Thursday, February 21, 2008

Writing from the Authority of the Heart

In her first published colledtion of mostly untitled and un-puncuated poems questions i asked my mother, Canadian Mennonite poet Di Brandt writes: " was / altogether a disturbing category for Mennonites no one knew quite / what to do with it even though God must have put it there for a / reason if we could only know what it was..." and; "...when i was five i thought heaven was located / in the hayloft of our barn the ladder to get there / was straight and narrow like the Bible said if you fell off you might land on the / horns of a cow or be smashed on cement..." These lines demonstrate, among other things, that Brandt's poetry gains a lot from her Mennonite heritage and faith.

Brandt grew up in the Southen Manitoba town of Reisland, a conservative separatist Mennonite village. No books were allowed in her childhood home except the Bible. Brandt is reported to have said that she couldn't start writing until her father died because "he owned all the words." At the age of 17 she left her home and moved to Winnepeg to attend college, a courageous act in that she was the first person in her family to break that isolationist tradition.

When questions was published in 1987 it shocked the Mennonite community. The book criticized many Mennonite practices especially corporal punishment and denounced Mennonite resistance to female experience, sexuality, and anything intellectual.

Brandt has a BA from the Univ. of Manitoba, a Masters from the Univ. of Toronto, and Ph.D in English literature from the Univ. of Manitoba. She also has a Divinity degree from the Canadian Mennonite Bible College. She has worked as an editor for a couple publications including Prairie Fire and has been employed teaching English and creative writing at the Univ. of Windsor and Brandon Univ.

Brandt is a prolific and versatile writer. In addition to questions she has published four other collections of poetry: Agnes in the sky; mother, not mother; Jerusalem, beloved; and Now You Care. She has published other books including Wild Mother Dancing: Maternal Narratives in Canadian Literature, and a collection of creative essays, Dancing Naked: Narrative Strategies for Writing Across Centuries. Her most recent book is a collection of essays called So This is the World & Here I Am In It. Her poetry has been set to mucic and adapted for film, television, radio, video, theatre, CD, and dance. She's also written a poetry suite entitled Sweet Sweet Blood.

Brandt has been nominated for many writing awards and her writing has broadened to include issues of environmental degradation, injustice, violence, and international issues. One awards jury commented on Now You Care as follows, "Di Brandt manages beautifully the difficult job of producing poems that are socially conscious without being didactic. She knows that the best poetry rests on the authority of the heart. Thus, she makes her readers care not only through the pleasures of form and crafted language, but also through the risky honesty of her articulations." Brandt has described her writing as "a kind of passionate accusation." Brandt's poems are stimulating, honest, indignant, and maybe at times even a little scary, but never timid and boring. Her writings can open windows to the lives of not just Mennonites, but all peoples everywhere.

Previously published in slightly different form in the March, 2007 edition of "The Olive Branch," the newsletter of Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship in Boise, Idaho.

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