The career of poet Di Brandt has been an attempt to reconcile her Manitoba Mennonite upbringing with her feminist, activist, fiercely maternal values. But it was only after settling in Windsor, Ontario, in the late 1990s – putting hundred of miles between herself and the spare, awesome landscape of her childhood – -that Brandt was able to discern the gifts of her strict traditional heritage.
“I spent so much time writing, fighting, against my Mennonite inheritance and the restrictions it puts on women and its internal contradictions,” says Brandt. “Moving to Windsor, to this hyper-industrialized landscape with a predominant factory culture, made me understand my heritage a whole other way. The Mennonites had a great sense of responsibility to the land, of living close to the rhythm of the seasons and trying to live simply and plainly on the land so you can have an intimate relationship with it.”
Brandt felt uneasy about Ontario’s willingness to swap its most fertile country for cash and convenience, with little concern for the slaughter of wildlife or the steady destruction caused by humans. Those anxieties led to her latest book of poems, Now You Care. Alternately elegiac, haunting, and hopeful, the collection joins Brandt’s reverence for Canada’s endangered natural beauty with her sensitivity to the poet’s receding role in our culture.
Surprisingly, Now You Care threatens to turn Brandt into that rarest of creatures: a contemporary poet whose name is a household word. It’s her first collection with Coach House Books, following three with Winnipeg-based Turnstone Press. (“It’s hard to live in Ontario and be promoted by Manitoba publishers,” says Brandt of the change, “because they are very loyal to their local community.”) This spring, Now You Care was nominated for no less than three awards, including the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize, which carries a purse of $40,000. Brandt also made the shortlists for Ontario’s Trillium Book Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Brandt didn’t win the Trillium – it went to Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories – but at press time, the Griffin and Lowther winners were yet to be announced, and many prize-watchers believe her chances are good.
I meet with Brandt on a cool drizzly day in early May. We are sitting in her living room in a spacious old house on a leafy, residential Windsor street. Brandt lays out a delicious spread of pita, hummus, and other Lebanese treats, with bites of baklava for dessert. The food is as artistically presented as the walls of Brandt’s home, with their framed sketches of elegant dresses (her older daughter is a fashion designer) and, over the piano, a verdant mountain landscape painted by her younger daughter, an architect.
Both girls come by their creative gifts honestly: their father is the artist Les Brandt, whose striking drawings also grace Brandt’s living room. The couple’s marriage was short-lived, and Brandt is proud of having raised her two children on her own, supporting them in the early years on a freelancer’s earnings. In 1993, Brandt completed her doctoral thesis, called “Wild Mother Dancing: Maternal Narrative in Canadian Literature.” She now teaches Canadian literature at the University of Windsor.
Brandt is slim, with wheat-coloured hair worn in a pixie cut. Her bright blue eyes sparkle with mischief. Discussing her latest book turns into an afternoon of fun. “A lot of people have asked me about the tone of the title,” says Brandt. “‘Is it like now you care?’ they ask. “Or is it tender? Is it accusatory? But I think of the words as I wrote them in the poem ‘Dog days in Maribor’ – ‘Now that it’s much much too late,/now you care’ – as a kind of passionate accusation.”
That phrase well describes the overall tenor of Brandt’s oeuvre. Born Diana Janzen in Winkler, Manitoba, in 1952, and raised in the farming community of Reinland, she was one of four daughters in a strictly observant Mennonite home. On one hand, literature was part of her daily life: in school, children learned to recite the work of German poets like Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Schiller. They knew their Goethe. At Christmas, the youngsters took great pride in performing poetry for the older members of the family. But at the same time, books were frowned upon. They were not something people had around, says Brandt. The only book Brandt’s father allowed in the house was the Bible, and it was the Bible that stimulated Brandt’s love of language. She continues to count it among her strongest influences.
Brandt did not begin publishing her work until well after her father’s death in 1979. She did not have the courage. It had been hard enough to leave home at the age of 17: she was the first member of her family- in 400 years to break that isolationist tradition. But even that traumatic event paled in comparison with the publication of her first poetry collection, questions I asked my mother, in 1987. The book criticized Mennonite practices, especially corporal punishment. It denounced, loudly, her faith’s repression of female sexuality, dismissal of female experience, and resistance to anything intellectual. The poems in questions tumble over and on top of one other, as if a dam containing Brandt’s emotions had burst. Her second collection, Agnes in the sky (1990), tackles many of the same issues, from a more distanced perspective.
Brandt’s work shocked her Mennonite community with its expression of female sexuality and its sacrilegious handling of emotion. Her mother was ashamed to even leave the house – but Mary Janzen supported her daughter by attending public readings. “I think this was when my mother really started to love me,” Brandt says. Family support evaporated, however, after Brandt moved to Ontario. After years of lingering tensions, she has been officially shunned; her mother and her sisters haven’t spoken to her in years. When Brandt talks about her family, her voice drops nearly an octave. Circles of pain, round and red as stop signs, appear on each cheek.
Still, in her work Brandt is like an innocent, inquisitive child or an uncompromising activist: she can’t stop speaking out of turn. In Jerusalem, Beloved (1995) – -nominated, like questions I asked my mother, for a Governor General’s Award – she offers poetic visions of a mythical, historical, and politicized Jerusalem. Brandt travelled to the city to write the book. “Some people said I should have left my feminist perspectives at home,” she recalls. She also challenged audiences when she did several collaborative readings with poet Carol Rose, entitled “Occupied Territories.” Brandt wrote from a pro-Palestinian perspective, while Rose was pro-Israeli.
In Now You Care Brandt pursues her interest in issues, her preoccupation with the vital, the relevant, and the contemporary. The book carefully delineates Brandt’s views on environmental damage and corporate culture, and explores her worries regarding Canadian sovereignty. “The Canadian-American border is arguably the biggest defining cultural reality of Windsor,” Brandt explains. “National borders are a kind of weird arbitrary fiction cutting through a landscape that shares so many features on either side. If you live in a border town, you come to see it in some ways as an absurd game: What kind of questions will the border guards ask today? What mood will they be in? Which least controversial answer can you give about why you are going across? Which NAFTA rules will be invoked? How many semi-trucks will be waiting hours and hours to get over because of some Free Trade quarrel?
“There is so much blatant racism at the Windsor-Detroit border,” continues Brandt, “so much intimidation, so much hostile posturing. And yet so many of us cross every week, and share the same cultural and geographical realities. Of course, it’s nothing like the borders in Israel-Palestine, so things could be much worse.”
Brandt insists that she does not set out to be political. “I don’t think about it that way,” she says. “I just say what I see. I just say what I think. I would get really nervous if I thought, ‘Now I’m going to write something political.’ …. [I try] to be in the world with a very open heart and to stay in touch with what I experience and feel and dream and fear and desire.” She agrees with the critic Jonathan Bate, who labels poetry the most ecologically important genre. “Poetry is traditionalist,” says Brandt. “It has managed to hold on to very old ways of being in language, ways that are ecstatic, emotional. Poetry is an ecological language because it is relational. It is able to put us in touch with the spirit of the natural world. It is a language that doesn’t treat everything as a cold fact.”
It is tempting to associate Brandt with 19th-century romantic poets like William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who experienced nature as a balm for the increasingly grey, noisy world. And in fact, Brandt does identify with Wordsworth’s preoccupation with the labour politics of his times. However, as a woman who was raised on a struggling Mennonite farm, she cannot identify with his gentlemanly views of nature. “We would never have talked about ‘nature’ as an abstract category,” says Brandt. “Everything we knew about it was very relational and close-up. We didn’t have any romantic notions about it as sublime, although the prairies are sublime in their own way.”
It is that Mennonite way of seeing that gives Now You Care its sizzling power. And it is the Mennonite influence that has, in spite of itself, shaped Brandt’s fiercely independent thinking. “The early Mennonites [the Anabaptists] did not want to be assimilated into the globalization of the 16th century,” she says, adding that they opposed “the corporatization and the universalization of the church and the economy. They were fiercely resistant and brutally persecuted. But they were survivors.”
While her childhood was often harsh, Brandt also sees her parents as a source of encouragement. “Actually, I think both my parents were repressed artists and intellectuals,” she says. “I think part of them wanted me to do these things and inspired me.”
Brandt works on her poetry over the summer, often at sylvan retreats like Hawthornden Castle in Scotland or Le Château de Lavigny in Switzerland. The settings are gorgeous and wonderfully conducive to creativity. But what she values most about the retreats is the presence of other artists. Indeed, the artistic community has gone a long way to helping Brandt recreate a sense of extended family. She dedicates several poems in Now You Care to artist friends, including poet René Char, the late Dorothy Livesay, Aganetha Dyck, and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Brandt feels it is important to acknowledge the collaborative nature of artistic work. “I can’t claim sole authorship of the poems in that sense. Acknowledging others is my way of saying thank you to all the wonderful artists who have inspired me,” she says. “I don’t write in a vacuum.”