Art for Change: Dane Swan on Changing the Face of Canadian Literature

Poet and writer Dane Swan talks to NFOTA’s Kim Aubrey about his experiences compiling and editing Changing the Face of Canadian Literature: a diverse Canadian anthology and his vision for the future of Can Lit.

Dane Swan was a visiting writer at the 2019 Festival of the Arts and will be leading a workshop and reading/performing his poems at Northumberland Festival of the Arts, 2022.

Dane Swan

I discovered a number of amazing writers I may have not looked for if I didn’t work on this project. Almost weekly now I discover someone who I wish I invited.

Dane Swan

Thank you, Dane, for putting this anthology together. It’s such a substantial work, a gathering of diverse writers from across Canada, with some familiar names but many I had not been aware of until reading their work here. You describe this book as a “celebration.” It also feels like a gift, an act of good literary citizenship on your part. What inspired you to take on this project?

A friend invited me to the book launch for the anthology, “Surviving Canada: 150 Years of Betrayal.” It was the first time that I felt the potential power of anthologies. How an editor can make a huge statement through a collection. Fairly soon after that launch Michael Mirolla from Guernica asked if I would be interested in editing an anthology for Guernica Editions and  I proposed what became, Changing the Face of Canadian Literature.

What was your experience starting out as a spoken word artist and poet in Canada?

There were some really weird brushes with racism, and petty politics, but for the most part, my experience was positive. I was given space to learn as a writer. I was able to network and book performances. I enjoyed most of my time in the spoken word scene. The most important time I experienced as a writer was at the very first CFSW (Canadian Festival of Spoken Word). It was the second ever national team poetry slam in Canada (the first being called the Canadian Wordlympics).

In Vancouver, before the slam bouts they would have guest performers. Most of those performances broke all the rules of slam poetry. They didn’t care about the length of their work. They incorporated music and instruments. Seeing so many performers break the norms of spoken word had a huge impact on my writing career.

What changes have you seen since arriving here?

I remember when being a “spoken word,” performer meant that you were not taken seriously by the literary scene. You had to be spectacular to get features on lit stages. Bad poets who couldn’t get published would often call themselves spoken word artists to get funding, or, to take features from people. It was a mess.

When my first book, Bending the Continuum was published, that was the first book from a Canada based spoken word artist in my generation– who wasn’t some sort of celebrity– to get published. Now publishers scout spoken word stages for potential authors.

Even though the writers in Changing the Face of Canadian Literature come from many diverse communities, and their work shows a wide range of styles and content, they share the experience of being othered, which makes the anthology feel very cohesive. How did you find these writers, and what was the selection process like?

It was a genuinely happy coincidence that a theme came out of the anthology. Open calls are really hit and miss. I wanted to avoid that. After talking to a few people who had worked on anthologies, I pretty quickly decided that researching writers and contacting them directly was the better way to go.

When we were putting finishing touches on the anthology and the theme seemed fairly clear, a few writers backed out, or missed the deadline. I only rejected 2 submissions because they didn’t fit what I was looking for. At that point, when we reached out to new potential contributors I was comfortable telling people that there wasn’t a clear theme, but there were themes that were emerging and shared those to the remaining contributors.

What surprises/discoveries stand out for you in making this anthology?

I don’t know. I discovered a number of amazing writers I may have not looked for if I didn’t work on this project. Almost weekly now I discover someone who I wish I invited.

The book was published in 2020. How did the pandemic affect its publication, distribution and/or promotion?

I suspect academic spaces took more notice of the book than the general public. I think that would be reversed if we were able to work with more literary festivals. Toronto International Festival of Authors collaborated with us on an online event, but that’s not really the same thing. Thankfully, CBC Books and CBC Radio liked it, but that’s still not face-to-face. Thankfully, I think it’s an ‘evergreen,’ book. There will always be a chance for consumers to enjoy it.

In the Foreword, you say, “Moments in history like this must be acknowledged and celebrated.” Is that moment still with us? What is your vision for the future of Can Lit?

The fact that I continue to learn about diverse writers from across Canada, that I hear about new anthologies that tread a similar path to what I worked on, indicates to me that we’re thankfully still in that moment.

As for the future? This might sound horrible, but my vision for the future of Can Lit is mediocrity. I mean this in the sense that for BIPOC and other disenfranchised authors to get published we are trained to aim for excellence. We’ve all heard the term “Black Excellence,” for instance. So why are there so many mediocre books being published? My dream is that anyone, if their work is technically good enough to get published, and reaches the standards of said publisher, they can potentially get published.

Why does mediocrity matter? Sometimes mediocre literature becomes classic literature. It becomes popular literature, because it reaches out to a wide audience. How many classic books have really mediocre plots, for instance?

The first novel manuscript that I ever tried getting published, the publisher who was most interested dismissed it because there was “no tension.” How many classic novels have no tension, but allow the reader to live in a world beyond their experience? BIPOC writers are not allowed to venture into those literary spaces if they wish to get published in Canada.

Every manuscript must tick certain boxes: Excellent plot, there must be a clear tension between the protagonist and someone else and the protagonist must have goals.

Why must we continue to write technically excellent books to get published? I want our failed experiments to get published at the same rate as the majority’s. I want literary flourishes to become more important than good storytelling.

To that extent, I want more white writers to challenge themselves with theoretically boring plots. Build beautiful worlds written with brilliance. Pages of literary mastery that pull the reader into work that should be boring.

Mediocrity for everyone! Less explosions and sex and more internal discovery and morose contemplation. Our great Canadian novelists currently write glorified crime, romance and spec-fic novels. Why? How does that express greatness? How does that represent our nation to the world? How is that work relatable?

Dane Swan

About Dane:

Dane Swan is the editor of the critically praised anthology, Changing the Face of Canadian Literature. His second book, A Mingus Lullaby, (Guernica Editions) was a finalist for the 2017 Trillium Book Prize for Poetry. A past Writer in Residence for the Open Book Foundation of Ontario, Dane has also been short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts). His first book, Bending the Continuum, (Guernica Editions, 2011) was a mid-summer recommended read from Open Book Toronto. 

A Bermuda-born, Jamaican heritage writer, Dane is also an accomplished slam poet and touring spoken-word performer, placing second at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, third at the Rust Belt Regional Slam and touring the US Midwest and West Coast regions. He has graced numerous festival stages, including: IFOA, Hillside, Lab Cab, Parkdale Arts, Junction Arts, and Pitter Patter festivals. For four years Dane and Dan D’Onorio hosted Toronto’s $100 Slam series.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. A very interesting interview, Dane and Kim. Thank you. Both enlightening (there’s much I didn’t know about Spoken Word poetry, it turns out) and intriguing (the idea of valuing mediocrity in literature surprised me at first). I look forward to your workshop and performance at NFOTA 2022!

    1. kimaubrey says:

      I like Dane’s call for mediocrity in Can Lit. It strikes me that he’s calling for the freedom to experiment in the public sphere as a writer, and the freedom to fail in those experiments, which was how things were in the 1960’s, 70’s, and maybe the 80’s, before publishing went corporate, and demanded more formulaic novels, novels that mimicked the latest successful book.

      1. I think he cleverly uses the term ‘mediocrity’ to get our dander up as writers, (or at least our attention – who wants to aim for mediocrity?) But even as I was puzzled by his choice of that word, I got his point about freedom to experiment and innovate – and I heartily agree. By today’s lofty standards, I fear many of the so-called ‘classics’ would never have seen the light of day. Maybe we TV and film types have corrupted the “production values” of literature…

  2. A very illuminating interview that sheds light on some new directions in Canadian poetry. I look forward to learning more at the NFOTA in September. Thanks.

  3. Shane Joseph says:

    It is horrible indeed to hear the word “mediocrity.” I don’t think any writer, even though their work may be eventually judged as mediocre by literary gatekeepers and the reading public, set out to create mediocrity. No publisher wants to publish mediocrity because no reader wants to read mediocrity – there is so much mediocrity already out there, coming to us from all sides, especially via the internet. Readers expect publishers to be curators of excellence, so that they have trusted sources of good reading material, and honest publishers expect excellence from their writers, who in turn drive themselves to extend their art beyond its existing boundaries. I prefer the word “evolution” to “mediocrity.” All those “failed experiments” are on an evolutionary path to excellence, we hope. In the end, good writing will stand the test of time, long after its marketing and promotion have ended; mediocre books will be forgotten and have only contributed to the killing of more trees.

    As for CanLit, by pandering to including the work of various groups who become the flavour of the month through political posturing, and thereby taking its eye off excellence-irrespective-of-origin, it may already have arrived at the State of Mediocrity.

    1. Shane Joseph says:

      Lest the typo in my above comment gets taken out of context and we detour into a mediocre sidebar, let me say that I tried to fix the missing “s” after the fact, but WordPress would not allow me. So, I will leave you to find it, and admit that I am a mediocre typist trying to evolve towards excellence.

  4. ronaldmackay says:

    Nobody benefits from pursuing the mediocre. Long ago, a talented poet observed: “Not gods, nor men, nor even booksellers have put up with poets’ second-rate work.”
    On receiving criticism from an editor we seek to publish with, the appropriate action is to address the weakness she draws our attention to.
    Aspiring writers would do well to follow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s plea: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

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