Di Brandt is Winnipeg’s first Poet Laureate!

The Winnipeg Arts Council is very pleased to announce the appointment of Di Brandt as Winnipeg’s first Poet Laureate. A search was conducted in consultation with members of Winnipeg’s poetry community and Di Brandt was chosen for her artistry, experience and commitment to the community.

"Di Brandt is a wonderful choice for the inaugural position. She has a respected local, national and international profile, published a dozen acclaimed books and won many awards. Her nominators also spoke to her impressive commitment to her community as a teacher, editor and mentor. We look forward to working with her as she champions the literary arts in Winnipeg."   -- Carol A. Phillips, Executive Director, Winnipeg Arts Council

Through the creation of new works of poetry reflecting life in the city, public appearances and the creation of public engagement programs, the Poet Laureate will contribute to Winnipeg’s reputation as a city of the arts and facilitate connections between the arts, the city, and its citizens.

Di Brandt's bestselling, influential first collection of poetry questions i asked my mother received the Gerald Lampert Award for "best first book of poetry in Canada," and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. questions was recently re-issued in a 30th Anniversary tribute edition, with Afterword by Tanis MacDonald.

Di Brandt's other poetry titles include Agnes in the Sky, which received the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award; Now You Care, shortlisted for the Trillium Ontario Book of the Year Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the Pat Lowther Award; and the multilingual Walking to Mojácar, with French and Spanish translations by Charles Leblanc and Ari Belathar, shortlisted for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. 

Di Brandt has collaborated extensively with visual artists and musicians including Aganetha Dyck, Diana Thorneycroft, Lin Xu, Rebecca Campbell and Carol Ann Weaver, Jana Skarecky, Kenneth Nichols and others, in the creation of multidisciplinary poetic performance and installation pieces, with national and international profile.

One of Di Brandt's contributions as the poetry ambassador to Winnipeg's cultural community will be to host World Poetry Day events in our city in both 2018 and 2019. World Poetry Day, March 21, was established by UNESCO in 1999 to "give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements." The Winnipeg Arts Council looks forward to co-sponsoring these World Poetry Day events in Winnipeg with Di Brandt, along with other projects yet to be announced.  Please stay tuned for details of how you, too, can become part of these inspiring world poetry celebrations on World Poetry Day.

To get to know our new Poet Laureate, we sat down and asked Di Brandt a few questions.


A Short Interview with Di Brandt:

WAC:  How old were you when you first started writing poetry?

Di Brandt:

                Like most poets I began thinking about language and poetry at a very early age, perhaps two or three years old.  I was lucky to grow up in a poetic family, where there was lots of poetry being recited, and created, by many people, including my mom, and my uncles, and others.  We were also taught a lot of poetry in the schools then, and regularly asked to write it, and to recite poetry publicly.  I wrote my first poem in grade three.  It was called "The Magic Carpet," and you could ride around on it wherever you wanted to go, and have many adventures, come back home again when you were tired.  I must have heard someone read The Arabian Nights, I guess!   

                I kept on writing poetry regularly after that, and was given lots of appreciation for it.  But when I became a university student, I acquired the impression that real poetry was written by British dead guys, so I hid my poetry in a drawer and didn't tell anyone about it for years.   It was only after I began meeting other living Canadian writers here in Winnipeg, like Robert Kroetsch and Patrick Friesen and Tomson Highway and Jan Horner, that I got the confidence to show my poetry to others in a more public way.  Leonard Cohen's songs were a major inspiration in my poetic development, and his work has continued to be a major influence in my thinking and writing into the present. 

                I was lucky to come to professional poetry writing at a time when newly established organizations like Turnstone Press and Prairie Fire Magazine and the Manitoba Writers Guild were actively involved in establishing a local Winnipeg-based literary oeuvre:  the visionary people running these organizations encouraged and taught me a lot in learning how to become a professional poet.  It has been a great privilege to be part of the primary production of a country and city's literature this past half century!  And I am greatly honoured to be recognized for my contributions to the life of poetry, in this city of a thousand fabulous artists, through this prestigious appointment as the first Poet Laureate for the City of Winnipeg.  Thank you. I shall do my best to be a good "poetry ambassador"  for the city!

WAC:  What excites you about the city? Or inspires you?

Di Brandt:

                Unlike John K. Samson in his famous song about hating Winnipeg, I love Winnipeg!  I know he really does too, I'm just less ironic and self-reflexive than he is in my poetics.  My sensibility is more "neo-romantic" and tending toward the hopeful and the visionary, than the "postmodern." I've lived in Winnipeg since I was 17 years old, with two decades away, during which time I nevertheless maintained close ties with the city.  I raised my children here, became a professional poet here, and acquired many beloved friends and professional colleagues here.  I have lived the most significant times of my life here.

                What I love about Winnipeg:  the mighty rivers flowing through it, meeting at the magical Forks.   The many kinds of people.  The casual atmosphere.  The many arts festivals, all year round.   The community-mindedness.  The strong Indigenous presence.  The creativity of many cultural groups living together in imaginative ways.  The trees, ash, poplar, maple, sumach and elm.  The colourful murals.  The beautiful parks.  The crazy streets following the rivers at every angle, so you can never get from one section of the city to another without getting lost.   The mighty prairie all around.  The big sky.  The hot hot summers and cold cold winters - variety! 

                The deep, rich history of this magical place, in the middle of Turtle Island, the North American continent.  The gift and privilege of living in Treaty One Territory, in the home place of the Cree, Anishinaabeg, Oji-Cree, Dene and Inuit First Nations, and birthplace of the Métis Nation.  The challenge and inspiration of honouring our debt to the many ancestors, colleagues, and fellow citizens who have brought us here, as we work together to create a viable and fair "multicultural" practice for our city and country.  Not always easy but an exemplary model of civic life nonetheless.

We have a rich literary history, and many inspiring and renowned writers.  Louis Riel and Charles Mair, Margaret Laurence and James Reaney, Robert Kroetsch and Dorothy Livesay and Miriam Waddington.  Katherena Vermette and Duncan Mercredi, Marie Annharte Baker, Alison Calder and David Arnason. The list goes on.

WAC:  Why is poetry important and why will people benefit from more poetry in their lives?

Di Brandt:

Poetry is the language of the spirit, the heart, the soul.  William Carlos Williams set us all on the path of a more materialist understanding of poetry with his famous early 20th century dictum, "No ideas but in things."  But I don't think that's what he really meant to do.  I think he meant that as our lives become less connected to nature and the animal world in our modern urban constructed environments, we must take care to stay grounded in the practical, the physical, the earthy, the real, in our imaginings so as not to become too abstract or virtual in our understanding of the world.  That caution is more necessary than ever for us now as we sit hunched over our computers and spend most of our recreational hours in gyms and moving vehicles or one kind or another.

Poetry is a powerful, magical, transformative language, even though it is made of flimsy wisps of words and sounds and fantasies and impressions.  People nowadays think of poetry as something specialized, and "elite," that somehow originates without explanation in solitary individuals, and sometimes professional poetry is presented that way.  But in fact nothing could be further from the truth.  Poetry is the oldest and simplest way of using language we know as human beings.  It is our "species song," as P.K. Page said, and it always includes many imitative and collaborative elements.  It is a highly intersubjective and collaborative practice in this sense.  And it lends itself well to multidisciplinary collaborations as well, with video, performance, music and visual art.

Most people understand at a visceral level that poetry is the language of love, of relationship, of devotion, and many people create poems when they've been touched by the experience of love, whether love of God, or nature, or another being.  Poetry is also a language of playfulness, of flirtation, of invention, of "what if."  Even young children can enjoy poetry, and with a little encouragement, create it with ease.  The wonderful thing about poetry is it can accommodate the entire range of human experience and expression, from silly to grand, serious to funny, playful to grief-stricken, small to epic, sometimes all at the same time!

And the nice thing is, poetry doesn't depend on an elaborate system of reproduction, it can be done with just a pencil and paper, or with nothing at all except an imaginative spirit and expressive sensibility - though it's nice to be able to get it published in books and CDs and read or heard by many people when possible as well. No one need be afraid of poetry, unless indeed you're afraid of letting yourself be touched by it in unexpected, inspirational ways.

Poetry was once widely practiced by everyone, young and old, educated and not.  Poetry has an inventive aspect that is also humbling, in that it often feels "inspired" by someone or something more powerful and beautiful and creative than we are.  Milton called that inspirational presence the Holy Spirit. The ancient Greeks called it the Nine Muses.  The Cree poet Louise Halfe calls it pawâkan, the Dream Spirit or Guardian of Dreams and Visions.  In order to tap into this greater power, we have to practice great listening, and open-heartedness - also light-heartedness - and precise speech, so that the delicate, beautiful, living vectors of poetry can take root and flower in us.  

In my "dream of poetry," everyone remembers their poetic capacities and we can return poetry to its former and well deserved place in the world as the "queen of discourses."

A taste of Di Brandt's poetry, from "Nine River Ghazals," commissioned by the THIN AIR Winnipeg International Poetry Festival, and set at the Forks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, with French translation by Charles Leblanc:


October.  The  poet is dead.  The leaves of Manitoba,

you gotta admire them, turn yellow, sigh once, and drop.


On the banks of the Assiniboine we sat down and wept.

Maddie, Maddie, muddy river dog.  Shh, don't talk.


Tenacious little ash tree, hugging the bank.

Archeology of cars.  Biology of art.  Theology of scars.


My hands that used to be heartshaped flluttering leaves

have become thick roots, gnarled in soil.


Orange-streaked sunset.  Calcified bones.

The flood marks of '50, '97, '05.  See?  Wild Geese.




Octobre.  Le poète est mort.  Les feuilles du Manitoba,

il faut les admirer, jaunissent, soupirent une fois, et tombent.


Sure les rives de l'Assiniboine nous nous sommes assis et avons pleuré.

Maddie, Maddie, chien de rivière boueuse.  Chut, en parle pas.


Petit frêne tenace, qui embrasse la rive.

Archéologie des automobiles.  Biologie de 'lart.  Théologie des cicatrices.


Mes mains qui étaient des feuilles flottantes en forme de coeur

sont devvenues des racines épaisses, noueuses dans le sol.


Coucher de soleil strié d'orange.  Os calcifiés.

Les laisses de crue de 1950, 1997, 2005.  Tu vois?  Des oies sauvages.



Published in Walking to Mojácar, with French and Spanish translations by Charles Leblanc

and Ari Belathar (Turnstone Press, 2010), 4-5.  Quoted by permission of the publishers.