Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Carving Out Their Own Artistic Space: In Conversation with Di Brandt, Susan Holbrook and Daphne Marlatt

Previously published in Kaleidoscope Vol. 3.1 (2002)

After an impressive reading by Di Brandt, Susan Holbrook and Daphne Marlatt at MacKensie Hall, Windsor, we search for a quiet room where we can talk undisturbed. We find an empty courtroom, long since abandoned. The walls are covered in dark wood panels and the judge’s bench is an ominous reminder of patriarchal authority. It is the perfect setting for female poets to discuss the gender politics of language and place.

Dawn: How important are cultural politics in your writing? Do you consciously engage with issues such as feminism in your work?

Di: It’s not that I am trying to be political or trying to address certain issues. It’s more that I came to writing with not having a sense of permission. In order to give myself permission I had to encounter all these various obstacles, which became very liberating and transforming. I had to fight very hard in myself and in language for a space that could be mine to play around in. Some people in the other room, just after the reading, were asking why girls in the creative writing seminar are so shy and don’t want to read their poetry and the guys don’t want to stop. I was thinking how girls are still brought up to think that speaking in public in transgressive. This is because physical and symbolic public spaces are owned by men mostly.

Daphne: Just look around. This is the perfect room to demonstrate male authority. [laughter]

Di: Take something like roads. Who makes the roads? Who plans the roads? Who fixes them? And if a woman ever has a flat tire on a road a man will come rushing to her aid because she is not supposed to be there by herself.

Dawn: So then how does a woman carve out her own artistic space in a male-dominated world?

Daphne: She has to speak out first of all. It takes nerve to do that. I remember the first reading I was invited to read in. I said, “no I can’t read my work,” and one of the guys in the group said, “oh come on I’ll read it for you.” It was awful. I hated it. [laughter] I vowed I would never let anyone else read my work again. But it is not just speaking out orally, like at a reading. Writing is also a speaking out because you are making your thought and the way you see the world public. There’s a need to have women support you in doing that. When I was a young writer there weren’t that many women mentors around. In fact, there were none. They were all male. I had a strong sense, even when I was just starting out, that I saw the world differently than they did. I kept trying to see it the way they did, because I kept thinking that that was what made you a poet. But I couldn’t. I knew I saw differently. Certainly one of the biggest differences was when I was having a child. Then it was so clear. Then I was really in my body. I could see that everything about life, as I experienced it — being pregnant, giving birth — was so different than the way things have been separated in the discourse. So having foremothers, recognizing who your literary foremothers are, I think, is a very important step to take. It took me a long time to realize that, but when I did it was fascinating. A whole world opened up for me. You have a sense than of a lineage. You have a sense of continuity. And of course there are women writing now who are your peers, and it is important to have a sense of solidarity with them and to work to bring all of that work forward. I’ve certainly been active in doing that in the past. Not quite so active now, but even the kinds of courses I’ve been teaching — writing by women, mother-daughter relationships, women’s studies — all of that helps.

Dawn: Can you talk a bit about a female writing community, or specifically a lesbian writing community?

Susan: In one model we learn about the anxiety of influence and how we are supposed to hate out literary forefathers, and make our own way in the literary world. Another feminist model is to find out about our literary foremothers, but also to think synchronically so that we can build something here. In terms of a lesbian community, I think it depends on where you are. When I was living in Vancouver that was available to me because it is a bigger city and a bigger gay community. There were readings every two weeks. Those things were built right into the community. Now it has gotten to be more electronic, or through letters or readings. And, of course, we’re lucky to have Daphne here with us for a while. But it’s not the same. We have to really make an effort at keeping in touch.

Daphne: It seems to me that things have changed, that we use to have much more of an in-the-flesh sense of community by being in a specific city. What we use to call a “scene.” It seems much more dispersed now. Lesbian writers are in contact with each other right across the continent, but as you say, through letters and email, through reading each other’s books.

Dawn: Your writing is very centered on the body. How much are you influenced by French feminists?

Di: The idea of writing from the body is such a fascinating thing. When I was starting to write that was the fashionable thing. We were all asking, “what does that mean to write from the body?”

Dawn: Did this facilitate the kind of experimentation found in your work — the technical experimentation?

Di: That’s an interesting question. I’d have to say yes, although it is hard to explain exactly how. Well, one way it happened for me was to pay attention to the breath. When I read my poems out loud they were always way too fast. So I tried specifically to slow them down by using a couplet line — spacing in between, period, space. That was one of the reasons that those poems got flipped over into the opposite. It excavated a lot of knowledge from me about myself and my past experiences, and also my present — who I was. I later asked how did that happen, and realized of yeah, it was the breath. It was slowing down the breath, and trying to really breathe through my body and realizing how it was connected to the mind. It was like a mantra. I was studying yoga at the time, and I kept thinking this is exactly the same as how I’m doing a poem.

Daphne: It has to do with embodied language in the sense that you’re moving through language as a body, the body of language. You’re sounding its sound body; you’re playing with its meaning body. And when you are doing yoga you are aware of your whole body. It is not something that you are doing just intellectually. You are totally in your body. You have to be. You’re aware of your breathing. You’re aware of how all muscles feel. I keep thinking of Cixous’ line about when a woman speaks in public all of her in there. All that aliveness and nervousness is present. Everything is called upon. Somehow I think that is part of it.

Di: Yes, that was part of it. And also, part of it was rediscovering orality. I came from basically an oral culture, and then I went to this English school where we had to learn to be quiet. We were told to be quiet, don’t fidget and don’t say anything because we were writing now, and this kind of silence coincided with me learning this foreign language. I learnt that my culture did not exist in books. It wasn’t seen as real in the official discourse. When I was writing poetry again — well, I always was writing secretly — but when I was in my thirties and I was doing it to show to people I rediscovered the way I learned language, which was not English and was not in a textual frame of reference. It was oral. I started remembering that connection with the body, and I started thinking how everyone learns writing that way — as a silencing of the body. But they don’t do it quite so much now in school. They try to keep a little more sense of sound in writing. There were a couple of years when they tried to teach phonetic spelling.

Daphne: There is that whole sense of what Abram is talking about in his book about once you move to an alphabetic language you have much more of a cutoff from the world, about being part of the body of the world.

Di: He says that, but what a lot of us are discovering is that you can put that body back in. You can put that connection back in, even if you are writing it down. He talks a bit about that in terms of place, about re-inhabiting place, which is another step from re-inhabiting the body.

Dawn: I wanted to ask you about the playfulness of language, the puns and humour evident in your work?

Susan: Well, I’ve listened to Di and Daphne talk about excavating language and about sounding language, and I think that is part of what I am doing. Humour is one way to approach language in an interrogative and exploratory way, because a pun makes you jump into two places at once. I’m not using language as some sort of transparent vehicle or tool to express ideas that I have fully formed. I am working through language, and humour is one of the ways I can make it prismatic. I can explore it and see which way it is going to take me. I think also, sometimes I’m dealing with difficult issues — invisibility, coming out, people’s anger — all of these things that are manifested in and through language are painful and humour is a way to survive while talking about them. Sometimes I wonder if I am sidestepping or not able to be honest about things enough, and humour is a bit of a crutch. But at least it keeps me going.

Daphne: Part of humour is suddenly looking at the other side of something, and your humour does that a lot. It is an opening kind of humour.

Dawn: Can you talk about the sensuousness of the language that you use, and the idea of seducing the reader into the landscape of your poetry.

Daphne: [To Susan] The way you run language together is very sensual. Those little language chants that happen between the narrative, or the antidotal parts, of your title poem are like jazz rifts in language. The same with the poem “Girl Watching.” There is so much there that is bouncing off language in a very sensual way.

Susan: We often talk about the erotics of language, or theories on the pleasures of the text, but we don’t talk about them very specifically and I’m so curious to see if we can. What are the bits of friction between letters or between words? What is the pull and push of the tease specifically? We talk about it in a really vague, nebulous way. We know when something seems erotic or sensuous in terms of sound or in content, but what are the mechanics of that?

Di: It has been theorized, in MotherTongue and other places, about the attraction between words and how they call each other up. How they like each other. [laughter]

Daphne: But they haven’t talked about it in terms of friction. That intrigues me. Say more about friction.

Susan: [To Daphne] When I said that I was thinking about your work with Nicole Brossard. Sometimes there is negative friction between your own language and yourself, or between English and French.

Daphne: The words slide off each other. It is not a transparent translation. That is an interesting way to talk about it — the friction, the rubbing up against and sliding off of. That is what intrigues me about admitting more silence into a piece. You get that friction and that rub and then everything radiates out into silence. I keep wanting to use musical terms, to talk about how it resonates into silence.

Susan: You seem to be talking about distance, and how that distance can be so delicious… and the long pause.

Daphne: Especially if the two bits of discourse before and after the pause are different — different kinds of discourse, different verbal textures.

Susan: There is so much echoing in the unspoken.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Poetry selections from Still Life of a Muse

These poems are about the life of Elizabeth Siddal, wife to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1861 Elizabeth gave birth to a stillborn daughter and in 1862 she died of an overdose of laudanum. In my poems, her pregnancy and consequent stillbirth are treated metaphorically as a symbol for her unrealized creativity. Strangely enough, I wrote the poem “Stillbirth” when I was pregnant.

Earlier versions of these poems were published in Contemporary Verse 2 Volume 26.4 (2004)


You admire your belly big
as Jonah’s whale. A living house
of fleshed-out interiors.
A tender bone architecture
where another hides, tucked inside

cradled darkness.
Rhythmic beatings felt deep
in the flesh.

You have difficulty buttoning dresses.
Corset laces give way under
the stress of unruly flesh.
Your body — expansive, blown large
before your delighted eyes,
spanning out to great distances.

You chart the progress,
measure your belly’s ample swell.
Giggle at the way, when lying down, a teacup
balances on waves of undulating skin.
You trust the current that ripples

just beneath the surface.
Your body a seaside cottage. Walls stripped
of paint, bones bare and stunningly beautiful
in the morning light. A glowing fire warms
interior chambers. Radiates outward,
the tendrils of your hair
alive and flaming.


Shut in,
the walls entomb you. The bed
tucks folds of your skirt into sheets, wraps you
like a cocoon — something soon to be born
or already dead.

Doctors visit often.
Insist your mind is too excited.
Warn that gentle waves of swelling thought
can soon turn tumultuous,

crashing in doors, flooding rooms.
They warn – imagination a danger.
Confine you to bed.

The curtains are drawn shut.
Shadows creep into empty corners.
You no longer trust the darkness.
Keep one eye open, scanning

the invading night.
The walls are advancing.
You hear them whispering strategies, plotting
the deployment of chairs, the hostile
take-over of the window.

You feel the dresser’s encroachment,
slyly advancing
when you are not looking.

You toss,
swaddled in crisp white sheets,
trying to free yourself
from suffocating fabric. Pass through

these troubled waters.
Dream the child inside
wages war, punches blindly
against darkness with tiny clenched fists —
fights to be liberated,
as though light provided shelter.


You push out
dead weight, half expecting a cry.
But there is no declaration of arrival,
no gasp of air and sudden scream
announcing I am born —
only silence. A woman you do not know
washing glistened blood from your thighs.

You desire only to hold her,
cradle her in your body’s warmth one last time.

Place small hands
between yours, rub vigorously as if kindling fire,
force the heat in. Open her mouth, push
in breath, try to inflate lungs
like some god.

Darkness is all you see. The black pits
of her eyes, a lake of your own blood.

A canvas devoid of colour, the world holds no
light for you now. You tunnel underground

with your newly-born dead, bury her
in that dark place where nothing
more will thrive. The center
grown darker still.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Curious Book

This book tells the story of what happens to our bodies when we no longer have them. Yikes! Love the cover though.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

South Africa and Mother-Love: A Review of Norman G. Kester's Liquid love and other longings

by Dawn Marie Kresan
Previously published in Kaleidoscope Journal Volume 3.2 (2002)

In Liquid love and other longings (District Six Press 2002), by Norman G. Kester, private and public worlds collide, bringing the reader to a sometimes beautiful and sometimes unsettling place where issues of power, colonialism and gender blur. Kester, who was born in South Africa and immigrated to Canada in 1969, brings his personal history as a child separated from his mother/ land to the collection. The spirit of Africa pervades his work — she is lost mother, female guide, teacher and lover. Her body bears the scars of a tragic history, and the poet continually seeks her through her many manifestations. It is only through love, by establishing relatedness to an other, that the process of healing can begin.

Throughout the collection, images of Africa are connected with representations of woman. Africa as mother/ land is traditionally conceptualized as the dark, unexplored continent. In “a recent photograph of the artist”, the poet searches for an unknown “she.” He is drawn to her because she fits into “the/ category of ‘other’” (16). In all her mystery, she represents “home and love” (16). It is paradoxical that in her otherness, that is, her difference, he looks for familiarity. In psychoanalytic theory, the child experiences a sense of wholeness with the mother in the pre-oedipal stage and once separation occurs the child will continually seek the mother’s body and all that it represents. For Kester, who left South Africa as a child, the separation between son and mother becomes a powerful framework for his collection. Africa’s distant lands are equated to the mother’s body, which are absent and can never be reclaimed. He must now acknowledge difference between himself and her. It is this difference, this sense of “otherness,” that reminds him of her, and the wholeness he once felt, yet paradoxically ensures their separation.

Kester uses the image of the mother’s absent body as a symbol for Africa’s pain. The mother/ land is unable to nourish her children with her milk. It is not that she has chosen to abandon her children, but that violence and poverty has forced the separation. “Africa mourning” is compared to a “beaten coloured woman at an empty train station/ her son left unnursed” (27). Aids babies “cry blindly and die nightly/ without their mothers, without their mother’s warm milk” (35). Her children were “nursed by her starved body” (47). The maternal breast not only symbolizes nourishment for the body, but also as an emotional bond that strengthens the love between mother and child. Colonization of Africa and the oppression of its people were meant to break this attachment. Her body is metaphorically beaten or starved; her children forced from her breast. By conflating the private act of breast-feeding with a nation’s struggle for survival, Kester politicizes the maternal breast and women’s bodies. The private is made political.

Severed from the mother/ land’s body, he can now experience her only through memory and feelings brought to the surface in moments of heightened intimacy. In this way, then, the female lover’s body becomes a substitute for the absent mother/ land. Her body figuratively becomes the body of Africa. The women are described as anonymous, mysterious, and exotic. She is “both exile and another/ country” (28). Her body is “veiled, unexplored territory” (28). She has “dark eyes” and smells of “wild/ rose petals” (28). These images create parallels between the exotic beauty of the woman’s body and that of the mother/ land. In his quest for the maternal body, he finds in women the warmth and security he has been looking for. Her body is described as a refuge; “you are around me in a/ semi-circle like mother nature — life/ so beautiful, so divine” (60). In “100 kisses at twenty”, the connections between the female lover and mother/ land becomes more political. Kester writes, she has “known men’s hungry/ selfish ways and angry wars” (61). Her body, as Africa, has been exploited by human greed and violence. Her body holds the memory of the nation’s pain, and she is “black with love” (61).

It has been convincingly argued by gender theorists that masculine subjectivity has a strong sense of its ego boundaries, whereas female subjectivity is more fluid. In many of his poems, Kester takes on the identities of others, thereby positioning his subjectivity within the realm of the feminine. In some instances he occupies the female body as in “I am” (20), where the poet metaphorically becomes the mother/ land. He takes on her colours — black, brown and ochre red — in order to feel “my country’s pain/ its dark stories” (20). He links the “rape of women, land and children” (20), thereby asserting that colonial and sexual domination uphold the same exploitive ideological systems. In “the market and its fruit” Kester once again takes on the identities of others. He writes, “I am... the homeless woman who mumbles to herself and asks for pennies” (6). It is not so much his ability to become the females in his poems, as much as the representation of his subjectivity as being unbounded and de-centered. He does not possess a single identity, but rather has the capability to morph into many selves. A self that continually becomes the “other,” erasing difference, is traditionally associated with the feminine.

He extends his empathy not only to women, but to all those marginalized. He is “the one who looks European... the black woman who walks slowly... the eleven-year-old daughter... [the] grey-bearded poet who left America” (6). As someone who fled his homeland due to apartheid, Kester easily identifies and has compassion with those who are marginalized in our society. In “the child cries out the answer” Kester links homophobia and racism, asserting that both arise from the same hatred and fear of difference. Kester writes, “the faggot in me/ finally killed and stomped out by the lynch mob” (30). They want to choke “my dry, flaming and tender throat” (30). Those who commit hate crimes are the same, in their desire to silence all those who are “other” than them.

As a man learning to live “without my mother” (xiii), Kester finds hope in the human potential to establish relatedness. The need for love is a commonality we all share. It is significant that Kester views common histories and stories of exile as the vehicle for deepening love. He writes, “i only want to touch/ your lips, si. to hear the stories of your people” (54). In “the long night” two lovers, both “sons of torn nations” (67), come to a deeper understanding of the other through shared history. His “life was as complex and old as the sea that he crossed perilously” (67). Being able to relate to someone else’s pain is an act of love and reconciliation. It forces us to confront our own pain, and in doing so we can begin to heal. Only then, can we open ourselves completely to another.

Kester asserts that art is a form of love, that “the making of art, is the process of giving in or letting go totally” (ix). What art and love have in common is the nakedness of the self. Both leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed to the world. If we are to break down personal boundaries, to let go of pain, heal, relate to another, find intimacy — first, we must open ourselves to the possibility of love. As Kester writes, “i’m painting love – will you sit for me?” (28).