Winnipeg Arts Council

Di Brandt at City Hall

On Thursday April 25, 2019, Winnipeg Poet Laureate Di Brandt appeared before City Council to honour National Poetry Month. Di gave Councillors a brief lesson on the history and importance of poetry in Winnipeg from the birth of the city to the present day, and then presented her poem Stalwart Protectors of the Deep.

The poem is found in her most recent book Glitter & fall, published last fall by Turnstone Press. Glitter and fall was shortlisted for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year at the 2019 Manitoba Book Awards. Read Di's full address to City Council below.

Your Worship Mayor Brian Bowman, and honoured City Councillors, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to present a poem to you here this morning, as part of National Poetry Month, and indeed, to serve our lovely City as the first Winnipeg Poet Laureate. Congratulations to all of you for honouring poetry in our midst as the magical, inspiring, creative language that it is, and for making a place for poetry in the civic matters of leading our city, which you are all doing with such intelligence and spiritedness and aplomb. And thank you to Carol Phillips, Executive Director of the Winnipeg Arts Council, and her talented staff, some of whom are here today - Dominic Lloyd, Trish Cooper and others - for coordinating the program with great skill and imagination. You have made this appointment a lot of fun!

Now, it is true that Winnipeg was a bit slow in appointing a Poet Laureate, compared to many other cities across the country, and the country itself. But we need not be embarrassed about this, when we can boast a very prestigious poetic history for our city, the most prestigious poetic history of any city in Canada perhaps! Consider that the Father of Manitoba, Louis Riel, was a very fine poet, whose work is still read and recited and studied and enjoyed everywhere today. Check out especially his fine celebration of the beautiful Métis maidens destined to become the Mothers of Canada, in his haunting ballad, La Métisse.

These skillful and heroic Métis maidens, as we all know, have not been adequately recognized and honoured in our country. They were after all the frontline appointed ambassadors between First Nations and Immigrant peoples in the settlement of the western prairies; they gave birth to the spirited Métis Nation; and they ushered in the possibility of Canada as a country spanning the continent from coast to coast to coast. We have begun to recognize the influential role played by Louis Riel in the formation of Manitoba, as the political leader of the Red River Settlement, destined to become the site of the City of Winnipeg, and as a crucial player in the making of Canada. Where is our recognition of the equally vital contribution of La Métisse?

I envision, for example, annual festivals and public statues in her honour, in every town and city and public square. The courtyard in front of Winnipeg City Hall would be a great site for a beautiful statue celebrating the importance of La Métisse in our ongoing collective story, perhaps created by renowned Winnipeg Métis artist Jaime Black. Wouldn't that be a nice legacy project for Mayor Bowman and you, the members of his talented Council? It's an idea I leave you with, to think about further.

Riel's political opponent Charles Mair was also a published poet. Mair was sent from Ontario to quell the high spirits of the Metis Red River Settlement and got himself famously horsewhipped from a party for his trouble by a matron, so it is said, who disliked the way he was flirting with her daughter as part of his Eastern infiltration scheme. At some point Charles Mair was arrested and stuck in Riel's prison, from which he escaped through an upstairs window and walked on snowshoes in 40 below weather all the way to South Dakota, from where he made his way back to Ontario to gather reinforcements for his cause. (Given the heroic shenanigans of our forefathers in the making of our fair city, I think we should not allow ourselves to complain about our ferocious winter weather unless we've endured an ordeal or two along these formidable lines.)

Mair's poetry appears in many prestigious poetry anthologies and I encourage you to look it up when you get home, especially his famous poem The Last Bison. It will give you the shivers, and you will never ever forget it, I can promise you.

Winnipeg was also where Dorothy Livesay and Miriam Waddington grew up. These illustrious women became Canada's foremost modernist female poets, hugely prolific, widely influential, and much celebrated, a point of pride in our rich local and national cultural heritage. Indeed, Winnipeg was known as the literary and poetic centre of Canada from the time of its inception in 1873, until at least the mid-20th century, and is still considered so by many. And certainly by me. Witness the many great poets this city has produced and housed, from Robert Kroetsch and David Arnason to Jan Horner, Catherine Hunter, John K. Samson and more recently, the amazing, multiple award-winning Katherena Vermette. How lucky I was, to grow into poetry here, in a city dripping with poetic resonances and festivals and literary mentors and publishing houses and fine literary magazines, all flourishing together in a heady multicultural swirl.

I love the rest of Canada too, and have received much poetic inspiration, nurturance and support elsewhere as well, so I want to recognize the sparkling contribution of other cities in this literary and poetic genealogy too: we are engaged together in the formidable project of the primary creation of an imaginative literature for a relatively new country, a country marked by its vivid multiculturalism and extraordinary level of creativity in blending the heritage of many different peoples into a new vibrant whole. We have far to go in doing this in a way that's fair and equitable for everyone, as we all know, but at the same time we can be proud of what we have achieved and created to date.

Given our prestigious cultural history as a city, and the poetic legacy established for us by our first leaders, I'd like to suggest, Your Worship, honoured City Councillors, that we should set a firm new precedent for the leaders who hold office in our city and province. They, that is you, need to all become fine practicing poets yourselves. I'm thinking perhaps we could kick off this new profile for our leaders next April. National Poetry Month, for example, could be celebrated at City Hall with a Poetry Face off by our venerable Mayor and whoever the Premier is then, adjudicated by whoever the 2nd appointed Winnipeg Poet Laureate will be for 2020-2021.

In the meantime, I'm delighted to share one of my own poems with you, written and published during my tenure as the Poet Laureate of Winnipeg. The poem is called Stalwart Protectors of the Deep, and appears in my new poetry collection, Glitter & fall, elegantly published by Turnstone Press last fall. I should mention that the poems in this book are not entirely original; they are creative translations, or transinhalations as I call them, of poems, from a famous ancient classic Chinese text, the Dao De Jing, which I have transposed into contemporary meditations in the mode of the Canadian prairie feminine. So the scintillating moments, the sublime and lofty concepts in the poems, should be attributed to Laozi, the venerated original author of the Dao De Jing, and the clumsy efforts to transpose them into our contemporary home context, should be attributed to me. I should add that the divine life force of creation is imagined here as maternally inflected, bringing forth new being through love and intimate engenderment and nurturance, from the inside out.

Stalwart Protectors of the Deep

Most living beings have not forgotten
the generosity and power of the Grand-Mother.
They honour their relations with one another,
they keep their part in preserving the Great Harmony.
The deep blue Sky remains
translucent and calm.
They round blue green Earth
holds her precise place and motion
intact in the turning Galaxy.
Oak trees and cherry blossoms,
foxes and cows, and songbirds
and humans,
each preserve their form.
The mothers (and sometimes fathers
and others) take tender care
of the young.
The great Oceans remain
stalwart protectors of the Deep.
Presidents and Prime Ministers and Queens
direct their people to get along
and practice reciprocity
in their negotiations and transactions.
The world over people sing and dance
and tell stories together.
None of this could happen without
the sweet harmonious oversight
of the Great Mother, in whose
humming, cradling, spinning, singing
embrace we are held.
For without translucence,
the Sky would rip and shred.
Without precision and steadiness,
the Earth would wobble
and spin out of control.
Without the stalwart protection
of the Oceans, the Deep
would get clogged and dry up.
Without the care and kindness
of all living species towards their young,
Life on Earth would cease.
Without considerable wisdom and honour
in their government of the people,
Prime Ministers and Queens
would immediately be overthrown.
All the sympathetic resonances
of Earth and Heaven are part
of the Great Harmony.
Let's proceed with humility,
remembering our small part in
preserving the shimmering, vibrating,
live, breathing network of
the Great Whole.

From Glitter & fall: Laozi's Dao De Jing, Transinhalations (Turnstone Press, 2018)