canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden is the author of Learning Russian (Mansfield Press, 2000), which was nominated for the Pat Lowther Award. Her second book of poetry, Clinic Day, will be published by Brick Books in 2004. She's working on a novel, Mealtime, and a third collection of poetry, Self Help. She writes freelance reviews and essays. DFB's poems appear most recently in Lost in the Archives (Alphabet City Media) and Short Fuse, a Global Anthology of New Fusion Poetry, Rattapallax Press, eds. Todd Swift and Phil Norton.

Read TDR's review of Learning Russian

Michael Bryson interviewed DFB by email in early fall 2002.


TDR: Tell us something of your background. Where are you 'from'? Where are you 'going'? I mean both your life-bio and your writing-bio.

DFB: The ultimate Canadian question: Where are you from? My personal background is a typically Canadian mishmash Ė I immigrated here with my family from England when I was 14 (born and raised in London for nine years, then a small village between Oxford and Reading.) My family consists of assimilated Jews on my motherís side (from Russia and Holland, via Spain). My birth fatherís family was Welsh and Irish, and my stepfather is from Trinidad, though educated in Canada and England, where he spent much of his life and career. His mother was Jewish, from Jamaica, and his fatherís family was Scottish, originally.

Tracing ancestry is a very North American pastime, it seems to me, or perhaps just very immigrant Ė typical of those with a foot in more than one place. I think the search for "roots" is something to maintain a healthy scepticism about, by the way, something I wrote about a little in my first book of poetry, Learning Russian. It seems to me Canadians often nurse romantic longing for an imagined, illusory past, or that we privilege the supposedly more interesting or exotic aspects of family history over the more mundane and awkward. But I also think that to have a vivid experience of more than one country, language or culture is very Canadian, even for many people born here.

In his book When Words Deny The World Stephen Henighan, in my opinion, takes an unnecessarily cynical view of this experience as expressed in fiction. He seems to suspect more than one novelist of deliberately avoiding the representation of "ordinary" Canadian life in order to sell books. I understand, and even share, some of his scepticism about setting fiction in a more "romantic" time or picturesque place. Still, I think he holds a somewhat blinkered view of what might constitute ordinary Canadian life to many writers who were born elsewhere, or whose family history is rooted in another place. I donít think thereís anything false or deliberately fashionable in writing fiction that takes place all or partly in India, Greece or Italy, no matter what the writerís background. Who would want to dictate what captures a writerís imagination?

I suppose it could be argued that novelists have tended to imagine Toronto, for example, in shadowy or less vivid terms than the other locations they explore, but even that makes sense to me Ė your second home often is shadowy, has the first one superimposed or underneath. But thereís plenty of fiction Ė much of it recent Ė thatís more specific and detailed in its examination of modern Canadian life, whether itís St. Johnís, Kingston, Montreal, Northern Ontario or Toronto.

AnywayÖ. Iíve been answering a different question, I think, from the one you asked, or perhaps Iím conflating literary and personal biography, which I should be careful about. Biography as it relates to content means vastly different things to different writers, is more or less overt for each. Some writers have all their work tied up with it, and others hardly at all (although Iíd argue that you can trace an emotional biography through almost anyoneís work, the material facts of their lives take a different place for each writer).

For me as a writer, to ask questions about how past and present fit together is inevitable, at least in part because of my personal experience, which includes immigration and a mysterious parent, the circumstances of whose death are problematic. (I have quite a few mysterious ancestors, but I donít want to give away too much of my future material!) I had the opportunity, about 8 years ago, to find out more about my father when I was in England for a month working on Learning Russian. I had located his obituary notice in the Times microfiche before I left Canada but when I got to England I realised Iíd left it behind, along with the exact date of his death, or my auntís phone number in Wales. Of course I could have obtained all those things again, while I was there, but I didnít. One of the poems in Learning Russian ("The British Museum") makes reference to that decision, and to my sense that the past is not necessarily as important as one might have thought. Or that anyway, we can deceive ourselves just as effectively about the past as the present!

Writing-wise, Iíll admit straight up that Iím an inheritor of the 19th century. My first major literary influence would have to be Thomas Hardy Ė his novels (it was only later that I came to appreciate his poetry). Because of him Iím addicted to the kind of fatalistic narrative where misunderstandings occur and things go awry Ė letters slipped under doorsills and lost, appointments that arenít kept. In writing my own novel I probably wonít be able to resist some of those.

I was force-fed the Romantic poets at school. Wordsworth, for example, whom I thought deadly boring. He is boring, in parts Ė some of The Prelude is like being trapped at a party with an extremely single-minded raconteur, but some of it is astonishing. He can write blank verse like no one else. None of us can deny the influence of the Romantic poets on how we write a poem Ė I certainly canít, and there arenít many poems being written in English that donít stem from (or react against) the Romantic sense of individualism. The world as it reflects the poetís inner self, and vice versa.

Iíve been influenced by theatre, too, partly because my dad was a dramaturge and theatre critic, and I enjoy the dramatic possibilities of poetry. Because of my father I was lucky enough to have read most of Shakespeareís plays and many of his poems before school could ruin them for me. I fell in love with the verve of his language Ė the sheer fun of it. On the whole, though, I wouldnít read plays for fun Ė it can be a frustrating exercise. (A lot of plays donít "read well" and the ones that do donít necessarily make good stage theatre.) I did enjoy Chekhov, and read with varying degrees of enjoyment some modern English playwrights Ė Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Peter Shaeffer, for example.

My dad also introduced me to Derek Walcottís poetry, and heís been a fairly big influence on me in the past, though not so much now. There were a lot of other things I just ferreted out from my parentsí bookshelves. We were pretty much allowed to read what we wanted, or at least what we could reach (and there were always chairs to climb on for Last Exit to Brooklyn or Our Lady of the Flowers). American writers like John Cheever. J.D. Salinger, John Updike influenced my idea of what Canada would be like (so did the limited sample of American television that we got in England. Like most people in Europe I didnít understand in advance that there would be any difference between the U.S. and Canada). My sister was a great reader of Russian authors, but I didnít get around to them for years and when I did it was to their poetry.

As a poet I love and have been influenced by all kinds of work Ė narrative, pure lyric, sonnet, epic, free verse Ė Iím coming to appreciate, within limits, some of the Language poets, something that took me a good long while to come around to, though Iím addicted to meaning in poetry. In my own work I guess Iím "going" from poetry to prose, which is something Iím finding difficult to reconcile and that I hope is temporary. Most of my favourite poets have not turned to fiction, and have written more poetry than anything else Ė though they may write essays on poetry, translations of other poets, or perhaps a play or opera libretto (either of which is more closely related to poetry than a novel would be). I have great admiration for poets who never succumb to the novel. Writing a novel seems Ėirrationally, I know Ė like a kind of giving in to me Ė a defeat. And I think itís difficult after writing a successful novel Ėthough I donít know why Ė to return to poetry. I donít think either Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, for example, has matched their earlier work since writing novels. Iím afraid of that for myself, especially since Iíve only written two books of poetry! Iím working on a third, or what I think is a third Ė which so far it seems to consist of weird, bitter little poems, almost fragments, which is not something I planned Ė but who knows what will happen if I get really sucked into my novel.

But having aired my reservations, I think it can be invigorating to work in different modes simultaneously, or alternately. And thereís a story Iíve been wanting to tell for a long time that I now feel ready to try, and that I donít think I can attempt in poetry, even in a long narrative poem, say. The last thing Iíve completed is essentially a long poem (itíll be published by Brick in 2004) and it contains hints or beginnings of the material from my novel. So far I seem to experience a kind of tonal or narrative creep between books, if that makes any sense. There always seems to be the gestation of one apparent in the other, which ties into your next questionÖ.

TDR: Some people would say that each writer tends to circle around a single subject. Is this true of you? If so, how would you articulate that subject?

DFB: Iím just trying to think whether I agree with this as a general observation. Iím not sure that I do. I think if itís at all true as a theory it would have to be extended to include tone or style or character type as much as subject. Take someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, for example. You can see some shared character traits in Trujillo as he appears in The Feast of the Goat and the husband (I canít remember his name) in In Praise of the Stepmother. Each is a man who appears to fetishize control, down to the smallest details of his own bodily care and function, and who sees its absence as a humiliation. One character is relatively benign, the other definitely not. The idea of that kind of personality, the effect he has on people around him, is obviously something Llosa thinks about repeatedly, but I donít think you could claim he has one subject. I think sometimes critics confuse style and subject, or setting and subject (just because a writer, Alice Munro, for example, sets many of her stories in small towns doesnít mean that sheís writing about the same subject each time) Ė and extract something familiar from different samples of a writerís work. It makes their job easier, for one thing.

As far as my own work goes, although thereís a kind of tailing of each book into the other (the two Iíve completed and the two Iíve begun) I wouldnít say theyíre about the same subject, necessarily. I am interested in displacement, which I think is often as much a willed as an inherent state, and Iím interested in deception, including self-deception. But could you say those are subjects or just overarching themes? Actually, the idea of a book having a theme relates to a frustration of mine. When it comes to poetry there seems to be, at least in Canada, unwarranted pressure for a book of poems to be "about" something, to be linked thematically. I understand the impulse, both as a reader and a writer, but it should be equally possible for a book to contain poems that are just a collection of what the writer feels is his or her best work over the past year, or few years. They shouldnít have to tell a story. Some poetry does that, but it shouldnít be a requirement.

Again to contradict myself, my first book of poetry is loosely "about" looking for meaning, often illusory, in the past, and about finding meaning in language. My second book, Clinic Day, has a set of displaced characters, each of whom is missing something, trying to make their way through daily life in Toronto. My novel, if I ever finish it Ė Iím the early stage when this seems only fictionally possible! Ė is about politics. Or the effect of mostly violent politics on ordinary people, including people whoíve been deliberately apolitical. The new poems Iím working on seem to be a series of questions about disappointment, and the value, if any, of words. The truth is, though, I might describe any one of these books differently on another day, so whether they have a common subject is an open question.

TDR: Have you had any mentors, either real people who worked with you, or people you only met on the page? How have they influenced you? Do you react against them, or pattern your work on theirs?

DFB: This is a difficult question, and judging from conversations Iíve had with other writers, particularly women, Iím not the only one to find it difficult. Not having gone through any of the formal creative writing programs or workshops I havenít found "official" mentors, and itís difficult to seek out mentors independently. Several women, including some who have gone through formal programs, have talked to me about their frustration in this respect, and their feeling that women donít find it easy to mentor other women. Iím not sure whether thatís the case Ė or if so, why, but if I were to speculate I might guess that weíre all fighting for a piece of the same pie. That the number of opportunities isnít vastly greater for a 50 year old woman than it is for a 20 or 30 year old (in fact, marketing-wise, probably less), so mid-career writers might hoard the resources available to them. Generally Iíve found younger writers to be the most encouraging and generous (perhaps because they have a greater sense of possibilities). Iíve also wondered whether mentoring might stem from a kind of team/business model that more men than women are used to. Iím not sure about this. But I do seem to read more references to male mentors in articles about writers and their careers. And they do seem to mentor more men than they do women.

I have to admit to a certain cynicism about mentoring in general. When an established writer chooses someone to whom he can "pass the torch" I sometimes suspect heís looking for another way to secure his own reputation. Rather than providing more opportunities to younger writers, mentoring may keep the ranks closed by encouraging those who will be flattering in their estimations of established writers, and reflect glory on them. I also think that as a writer looking for mentors, one is sometimes oblivious to oneís own ambition and ambivalence, and to how those may come across to a writer you admire. Do you genuinely admire someone, or just want what theyíve achieved as a successful writer? Itís entirely possible that both things are true, but itís worth asking yourself the question. Or maybe the question should be, what do you expect from a mentor, and does this person seem willing or able to give it? Many writers are struggling with their own difficulties and insecurities, and may not be able to provide the encouragement we long for.

As a younger writer I sometimes felt desperate for someone to encourage me, in creative and practical terms. Of course I would have loved to have fulfilled many a writerís fantasy in having an idol recognise my talent, take an interest in my work, and (on a more earthly note) introduce me to editors, publishers, teachers. And why not fame and fortune, while weíre at it? (At that stage I couldnít see how I was going to get into what seemed Ė and still does, partly Ė like a closed shop.) But that was a fantasy unrelated to the daily reality of the hard work of writing. Itís a fantasy that has more in common with a Hollywood narrative of discovery than with being a writer. I read a very good piece in an American journal some years ago, I canít remember which one, by an editor on this subject. He was remarking on the fact that over his career heíd witnessed the expectations of writers change drastically in terms of how fast they imagined their careers would develop, and how long it might take to write a decent book. He thought this had something to do with the success stories told in movies and popular culture, and with the lives of rock stars, say, or actors, and the possibilities for instant fame on television. I think the literary journalism in most of our papers encourages this perception, and at the same time fuels what one friend of mine calls a false sense of "the economy of talent."

Iíve come to think that as a way to sustain writing, whatís more important than mentorships is reading, and friendships with other writers on an equal footing. At the early stages of a writing career itís possible to be too influenced by what mentors say, to be shaped, perhaps to your detriment, by their approval as much as their criticism. To make oneís own mistakes rather than following someone elseís direction is probably still the best apprenticeship. It certainly does you no harm. Thatís in the pure creative sense. In material ways I probably need a mentor more now than I did before Ė I could still really use one in the crass, practical, how do I get that review/publishing contract/blurb sense!

There are some writers and editors who do seem to make it their business to encourage a variety of writers who are younger or less established (the term those of us who arenít so young have to use!) Ė and this doesnít have to mean introducing us to an agent. Kind, intelligent correspondence about oneís work can be very sustaining. I can remember distinctly letters I got from Stephen Heighton and Barry Dempster when I was first sending out my poems to journals. Neither of them published my work, I should add, but their editorial comments were thoughtful and encouraging at the same time as being critical, and they helped me to feel that someone other than myself might take me seriously as a writer. Iíve met other people whoíve been kind Ė Anne Michaels and Lynn Crosbie are two Ė in a similar way, and Iíve appreciated it.

As for mentors on the page, those I choose entirely myself, and the experience is more purely joyful and free from anxiety, intimate and passionate. They canít reject me, for one thing, and I can choose what I want to keep from them. Reading is a lovely democracy in that way. . Like all writers, my first poems were imitative (and not necessarily consciously) of the poets I admired. Thereís no need to be embarrassed about this, though many of us are Ė itís a necessary stage in the process of learning to be a poet Ė Iím sure Iím still influenced, but am evolving my own language, too.

Sometimes my mentors influence me through offering me their own influences. For example, reading essays by Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney Iíve discovered poets I either didnít appreciate, or hadnít heard of on my own. In critical terms people I disagree with can be just as instructive as "mentors" Ė Helen Vendler, for example, is a critic whose opinions often infuriate me, but in figuring out why Iíve learned really useful things for my own development as a poet.

TDR: Do you have a favorite poem? (Say why you like it.)

DFB: I find it almost impossible to pick "a favourite poem." Like a lot of readers, I suspect, there are poems I call on when I happen to need whatever they provide. I donít think of poetry as a toddlerís blanket, but itís certainly true that I often reread a poem at a time of grief or loneliness, or indecision. When it comes to poems for solace (which doesnít necessarily mean poems whose content is soothing Ė far from it) I might turn to Coleridgeís sonnet "Work Without Hope," a lovely poem about writerís block and the despair it can induce. The speaker is sitting at his window, unable to write, watching the busy, productive natural world. The last two lines are: "Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,/and Hope without an object cannot live." Itís a lovely combination of wit and despair, and of course supremely ironic in that its existence belies its subject.

For anyone whoís been jilted, or whoís desired someone who wonít respond, Iíd recommend Marina Tsvetaevaís poem "Iím glad your sickness," translation by Elaine Feinstein. One of my favourite poems of Tsvetaevaís is "New Yearís Greetings," a "letter" written to Rilke after his death, which Joseph Brodsky critiques in his essay "Footnote to a Poem." I love what Brodsky says here about poems in general as much as what he says about Tsvetaeva in particular: "ÖA poem is not a news report, and often a poemís tragic music alone informs us of what is happening more precisely than a detailed description can." And about Tsvetaeva: "Öit is impossible to call [her] a poet of extremes, if only because an extreme Ė whether deductive, emotional, or linguistic Ė is merely the point where, for her, a poem starts." Actually, he says one other thing that might apply back to the subject of mentors, or what one might hope for in a mentor on the page: "Paradoxical and blasphemous though it may seem, in the dead Rilke Tsvetaeva found what every poet seeks: the supreme listener."

I think as a reader or critic itís my job to be that listener, to love a poet for his or her particular qualities, rather than to impose universal requirements that put the poem in a straitjacket Ė and that may have no bearing on its condition or its intent. In that respect I donít subscribe to "versus" debates, whether "free verse vs. form," or "meaning vs. deconstruction." As a reader what matters to me is whether the poetís form or structure seems to fit his or her intent, and whether the poetís created a language that I can hear. (In some cases I may need to pay closer attention.) In different moods my "favourite" poems or books might be Fredy Neptune or something by Paul Muldoon. Edward Thomas was an instructive poet for me to read Ė at first he seemed to me sentimental, but heís a poet with very pure voice and delicate effects, and that apparent sentimentality is deeply grounded emotion. The other day I was reading Don Colesís "Little Bird". I had loved it when I first read it and I wanted to see if it held up for me, which it did. I feel as if thereís so much to read that Iíve missed, or havenít gotten around to yet Ė some of my favourite poems are waiting for me to find them, no doubt.

TDR: Are you conscious of being part of a community of Canadian writers? How do you relate to the work of your contemporaries? (Name some names, if possible.)

DFB: Yes and no. When I was quite a bit younger I resisted reading my contemporaries Ė I think I was afraid of being influenced or more likely swamped by feelings of competitiveness and envy. If I picked up a book by a young Canadian poet I often found myself having instinctively defensive reactions, and putting it aside. It was easier for me to appreciate work by grand old men living in Australia or St. Lucia or Prague. I started to grow out of that, thank god, and reviewing poetry for The National Post , which I did for about 9 months on a monthly basis, was good medicine. It forced me to read in a different way Ė to appreciate the variety of work being produced in Canada and to read each poet, as I might one of my chosen mentors, for his or her own qualities, to judge the work on its own merits. Gradually I started to see these writers, most of whom I didnít know, as a community.

On the subject of reviews, by the way, I hate it when I can tell that the reviewer has made up his or her mind before finishing the book. Iím convinced I can tell, too Ė the review is too pat. Itís tempting practice (you could cut your work in half by formulating phrases while reading) but it diminishes the result. So my habit was to read each book once fast, and then slowly, and if the poet had written several books I tried to read at least one other (if I hadnít already). Well this is turning into an answer about criticism, but back to your question.

When a writer talks about the literary community Iím never sure whether theyíre just referring to their friends, which doesnít interest me all that much. I like to think of the writing community as including people whose work I admire or enjoy but donít know personally, as well as those I do know (and also respect). But if Iím speaking of friends, there are two writers in Toronto, Margaret Christakos and Ann Shin, whom I meet with regularly to talk about writing, and theyíd be my immediate "community." They have very different approaches as writers, I admire their work, and theyíre sensitive but opinionated readers. I have an old friend in Kingston, Susan Olding, another writer whose work I admire, and we often correspond about our work. John Kuti is another Kingston writer Iíve met more recently. These are the people I would turn to on a regular basis for support and advice, as well as critical responses.

Then there are people whose work I would consider to be my context, in that itís what I would read in journals or bookstores. Most of these are people I would feel able to talk to about writing, though I donít know all of them personally. Any such list would be only partial, of course, but it might include Mark Sinnett, Priscila Uppal, George Murray, Sina Queyras, Natalee Caple, Louise Bak, Corrado Paina, Michael Redhill, Christian Bök, Carmine Starnino, David OíMeara, Todd SwiftÖ. Most of them are younger than me Ė god, now that I think of it, all of them are, some considerably! Ė but I think of them as my contemporaries, loosely. Iím going to include Sheldon Zitner, just to shift the balance a bit Ė heís someone whose work Iíve read and liked and he has a few decades on me. There are writers whose new books I wait for, just to see what theyíre doing now, like Ken Babstock (and then gnash my teeth in envy).

One thing Iíve noticed in terms of a writing community is that there does seem to be a zeitgeist (a word I donít think Iíve ever used before, now that I think of it). I mean that it does seem true that writers turn to certain subjects, or forms, at roughly the same time, and I donít think itís necessarily as simple as being influenced by each other. I think certain movements or forms (the long poem, for example) suggest themselves, and make sense to more than one person at a time. Subjects as well. There are the obvious examples Ė it wouldnít be surprising for a number of books containing poems on terrorism and political instability to appear around the same time. But there are less visible currents or events or preoccupations that capture our attention, and I would be as influenced by those as the next person.

TDR: What are you working on right now? How is this part of the progression of your work generally?

DFB: Iím working on a weird little cluster of short poems and as I mentioned before and am embarrassed to admit - a novel. I say embarrassed because I still nurse the idea that there are "pure" poets who never feel seduced into writing a novel. Iím being half-facetious here, but only half. I do believe that fiction can lure oneís attention away from poetry permanently (partly for economic reasons, if a novel is successful), and I still feel as if there are things I want to learn and attempt as a poet, but somehow I also want to write this novel. Who knows if Iíll manage it Ė itís a long way from being finished Ė but Iíd like to try. As a progression, I seem to want to enjoy writing a narrative Ė my second book, Clinic Day, is a long poem with a loose narrative structure, and Iíve always seen the ability to write narrative as a gift that I donít possess. Perversely, that makes me want to try it. Characters also interest me Ė I am really enjoying that. I used to be sceptical, to say the least, when I would read about an author who would refer to her characters as having a life of their own - that seemed unbearably precious to me. But Iím starting to understand it.

As for poems, Iím working on a sequence Iíve called tentatively Self-Help and which may become a book. So far the sequence consists of odd, almost aphoristic poems. Theyíre quite bitter, and I keep thinking they should be more lyrical, more beautiful, have more words in them Ė something should be different Ė but I seem to write them anyway, as their stunted little selves, so Iím not sure where Iíll go with them. Iím finding it uncomfortable to use so few words, and such ordinary, unpretty ones at that, but at the moment other choices arenít presenting themselves to me.

 

 

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