This anthology of diverse Canadian literary voices is an important read right now
This interview originally aired on Oct. 17, 2020.
Writer, spoken word poet and editor Dane Swan grew up in Bermuda listening to stories and music. As an adult living in Canada, he loved performing slam and spoken word — poetry that rekindled his love of the written form.
His new book is a labour of love called Changing the Face of Canadian Literature. It's a Canadian anthology that Swan compiled and edited.
Smith is a Black poet, playwright and performer who has taught creative writing and leads a number of anti-racism and equity initiatives in the arts.
Swan and Smith spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why they feel Changing the Face of Canadian Literature is an important literary work in today's world.
Being a BIPOC writer in the early 2000s
Dane Swan: "At the time, around 2009, I was coming from slam poetry — and the slam poetry scene in Canada is heavily influenced by Black poets: Dwayne Morgan, Eddie the Original One, Andrea Thompson and more.
"But as soon as I stepped into the literary side, myself and my editor were having a problem: a lot of the Canadian Black writers, particularly Black men, were leaving the space. It wasn't like I could go to my bookstore and ask for this long list of poets.
A lot of the Canadian Black writers, particularly Black men, were leaving the space.
"There were a handful of poets. If you read Canadian poetry, you know who they are. After I read those three or four people, there wasn't anyone I could learn from."
Back in the 1980s
Charles C. Smith: "When I first arrived here in Toronto, the scene was overwhelmingly white. The writers of colour at that time, the Black writers in particular, there was less than half a hand, in terms of counting. People like Dionne Brand, M. NourbeSe Philip, George Elliott Clarke and Claire Harris.
"At the same time, the dub poets were also making their hit on the scene: Lillian Allen, Clifton Joseph and Devon Haughton.
When I first arrived here in Toronto, the scene was overwhelmingly white. And the writers of colour at that time, the Black writers in particular, there was less than half a hand, in terms of counting.
"I don't believe we had a circuit for Black poets to come together. Allen put it well: Toronto was a one poem town.
"That meant following the British English white tradition, which meant that our stories or our forms of poetry were not seen as equally valuable."
Community engagement in the present and future
Dane Swan: "When I first started putting this anthology together, one of the things that I wanted to do was make sure that the first group of people that I reached out to were actually involved in their communities.
One of the things that I wanted to do was make sure that the first group of people that I reached out to were actually involved in their communities.
"I didn't want to get a random person because they came from a certain background. I wanted people who were heavily involved.
"When I look for writers, I try to find people who I trust on the technical side of things and then let them do whatever they want to do with an anthology like this.
"There wasn't an infrastructure before — part of the story here are the people who are creating that infrastructure."
Dane Swan and Charles C. Smith's comments have been edited for length and clarity.