The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our Poet of the Month – the kind, candid, refreshingly-honest, Dane Swan.
Dane Swan was born and raised in Bermuda. He has written such critically-acclaimed books as Bending the Continuum (Guernica Editions, 2011), and A Mingus Lullaby (Guernica Editions, 2016), which was a finalist for the 2017 Trillium Book Award. His poems have appeared in numerous publications, internationally. He is currently based in Toronto.
Natalya: Hello, Dane. Thank you for joining us today! At what point in your life did you start writing poetry? Why did it interest you?
Dane: It’s funny, I barely graduated university, and I was in remedial English in high school, but as a kid I was really smart. I was a few months old when I started reading (thanks to Sesame Street). By the time that I got to primary school, my twin and I were reading my big brothers’ books (he’s five years older than us) because the books at school were boring. There were five or six of us in my grade like that. If we were in Canada they probably would have skipped all of us up two or three grades – with little respect for the social issues that would have created. Instead [my teachers], Mrs. Davis, and Miss Ball, grabbed textbooks from other classrooms. Those textbooks had short stories, tough comprehension questions and poetry. Reading poetry as a five-and-six-year-old, I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I really was impressed with how Robert Frost could paint a picture with words. I wanted to be able to do something similar.
Natalya: Sounds like you had some conscientious teachers. How does your childhood in Bermuda and your family history influence or play a part in your writing?
Dane: I’m not sure how my family history impacts my writing. Maybe because my mom had such a strict upbringing in Jamaica, and because my dad was the first person on his side of the family with a post-secondary education, I was urged to go to university. But I was given the freedom to be a struggling writer with their blessing and encouragement. As far as Bermuda – again tough to say. Bermuda is a conservative island. I’m far from that. It’s the closest place I have to a home, but Jamaica influences my work more. Maybe I’m a momma’s boy. I love both. They’re both beautiful places. The handful of teachers who believed in me influence my work. But, I’m not sure if that’s what you’re searching for. Bermuda is an island with primarily first world problems. It’s stupidly easy on the eyes. It’s tiny. There’s an expectation that you have manners. Like any small community, there are gossipers. There’s crime. All of this may influence the way I live, who and when I open up to, but I don’t write from that space.
There’s some nostalgia in my first book, Bending the Continuum, but that sort of writing is a drop in the bucket compared to the depths of my writing. My life in Bermuda is merely a resource in my literature. Just like any other source of knowledge that I exploit. Now, if we’re talking about the person I’ve become, the way I carry myself, my expectations of others, or how I talk, then yeah, Bermuda has a massive influence.
Natalya: Tell me a bit about A Mingus Lullaby. What propelled you to write that collection, and what was your experience as you wrote it?
Dane: I wrote A Mingus Lullaby over 10 years in 3 distinctly different periods of my life. I’m actually working on a chapbook where I discuss some of my hurdles. I’ll keep it all a secret for now. You’ll have to hope that the chapbook gets published.
Natalya: I will hope that it gets published and I will be first in line to purchase it. Can you tell me about your current writing project(s)?
Dane: Not really. Let’s see, what can I talk about? This Fall, Dumagrad Books is publishing my first collection of short stories. The title is, He Doesn’t Hurt People Anymore. Next Spring, Grey Borders is publishing my first novella, Tuesday. I have two manuscripts that I’m currently shopping, one a YA novel, and the other a poetry manuscript. I have a contract on my hard drive that I need to sign for a project, and some other stuff with another press. (I’m not supposed to talk about these. It’s what I’ll be doing for the next two years, but nothing is signed.) Other than that, my collective, “MXTP_CLTRS”, has a gig at Toronto’s Array Space in October, for anyone up for some spoken word/performance art/music/inter-art fun.
Natalya: Dane, I’m thinking we all need to explore a hell of a lot more of your work, because you’re busier than a one-toothed man at a corn on the cob eating contest. What has your experience been as a writer in Canada? Please share your feelings about the writing community here.
Dane: It depends. You definitely can’t paint Canada in one equal brush. Some places are more welcoming than others. As a writer of colour – who doesn’t have post grad accolades but is critically respected – there are always people who try to discredit me. That’s life. There isn’t a big list of Black writers in Canada writing literary work who don’t have amazing academics.
I feel more at home at Toronto Urban Book Expo (surrounded by self-published authors), or at a poetry slam than I am at most literary events hosted by people of colour here. On the other hand, I’ve had to face varying degrees of racism. Meanwhile, there are places in Toronto, and elsewhere in Canada, that when I enter the room, people fawn over me – like I’m important or something. It’s comical. What can you do but laugh? It’s all too weird to take seriously. I guess I’m a unique person in an industry of copycats. I didn’t get an MFA to get a book published. I didn’t publish with certain presses before I got short-listed for the Trillium Book Prize for Poetry. Sometimes in life, you realize the importance of being the outlier. Being different from even my peers gives me advantages. No one can stop me, because there’s never been someone like me in the Canadian industry. I can’t be intimidated, or encouraged to write a certain way, because I’ve gotten this far despite the hurdles placed in front of me, by writing my own way. Yes, most of those hurdles are there unintentionally, but when people intentionally place hurdles down, it’s not a big deal.
Wanda Coleman once talked about a conversation she had with a pimp that she knew. She was complaining about her life, and contemplating what to do. The pimp told her, “If you’re a writer, write.” At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to. I can mope and complain, or I can write. I’m a writer; so, I write.
Natalya: Have there been any mentors in your life – either within the art world, or music/dance world, or just in your family life – that you can tell us about who have been important to shaping your poetry?
Dane: Nope. That’s not fair of me. It’s true, I’m as self-made a writer as I can think of, but it’s still a cruddy answer. I have no mentors. I have books. I have vinyl records. I’m constantly reading and researching history, science, politics, philosophy – you name it. That’s me – the kid who could read before he could talk. Even back when I was making music, I never had mentors. I’ve had peers. Many of those peers have inspired me, and still do. I’ve been a fan. I was a huge fan of Austin Clarke. However, my fandom has never influenced my writing. Mr. Clarke did his thing, I do mine. My parents are awesome, they put up with me – that’s impressive. But, if I wrote from their influence I would never get published. My mom’s congregation in NB will disagree with me, but I’m sticking with my side of things. The closest I ever had to a mentor was either Kevin or Michael back in Bermuda. Kevin was a partner at Kriss Cross Records, a long-gone dancehall record spot. By the end of our relationship, my twin and I were giving him leads on distributors from Jamaica – pretty sure that’s not how mentorship is supposed to work. Mike was a local guy who scared us straight, and made sure we didn’t deal with the issues he faced. I talk about that relationship in my poem ‘Cedar Tree’, which is in A Mingus Lullaby. I actually had a conversation about this with Michael Mirolla, the chief publisher at Guernica Editions fairly recently. He pointed out that most people in my position would claim that they grasped it all from thin air. They would boast their genius. But, I’ve always championed reading. There are no secrets in literature. If you want to learn how to write excellent work, read and study excellent writers.