Joseph Dandurand is a storyteller, poet, playwright and member of Kwantlen First Nation located on the Fraser River. He is the director of the Kwantlen Cultural Centre and has authored several books of poetry. His poetry collection, The East Side of It All, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and in 2021, Dandurand received the BC Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence.
His latest book, from Harbour Publishing, is The Punishment. It is visceral, raw, and uses incredible imagery to evoke feelings and places.
Interviewed by Alli Vail
Alli Vail (AV): The Punishment is one of the most tonally, stylistically, and thematically consistent books of poetry I’ve read in the past few years. Was this a purposeful choice, or did something else happen?
Joseph Dandurand (JD): This was the beginning of a process leading to how I now create my books of poems. The use of run on sentences, and how each poem consists of three paragraphs that sometimes are joined, or are sometimes three different scenes or short stories within one poem. The style of how I write has been worked on for nearly 30 years now and it begins and flows and carries on just like the river that flows by my home here in Kwantlen.
AV: Scenes of fishing recur in several poems, and nature is well known for inspiring poets, and in fact most of us. Do poems come to you while you’re out on the water, or does fishing make itself known when you sit down to write?
JD: I sit here where my people have been living for ten thousand years now and we have always fished. This summer was an amazing year and now my freezers are full. When I am on the water my mind races and I store the images I am shown and will use them later. Like the image of an eagle in a tree watching me I will use down the line in a piece. Now I am fish hungry. Perhaps fish and rice for dinner …
AV:It Was Impossible to Forgive Them stood out to me because it was a prose poem — how does your process differ, or what drives you to write in this format?
JD: The process has come over time. I write like I am reading the piece out loud … I now write only prose poems, and this fits me. Perhaps later I may go back to my style of choppy short line but for now I am at ease creating pieces that are longer.
AV: I was very impressed by how you create such a strong sense of place in your poems, be it a church, or the streets, or a residential school. In Sinking In, you describe a church “On our island we have an old church. We plant flowers / and cut the grass and every so often outsiders come / to hold a wedding or maybe a film crew uses it / for a bad TV movie.” I can picture it. What draws you to writing such vivid, distinct places and why do you think that comes out in your work?
JD: I store images that I have been shown. I do use the city and this island a lot and I think it is because it is what I see every day. When I travel to work in the city, I always go early, and when I am in the city, I stand on the corner of Hastings and Main and watch the world go by. I store images of the many characters and the movements of the city. I use the city quite a bit in my newer stage plays.
AV: These poems feel quite personal and clearly come from a place of deep emotion. They deal with incredibly challenging topics like family trauma and residential schools, difficult relationships, and loss of loved ones. In “I am punished”, you write about being a storyteller with the caveat “it is just that there are things we cannot share / there are stories that are ours / and do not write in books, / do not give them away.” How do you find that line while still sharing so many strong emotions and powerful stories with the reader?
JD: Yes, things about my culture I do not write about as this is what is truly sacred to us. It was outlawed when the church folks came, and the reason why is it is older than God and older than the bible. It is thousands of years old. I do use images of ceremony in some pieces but in most cases I use animals like the sasquatch or wolves and ravens. Because we did not write in books our stories that we still have are repeated. My people lost all our oral stories. I have nothing in a book to pull from. We teach our children that each of us has a gift. I like to think that I have been gifted with stories, images, and moments. It is truly both wonderful and tragic at the same time.