Dionne Brand in Conversation

By Olbey, Christian | ARIEL, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Dionne Brand in Conversation


Olbey, Christian, ARIEL


This discussion with Dionne Brand took place in the fall of 2002 in Calgary, Alberta where she was participating in Wordfest, an international writers' festival held every autumn. In the past decade Brand has emerged as an important voice in contemporary postcolonial, Black and Canadian writing. Her books articulate a complex exploration of the histories that shape human experiences and the many ways in which people live, suffer, and struggle for change. Her vision is at once compassionate and uncompromising. She is the author of numerous books of both poetry and fiction including Land to Light On, for which she won the Governor General's Award for Poetry (the most prestigious literary award in Canada) and the Ontario Trillium Award for Literature in 1997. She also won the Pat Lowther Award for poetry in 2003. In Another Place, Not Here, her first novel, was short-listed for both the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Award. I began by asking her about working in the different genres of poetry and prose.

Dionne, you are well known as a premier Canadian poet yet the publication of your novel In Another Place, Not Here (1996) appears to mark a significant shift toward the prose narrative in your choice of genre. Why prose? Why narrative?

The truth is that novel actually started out as a poem, but then it fell out of poetry and it became too "watery." I was trying to keep it together as a poem for quite a while, but it kept resisting being too taut, which is one of the major qualities of a poem and so I simply had to let it wander where it will. Then it moved out into prose. I had hoped that the whole thing would be a poem, but it didn't work out.

Also, I'm not sure if you have to make the choice: I think you can say that poetry can lend something to narrative. When I started to write prose, I knew that I didn't want to write the narrative of exposition, dialogue, action, and resolution. I wanted to explore how to use language in prose. In Another Place, Not Here did not maintain meter, and didn't advance all of the propositions that poetry must; but it nevertheless shook out meaning, that is--packed meaning into the sentences so that the lines in it were as potent as a line of poetry. But it wasn't enough to be poetry.

That reminds me of a line by Coleridge: "The definition of good prose is--proper words in their proper places; of good verse--the most proper words in their proper places" [in his Table Talk 3 July 1833].

Exactly ... I call it "perfect speech," absolutely perfect speech. When I thought about writing prose, I thought not so much of the story, but the way, the way of the telling. All stories are common to some degree you know, but the important thing is the language that the story is told in.

So at some point story falls away and what the reader remembers or retains is a certain experience of language?

Exactly, exactly. You remember that you're in these lines, and that it's a sensory experience, if you will, as you go through it, that you're actually going through an experience of language. I think I lose audience sometimes because of that, but I don't care because I'm trying to practice the art of it, and I've given myself room to fail a lot as we go along. But contemporary market forces of course pull the writer toward a certain kind of storytelling.

I have heard some argue that poetry is superior to narrative precisely because of its refusal or better its resistance to the process of commodification. Beyond the fact that even the most elitist and arcane poetic practices appear to breed their own circuits of commodification, do you feel that there is nothing retrievable in narrative's capacity as a commodity circulating within a wider literary marketplace?

Absolute commodification belies our actual experiences: true artists always break open a space, they move against those enclosures and break open creative places over and over again. …

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