new Mennonite Life logo    June 2004     vol. 59 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

On A Cappella: Hybrids and Half-Severed Roots

by Di Brandt

Originally from Manitoba and currently teaching at the University of Windsor, Di Brandt has published several influential poetry collections and a critical study of contemporary Canadian women's texts. She recently released "Awakenings," a collaborative poetry/music CD with Dorothy Livesay (posthumously), Carol Ann Weaver, and Rebecca Campbell (2003). She has received numerous poetry prizes including the CAA National Poetry Prize and the Gerald Lampert Award. "Now You Care" (Coach House 2003), her most recent collection, received major critical attention in Canada and was nominated for numerous prizes including the Griffin Poetry Prize.

It took me so many years to 'come out' as a poet, out of that secret drawer whose contents had become more and more unwieldy not to mention unmannerly, because I knew it would mean having to give up my Mennonite identity, and that was a frightening thought indeed. And so I became a poet and died to my Mennonite self, and that was so painful it nearly killed me. I didn't know then that soon there would be Mennonite literary conferences and anthologies and reading series, I didn't know that in a handful of years there would be such a category as 'Mennonite poet' and that I would be counted among a dazzling array of other 'Mennonite poets' all struggling with similar and also very different creative questions in their wonderful innovative and inspiring writing as I was, with a growing hungry literate appreciative engaged audience both inside the Mennonite fold and outside it. And so I became a Mennonite poet but with a lot of deep knowledge about identity and loss and the hybridities we make out of our losses if we are lucky enough to survive them, a cultural halfbreed, with enough scars and experience to prove it. A Cappella is a landmark publication: the first time Mennonite poets have been gathered together internationally in this way, exposed to Canadian and American Mennonite and non-Mennonite audiences, oh, it all feels large and breezy and a bit scary all over again. But also lovely, and warm, and happy. Reading from this anthology at Goshen was so much fun, that church going audience so tuned to the nuances and rhythms of language from all that singing and sacred listening, so great to send those words out from the stage and have them greeted with gasps and held breaths and tears and frowns and laughter, yes, isn't that what poetry is for, and isn't it one of the things we have always loved most of all, as Mennonites, the poetic word, performed to the gathered community, understanding the magic of that, the synchronizing of self and other and body and spirit and word and text and performance, all gathered there, a capella, in the lit presence of the moment, nothing like it. And how lovely that the hybrids, the halfbreeds, are being invited back in now, with their stranger knowledge: it is perhaps what will save the community from atrophy or irrelevance (or plain deceit) as we figure out who we are all over again in this new age, this century with its great terrors and great hopes, and it's very nice for the hybrids too, gasping for water from those great old half-severed roots.