a few thoughts about her creative process in 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Di Brandt (below).

Di Brandt's book with Turnstone Press are:

questions i asked my mother

Jerusalem Beloved

Agnes in the Sky

Walking to Mojácar


19 Questions about Process: An interview with Di Brandt


When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?

I began making up poems and stories in my head at age 3, or maybe earlier, long before I learned to read and write. And then after I did learn that magical trick, opening up such an amazing world of other people’s visions and experiences to me, I started doing it quite purposefully, comparing myself in secret to L.M. Montgomery and Wolfgang von Goethe, from quite a young age. Astonishing to think about that now.

I wasn’t ready to publish a book until my mid-30s, though I had been writing privately all that time. That was because of the fraught intercultural context I found myself in, growing up with one foot in the conservative, traditionalist culture of my Mennonite heritage, and one foot in the radically other, cosmopolitan, postmodern world of contemporary urban Canada.

I left my village world at age 17, and landed smack at the height of Winnipeg’s counter culture scene, in the late 60s and early 70s. What an exciting time to grow up! But that huge cultural leap was also, as you can imagine, very confusing. I had to figure out how to straddle those different worlds successfully in order to find my voice, and stand up in front of people and have something coherent to say.

I never thought of creative writing as a private or individual act. I understood its ritual, sacred, shapeshifting, public, communal implications from the beginning. It’s an extraordinary responsibility, and yet must be taken on lightly, playfully, provisionally, in order to keep its transformative, spiritual dimensions alive and lively.

Do you still submit individual poems to magazines and journals for publication? Why or why not?

Most of my publications in magazines, books and anthologies have been by invitation, or someone’s recommendation.   I’ve been very fortunate and well looked after, very generously sponsored, in that way. I realize that’s not most writers’ experience, so I feel lucky and grateful to have had that kind of grand welcome, in the Canadian and international literary scene.

I’m grateful to be receiving so much retrospective professional recognition for the radical act of publishing questions i asked my mother nearly thirty years later. It’s rare for women to receive that kind of long view recognition, in this culture, while they’re still living. I appreciate it very much.  

What inspires you?

Everything and anything can be inspiring, when you are able to receive it that way, as inspiration, as that creative whisper, that little nudge, and sometimes, that whopping kick in the arse, to get you to take the next step in imaginative transformation and creative expression.

Is there a particular time of day which you write best?

I used to be a seriously late night person, but as I get older, I’m finding myself more able to write at any time of the day, as the spirit moves, even sometimes first thing in the morning.

What is your typical writing routine like?

Yikes. I don’t have a typical writing routine. I don’t even have a regular writing place. I have a desk, and a study, but it’s not where I usually write. I find it’s easier to write poetry outside, or on my sofa, or at the dining room table. It’s great that our little laptop computers have become so light and portable now, you can take them anywhere. I like to write anywhere that’s conducive to that kind of wild, meandering, openness to radical discovery and dialogue with the other, necessary for real poetic exploration and discovery. I’m also an academic and I can get very focussed, very purposeful, in that part of my life. But for poetry, you have to stay cool, you have to stay unpurposeful, unexpert, receptive, like a dog, or a child, tuned in to other dimensions, to the immediate possibilities of the random encounter. Ready to jump, but without a mission. Travelling is very conducive that way, but staying home is as well, indulging in that beautiful feeling of rootedness in one place, the deep familiarity of every inch of grass and every tree, which was once considered necessary to human well being, but is rare for most people to ever have, at all, now.

How do you know that a poem is finished? Is a poem ever finished for you?

Oh yes. There is a definite moment when it’s finished, when it’s the best it will ever be. Sometimes it feels quite perfect, other times still a little murky but nevertheless done with me. It’s an uncanny thing, really. You can’t put a magnifying glass on the poetic process, it holds a lot of mystery, there’s a spiritual dimension to it that is bigger than we are, wiser than we are, we can follow and serve it, but we can’t capture or control it. And yet it’s very tangible, you definitely know when it’s happening and when it’s not. And when it’s over. When it says to you, ok, that’s enough now, take a hike. Ask me again later.

Some writers prefer the process of composing a manuscript while others prefer the editorial stage of fine tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?

I’m not sure these things are as clearly distinguishable for poets as they are for novelists or biographers or essayists. It’s hard to tell how many drafts there are now, when most writing/editing is happening on the computer.

I have not relied on editors as much as many other writers do, because I’m writing out of such a unique intercultural experience, and inventing many new things that other people around me haven’t done, such as inventing a new poetic line, a new way of using spacing on the page, a new way of combining oral and textual sensibilities, a new way of combining a traditionalist mythopoetic vision with the contemporary and postmodern, a new way of marrying religious practice with the feminine, a new way of remembering and recuperating an intergenerational maternal literary lineage, a new way of talking about the ecopoetic, and so on, and so on.

Which is not to say that there weren’t a lot of inspiring mentors and literary models and beautiful editors to draw on, just that most people I’ve hung out with haven’t been doing what I’m doing, or what I’m interested in doing, and so I’ve had to create a very independent creative space for myself, to figure these things out more or less alone. But it’s been very gratifying to see how many other people have found these explorations and expressions useful in their own lives and creative experiments afterward.

While editing a manuscript do you ever start writing or working on something else?

I always work on several projects at once. That way if I get stuck or lose interest in one of them, I can turn to the next one without losing the momentum or flow. Also, it’s just how my mind works, I multi-track, perhaps because I grew up in three languages and cultures, perhaps because I looked after many children in my life, while also doing other, adult things, so it comes very naturally to me. I’m trying to slow down a bit now, and not work so quickly or competitively as I used to. More slo mo.  It’s not all that easy for me, when I’m naturally inclined to be quick, quicker than most people. I can easily run on ahead. I’m trying for an endorphin based creative economy now, rather than adrenaline based, so as to be able to contribute tranquillity, and long range vision, to our increasingly stressed and hurried, and harried, cultural moment. And to be comfortable in the nothing at the heart of it, and the liminal, the not knowing, the in between.

Do you journal? How does journaling figure into your writing process?

No. I keep notes in files. But not in an organized way.

You’ve travelled extensively. What how has travel figured into your creative process? Do you write on the road, or do you prefer to just take it all in and compose once you are “home” in your usual writing environment?

Well, I’ve been writing and travelling a long time, and the process keeps changing, you know? Eventually one has tried every available combination. Including staying home once in awhile.

What trip was your favourite? What piece of work evolved from that journey?

I’ve loved all the travelling I’ve done. It’s an extraordinary privilege to have lived and worked in an era where easy cheap world travel was possible, and where writers were honoured as important cultural world ambassadors. I’m saying that in the past tense because that sort of thing is getting harder for many people now.

I really loved living in Berlin for some months, a few years ago. An extraordinary city, a city of artists and visionaries, gingerly reuniting its formerly separated parts and making amends for its part in a terrible war half a century ago. I fell in love with Berlin, deeply and passionately, the way you fall in love with a person. I didn’t even know that was possible. I wrote a little love essay to Berlin, “Berlin Notes,” which was first published in Prairie Fire Magazine, by invitation, then in my creative essay collection, So this is the world & here I am in it (NeWest 2008).  

That visit to Berlin, located very close to my ancestral homelands, changed me in a profound way. My Mennonite ancestors came from the place where northern Germany and southern Holland and northern Belgium meet, several centuries ago. After that they lived “in exile,” as they understood it, in Prussia/Poland, for two centuries, then Ukraine/Russia for a century, before emigrating to Canada in the 1870s. Living in Berlin, and travelling to Rotterdam to visit my artist friend, Arnold Schalks, I experienced, in occasional moments of lit up ecstatic joy, what it feels like to live and walk in the land of your ancestors. The very earth under your feet is made of the bones of your people. And the song in the leaves of the trees is the very same song your great great great great great great grandmother heard. In those moments I felt a quick deep stab of connection, all the way from the sun down through me to the centre of the earth.

Berlin welcomed me into its warm sexy arms. I was home. And at the same time, I was a visitor, a stranger, yes, an innocent tourist, the terrible troubled recent history and contemporary struggles of Berlin were not mine. Nor was the terrible slaughter at Ypres, whose shadow still makes the ground shake in southern Holland and northern Belgium. I saw then also the advantages of exile, how lucky my people had been, despite their hardships in many harsh landscapes. How fortuitous people’s lives are, sometimes, with their many twists and turns, and surprises and returns. There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will. I used to puzzle over what on earth Hamlet meant by that; I’m just beginning to understand it now.

Over the course of your career you’ve had written many books. Is there a particular one that stands out for you as your favourite?

Now you know that’s an unfair question, right? Like having to choose between your children.

What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?

Most other countries support and honour their writers far more than Canada does. Here we mostly have to do this for ourselves and each other, which uses up such a lot of valuable creative energy. On the other hand, we’ve been lucky to have exemplary institutions like the Canada Council for the Arts and the regional and provincial arts councils, which are admired and emulated by countries around the world. It’s nice to see so many people stepping up to contribute to the preservation of a robust creative arts network in Canada, such as Scott and Krystine Griffin. They’ve done so much to bring attention to contemporary poetry publishing in Canada, and have garnered huge new audience support for it, in such a generous and innovative way. Bravo.

Do you enjoy giving public readings? Why or why not?

Yes. Especially for poetry, the personal interface with the audience, the oral performance, is very important, perhaps more important than the book experience.  Poetry is an ancient, prophetic, performative medium, and predates the printing press by many millennia. If you look at how poetic young children are, playing consciously with sounds and rhythms from the time they’re born, actually, it’s easy to imagine that the first human language, at the dawn of our species, was poetry. At the same time, poetry adapts well to the internet, much better than the novel, which is tethered quite literally to its birthing medium, printed text.

And now a few fun questions:

Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?

Oh yes. Many. I will tell you one of them: beeswax candles, which I light before I write.

Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write?

Genmaicha, a Japanese green rice tea that’s easy to find in Canada, or Jun Naen, an exquisite Chinese green tea that’s more rare.   Coffee if I’m under a deadline!

Favourite music to listen to while you write?

I’ve never understood how people could listen to recorded music while writing poetry. Poetry has itself so much internal music in it, how can you listen for those rhythms and timbres, if there’s external music going on at the same time? I prefer listening to birdsong and the wind in the trees. Or else silence. But that’s partly because of my very musical upbringing, which is always singing in me. Hearing a gorgeous live performance of Mozart’s Requiem, as I did last week, will resonate in me for weeks, and even years. Letting it move through all my cells, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, that’s very conducive to poetic inspiration.

If you could not be a writer, what career might you have?

I didn’t feel there was a choice, in this lifetime, it was “do it or die.” The poetry was that strongly in me.

What other careers would I have liked to have? Like all artists, I admire excellence in other disciplines. Let’s see, in another life I’d like to be a great actor, a great singer, a great dancer. My daughters are both professional designers, Lisa is a fashion designer, specializing in haute couture, Ali is an architect and interior designer. I’m amazed at their talent, and at the same time I recognize the connection between their careers and mine, that similar visionary and formal impulse at work.