The Brutally Honest Ones: Interview with Dane SwanSep 24, 2020
The Brutally Honest Ones: Dane Swan in conversation with Garvia Bailey
Garvia: We had our first conversation around your wonderful A Mingus Lullaby, which was shortlisted for the Trillium poetry prize this year. We talked about life and jazz and poetry and Mingus and storytelling. And it was good. It was wonderful. I became a fan of your poetry almost instantly. So when I saw that you had released a collection of short stories I was both elated but also [gasps] what happened to my poet?
Dane: The poet hasn't gone anywhere.
Garvia: No, it’s true, he hasn't gone anywhere. I was really happy to see that as read the stories in He Doesn’t Hurt People Anymore. We'll talk about that title. Because we must. Tell me though about Hand Wraps, the first story.
Dane: Hand Wraps was actually the first story in the collection that I wrote. I was following a thread in a poem from my first book of poetry, Bending the Continuum, where I use the boxing gym as a metaphor. When I started to do short stories I decided I wanted to go back to an idea that was really early in my own development. When you first found me, the boxing poem would have been one of the first things you read by me. By returning to that for a story, it's sort of making the concept more personal. Because to me that's what storytelling is: it's about the characters. That's the depth that fiction has that poetry doesn't really have. Okay, I'm sure you can get depth in characters in poetry…
Garvia: Especially the way that you write poetry. I feel like that's probably something that attracts people to your poetry.
Dane: But I can dive in really deep in a single story, whereas for poetry to grasp the character of a person I need to write multiple poems so that I can see them from different angles. So that's one of the things that excited me about writing short stories: I could put it all into one little thing.
Garvia: You create this world and this character and really expand on it, on who he is and what he does.
Dane: Exactly. Even in five or ten pages you can do so much if your goal is to create a world.
Garvia: You’ve alluded to your love of storytelling. And I wonder where exactly that came from. At whose behest or at whose knee did your love of storytelling become a real thing for you.
Dane: Well certainly it’s a big thing on both sides of my family, the Bermudan and the Jamaican. In particular my grandfather on my Jamaican side, he was a headmaster in a small village, Yallahs, at the mouth of the Yallahs river. Basically if you were bored you ran up to him and said, Grandad, tell me a story. And it was a new story every time. He had all the Anansi stories memorized, he had all sorts of old school African tales and folklore memorized, and then he just had funny stories from his childhood and stuff like that. So he was a really big storyteller. My grandfather on the other side was a pretty decent storyteller, not as good, but for an average person he was good…
Garvia: If they had to go head to head…
Dane: It would be a beat down if they went head to head. But against everybody else's grandfather he was a really great storyteller. My Jamaican side, actually everyone was a storyteller. I remember being with my uncle, who just passed last year, at his house in New York, cos that's where Jamaicans tend to migrate, and his place was a home that everyone seemed attracted to. If there was a wedding in the family, people flew in from everywhere. And everyone would end up crashing on his living room floor. It was like 20 people there you didn't know, and they're all crashing on his floor, and the fascinating thing is even though these are distant relatives from all over the Caribbean and North America, all of the adults, they had to tell good stories. And that was what happened. This was before cable TV remember, or cable TV was just starting. So people had other ways of entertaining themselves. Some of you younger guys don't remember that but the rest of us do.
Garvia: It was a thing.
Dane: It was a thing.
Garvia: People sat around and talked to each other. "What? They WHAT?"
Dane: It was wonderful.
Garvia: It still is wonderful. That's still something that happens in my own Jamaican family, sitting in the backyard and having people just talk to each other about various things, and try to one up each other.
I want to go back to A Mingus Lullaby because that was a conversation. It was a musical composition. It was a story. It was all of these things. I just wonder about the jumping off point when you write something like Mingus, and then you're going into fiction, shifting genres and shifting the way in which your brain works. I do not have the brain of a poet or writer of prose. But I could imagine that there has to be some real shift that happens when you finish something like that and go into something like this.
Dane: Yes and no. When I was promoting A Mingus Lullaby I spoke to a class at U of T Scarborough, and I found myself using strictly musical terminology, and I think it's easier for me to bounce from genre to genre with poetry and prose because I sort of see writing the way I see music. I equate poetry with rap. I mean that's a really easy one: people rhyme. If you look at the lineage of the albums that are actually interesting to listen to – and I know there's less and less of those – they tell a story; the words can stand on their own.
I look at writing prose almost the same way you would listen to a classical piece, where you have symphonies that have multiple parts. You can be on the third section of the symphony and something that happened in the first movement will show up. You can bounce these ideas from such a far distance away. And when I see things like that it becomes a little easier to construct a story. Otherwise you sort of get stuck.
When I first started writing prose I was always trying to inject poetry in it. And I think I was failing because I was doing that – I was trying to create rhythms that weren't there. I started realizing: oh you know what I'm being too aggressive with it. I needed to look at how in music you could subtly hint, something like classical music where you have something that's a massive phrase in the first movement – maybe it’s an eight bar sequence. You take a bar and a half of that and put it in the third movement. And then you're like, Oh. Wow. If you're paying attention to classical music it will tell you a lot of stuff. And then I started looking at prose more like that and it became a lot easier. I started pulling back. I stopped trying to turn my prose into poetry started allowing it to breathe – because I'm naturally a poet and when I sit down that's going to come out anyway.
Garvia: So let's talk about this title, He Doesn't Hurt People Anymore. First of all it's a beautifully designed cover. It's gorgeous. A beautiful cover with a really arresting title. And I think, once I read all the pieces, I got it.
Dane: Yeah it ties in beautifully.
Garvia: So did the title come first, or did you have different title in mind?
Dane: The original title was tied to the story The Failures. But my next poetry collection has a similar title. So I picked something crazy like thirty titles and whittled it down to eight. I'm happy with it because it ties with so many of the stories.
Garvia: Absolutely, yeah. That's what I felt. Often with a collection of short stories the title is pulled directly from one of the pieces. But this title comes from all of them. So what is it about that thematic idea that appeals to you? There's something that must have been in you that pushed towards the title and the topics.
Dane: I believe that we all go through stuff. Or shit, if I may.
Garvia: Yeah both shit and stuff.
Dane: But what I find is if we're patient and we take our time and we have some positive twist in our mind – because sometimes it's just the negativity that will keep you mired in it forever – but if you have a bit of positivity, if even just 5 percent of how you're feeling is positive, eventually bruises heal. And that's one thing I wanted to say: shit happens but at the end of the day you'll come out OK.
Garvia: That's what I saw. Hope is something that permeates all of these stories. And I look at the times that we live in. I think every single person that I've interviewed over the last while, we talked about these times, and how you can't help reading anything without reflecting on: man, we live in some messed up times. We need the hope. I'm wondering whether you were thinking about what was going on in the world as you wrote these stories.
Dane: I actually wrote most of these stories around the time I was on tour for A Mingus Lullaby. I had some struggles while I was writing that, but there was quite a wait after, because publication kept on getting pushed back. I had to invent things to do with myself as a writer. And then Mingus finally came out and I was filled with this, yeah, that was a shitty time – but by then I was really enjoying writing again. I wrote the collection in chunks in Ottawa, Montreal, New Brunswick while I was on tour.
And also there's this undercurrent: I like digging through things other people find ugly, try to find the beauty in them. So I was going with that idea and it was hopefully just a natural thing that found its way in to the stories. Similarly I was hopeful for A Mingus Lullaby and I really believed in it. The more places I was reading, the more attention it was getting, and that energy was with me while I was writing.
Garvia: Isn't it interesting how the continuum of the work that you do is like you have this really great journal. You can look at your work and see how you as a person have been feeling, sensing, experiencing the world through successive works.
Dane: But sometimes the books come out in a different order than the way you write them so it's not accurate. At the same time I was writing my next poetry collection, and I don't even know when that's coming out.
Garvia: That's the other thing though – that there is some – I hate to do this but I always do anyway, ascribing some autobiographical baggage to what people write as works of fiction. But I couldn't help but think about you. I did. I did it. I'm sorry. I ascribed some things and I thought, oh I wonder if Dane's been through any of this.
Because this collection is so very real. The characters – you feel them, you know them. It's like opening a door and going: I know that guy, I've met that guy. I saw him last week. I was just hanging out with that guy. You know that girl? I know her. She was on the subway with me earlier. I didn't like her then. I don't like her now. Reading your book gives you that kind of visceral feeling. And so I did ascribe some – who does Dane know, who is Dane hanging out with? As far as the line between autobiography and imagination, what are you pulling from yourself in this book?
Dane: Well I am a violin player – or I used to play the violin a long time ago. I played for 12 years. I didn't get good enough to enter competitions like the player in Rastavarius, but I was in a few orchestras. What else. Oh, I was gaslighted.
Garvia: Oh! That's a big story – A Brief Guide to Gaslighting. That's a big story.
Dane: But my own version is not as dramatic as the one in the book. It was the person who sponsored me to live in Canada, which was really messed up. She gaslighted me. It was a hot mess. Two years later – I didn't know I was gaslighted. I just thought I was a horrible person and she was a horrible person and we were horrible together. And so our relationship ended horribly. Then two or three years later people started coming up to me and saying, you know so and so you dated? This is what happened. And so literally years later I started hearing all the stories of her calling people, of her telling people bizarre fictional tales about me. Which is pretty impressive. You need a lot of imagination to come up with some of this stuff. So I knew I wanted to write something about gaslighting. It’s something that, if you've gone through it, you probably don't know. You probably just thought, ah, that was a bit of a crap year.
Garvia: Or you've thought to yourself, I've been very unlucky and this is actually my life.
Dane: It could be one of those two. Luckily I surrounded myself with people who, it might take them a few years, but they'll tell me what's going on. You're laughing, but some people won't even tell you after years! You'll go to lunch and it's like, a few years back someone did this this and this to him, so be gentle.
Garvia: It's sort of the ultimate kind of revenge fantasy on the gaslighter and it was quite arresting. I was turning the page like it was a procedural crime drama kind of thing.
I wanted to ask you about the next thing. There are so many poets that are authors and authors who are poets, who I love – Dionne Brand, Nalo Hopkinson, James Baldwin – so many who skirt that line between modes so beautifully. You've done poetry, you’ve done the short story, which I think of as the middle portion. So now we're looking for a novel maybe?
Dane: Actually I have a novella that's being published next spring with Grey Borders, which is a small press in St Catherine's; it was shortlisted for their novella competition. It's called Tuesday. I wrote while I was writing A Mingus Lullaby. And it was a horrible manuscript. Part of writing this story collection was learning how to write prose. So after I figured something out writing a story I would go back and start working on a new draft of the novella, and eventually it became something worthy of being published. But I reached out to a couple of my friends along the way, and a friend who's a novelist said, Yeah I'll have a look at it. And he looked at it and was like [shakes head]: Dane. Couldn't even get through the first five pages. That's...
Garvia: That's the kind of friendships you want! The brutally honest ones.
Dane: And so I got this to do list. And while I was finishing off the final draft of this story collection I was also rewriting the novella. It's in a similar world. So if you like the energy in this book I think you'll like Tuesday as well.
Dane Swan is the author of two collections of poetry published by Guernica – Bending the Continuum (2011), and A Mingus Lullaby (2016), a finalist for the 2017 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. His first fiction collection, He Doesn’t Hurt People Anymore, was published in autumn 2017 by Dumagrad Books. His latest work is Changing the Face of Canadian Literature (2020), an anthology edited for Guernica.
Garvia Bailey is a broadcaster, producer, host, and co-founder of http://jazzcast.ca . For many years she was the host of Good Morning Toronto on Jazz.FM91. Previously she worked at CBC, where she produced and hosted shows such as Canada Live and Big City Small World. She has also hosted and interviewed numerous authors and artists at events such as IFOA.
Photography for the event by Khashayar Mohammadi
The interview first appeared in The Town Crier