Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Business of Invention

Poetry Cabaret with Dionne Brand and Patrick Lane, Hosted by Stephen Brockwell

Saturday, October 22 nd , 4 pm


Even at this stage in the careers of accomplished Canadian poets Dionne Brand and Patrick Lane, invention is no bare fiat. Their observations, both of our world’s brutalities and its finer gestures, must first be painstakingly gathered. Once their poems have been written, published, and set on the podium for a public reading; the process of observation continues. This was shown in Dionne Brand’s opening reading, where her introduction was tentative: “What can I tell you about this book? I really don’t know; I’m learning about this book.” After a long pause, she read the title of the poem she would be reading next—to herself as much as to us.


While she claimed to be about “the business of invention,” Brand made clear that this task set her in opposition to the general producer-consumer culture and its effects on language. “Ordinary speech is so collapsed,” she remarked, and a poem must take the opportunity to open language out, “undoing” it from imposed constraints. This was amply shown in her homage to four favourite jazz musicians and her regular unsettling of clichés, such as when she spoke of having “lived and loved” as a “common oxymoron.” Such liberating work required long and careful attention to both experience and the words we use. Describing herself as a “note-taker,” she spoke of her rapt attention to the world’s moment, even naming her own culpability in it.


Brand’s goal of “undoing” language was well matched in Lane’s own reading, beginning as it had with his well-known line that “a bird is a poem / that talks of the end of cages.” He introduced a later piece with a playful excursus on the unacknowledged pleasures of language. After several feigned attempts to mouth the next title, he imagined the first invention of the word “moth,” a term which in its primal nomination proved so obviously and joyfully apt.


Host and interviewer Stephen Brockwell contributed his characteristic enthusiasm for the craft as well as for these practitioners. There was certainly a good deal to engage here—selections from Lane’s prodigious output had been gathered in the recent publication of Witness: Selected Poems 1962-2010, and Toronto Poet Laureate Brand’s Ossuaries was recently awarded the Griffin Prize. Brockwell’s introductions made clear his appreciation for their work, and his questions always showed thoughtful familiarity, both as a fan and a fellow writer.


While Brockwell’s observations about the poets’ work were well informed, I thought that occasionally his opinions about the trajectory of their work led his questions too much. His instigating characterizations of the “smoothing” of Lane’s later voice or Brand’s growing “coolness” would, I feel, be better left to the poet’s own descriptions or displayed in the works themselves. While the tone of both poets may have changed, it became clear that their earlier “rage” was still readily externalized. As one example among many, Lane ended the session with reference to “one last anger”—in this case, the lack of mention of the toll on non-human life in Japan’s tsunami. That being said, I very much appreciated Brockwell’s agility as an interviewer, such as when a comment of Lane’s evoked his skillful recounting of a Robert Pinsky improvisation at the last festival. He also had several memorable phrasings, such as when he reflected back the poets’ comments about how they navigated between intention and invention.


One significant highlight from the interview came when the poets were asked about how they related to their personal and cultural “demons.” Lane began by describing the blessing and curse of growing up in the Interior (of British Columbia, a reference coupled with a call for easterners to visit the west of their country rather than opting for New York or Europe) and the violent men he’d observed. He went on to speak of how difficult stories stay with us, such as those carried by an acquaintance who had come from the Horn of Africa having witnessed ten thousand people die. With that, he broke into this disturbing verse:


Because I never learned how

to be gentle and the country

I live in was hard with dead

animals and men I didn’t question

my father when he told me

to step on the kitten’s head

after the bus had run over its hindquarters.


When he ended the ensuing stanza with a glimpse of “the small of Dad’s back / as he walked tall away,” he’d left the audience transfixed. It was a powerful turn, and as they returned to conversation I wondered from then on why the interview segment wasn’t interspersed with more poetry. The readings are properly set apart to open these cabarets, which was made clear by the powerful extended reading Lane had given on memories of the war, compelling a spontaneous eruption of applause from the crowd. Still, what would it look like to intersperse the interview itself with readings—or, better, impromptu recitals—related to certain questions? There clearly were ample references to other poets or to Lane and Brand’s own bodies of work to warrant it.


In their descriptions, both poets showed the elaboration, the sheer work, that their writing required. Lane vividly rendered his early attempt as a wordsmith when he tried to get some thirty-five words to “obey” him (as they seemed to obey Shelley or Keats) only to find them acting as “unruly servants.” His life’s memories proved no more tractable, it turned out, when in his sixties he turned to the work of his autobiography. Although he had earlier described poets as a culture’s memory-keepers (or computer “memory sticks” in his crude analogy), he found his own life’s events elusive. Committed to recalling one event for each of his sixty years, he realized that there were some years where he couldn’t, incredulously, remember a single event. So, true to form, he invented something.


Asked about the interrogating element of his creative process, Lane commented that it didn’t extend to struggle with his work’s meaning. “Words will find their way,” he said with the confidence of a veteran craftsman, however ordinary or ridiculous their object. With that, he took an imaginative excursion to another originary moment. Previously he had recalled the Adamic coinage of a creature’s name, but here Lane recalled when the most common of kitchen implements was first fashioned. As he enthusiastically recounted how it must have taken place it was clear that in both poets’ work the business of invention continues in fine form.