Notes to the Dead: An Interview with Dani Couture


By Shawn Syms

A preoccupation with sense of place is considered by many a CanLit cliché—but where you’ve been affects who you are and what you write. In the case of poet and novelist Dani Couture, a child of two roving military parents, coming of age meant covering a lot of miles.

Couture’s just-released novel Algoma is set primarily in a remote Northern Quebec town. There, Algoma Beaudoin raises twin boys, Ferd and Leo, with her alcoholic husband Gaetan. The boys’ relationship has moments of antagonism, until Ferd sees Leo follow a bear onto the nearby frozen river. The ice cracks, and the 12-year-old disappears below. Unable to accept his brother’s death, Ferd constantly writes Leo, placing his notes into any body of water he can find.

The novel shares many themes with the author’s two well-received volumes of poetry, Good Meat and Sweet, which just won a ReLit award. A few days before Algoma came back from the printer, Shawn Syms spoke to Couture about her upbringing, her passions and the joy of bringing new literary work into the world.

The last sentence of Algoma is also the last line of your poem “Salvage” (published in The Walrus). Do you see continuities across your body of work?

I work out a lot of my ideas in poetry. With a poem you can most often see the beginning and end on a single page. You spend such a concentrated time and effort on so few words and bringing them to perfection. But a novel takes so much longer, you can spend several years with one story. I find myself purposefully reusing and recycling. There are themes I keep going back to in both types of work: weather and the natural world, our conflict between living in urban centres and having this rural identity as a country. A sense of otherness: I grew up quite different from a lot of my friends and the people in my community so I’m always exploring that tension.

Your novel Algoma is quite concerned with family dynamics and in particular sibling relationships. Algoma is one of six sisters and the only non-twin. She gives birth to twins, one of whom becomes an only child when his brother dies. And your poetry has described the experience of an only child. Is this focus on familial interplay rooted in personal experiences?

There’s a great quote by the American poet John Berryman, from “Sonnet 43”: “Listen, for poets are feigned to lie, and I / For you a liar am a thousand times.” The constructed nature of poetry means it’s truthful, but not necessarily the truth.

There’s nothing one-hundred percent factual in anything that I do, because I think there is a better way to tell a story than what actually happened. But yes, I am an only child. Yet both my parents come from large families; I have almost fifty first cousins. So I’ve never known what it’s like to have a sibling, but I have watched them closely all my life, and I find it endlessly fascinating. Twins actually run in both sides of my family. And I ended up exploring all of this in the novel.

Natural elements have a strong presence in the novel, particular in the form of snippets from Gaetan’s weather journals. These atmospheric entries interspersed with the prose felt like a way to integrate poetry into the text.

Thank you. My own daytimer has a little sun and a temperature symbol at the bottom of every page where I can record the weather. This is something that I did while writing Algoma, and it made it into the book in this form.

I think weather will always be a part of my work. You know, it’s quite stereotypical to be obsessed about the weather if you live in Canada, but it continues to be a fascination with me everyday; I’m excited about it. My parents currently live in Essex County [Ontario]; it’s right at the end of Tornado Alley and the weather is spectacular. Green skies and tornadoes and tree-snapping winds—it’s so dramatic, it kind of defines you. I’ve spent time in Northern Ontario and Quebec, so I’ve experienced the extremes.

Algoma and her family live in Le Pin, Quebec, until her husband Gaetan disappears, resurfacing in Toronto. I assume Le Pin’s a made-up place. At least, I couldn’t find it on Google Maps…

[laughs] Le Pin is based upon three different towns I’m very familiar with, two in Quebec and one in Northern Ontario. I blended those together with some fictional elements. I remember the day I sat down and drew the map, it took me an entire day and I still have it, I used it as a reference throughout the writing of the book. So a little inspiration, and a lot made up.

One major theme in your novel is the meaning of home, and the repercussions of choosing to remain or leave. Why does this resonate for you so?

My parents met in the military. My dad was from Drummondville, Quebec, and my mom was from Amherstburg, Ontario. Every several years you get posted to a new base. I grew up this way. Then I moved out on my own at seventeen and went to Windsor, then Vancouver, then Taiwan. Though I’ve found a real home in Toronto, the urge to leave and go somewhere new is always there in me.

I often ask, where is home? Is it where you lived the longest, even if you’re no longer there? Is it where you live right now, or where you grew up, even if know one close to you is there any longer? So this tension is manifested in my work.

In a sense, Algoma is a book about writing. Ferd cannot believe his brother is dead and he continues to try and communicate with him through the written word.

At the University of Windsor I had a favourite professor, Dr. John Ditsky. He was such a good man of letters and I wrote him for many years. But after sending several postcards and getting no response, I learned he had passed away. It made me think about what happens when a person isn’t there anymore. Through the process of writing this book, I realize now that in some ways I’m still writing to someone who cannot receive my words anymore. But the impulse in you to share news and joy and sadness never changes.

Part of the genesis of the book is a poem I was working on about a boy trying to talk to someone beneath the water. The image came to me when I was on a beach and really stuck with me. And correspondence is a big thing for me. I send people postcards weekly, I send a lot of packages, I write a lot in long hand. I love that physical connection.

Did you work on this book in long hand?

Yes, and I’m already working on something new and I was writing on the streetcar on my way to meet you. I can work on a computer, long hand, sitting on a curb, sitting at home at a desk, it doesn’t really matter—but I really do enjoy long hand. Sometimes I will save a piece that’s given me trouble and just work it out long hand on the streetcar, because it always takes me an hour to get from one place to another. On a computer you will be tempted to, and are able to, write much faster. Writing by hand gives me more time to work on a problem. It slows me down.

Who do you read? Who inspires you as a writer?

I started writing because of one poem. In a Catholic high school, my English teacher shut the door and pulled out “A Woman’s Issue” by Margaret Atwood. It was the most political, feminist work I’d ever heard. It felt like it opened every door for me with just one poem. I’m a huge fan of John Berryman, I return to The Dream Songs almost annually. Right now I’m reading David McGimpsey’s Li’l Bastard; I’m in love with it. David Bergen: I love all of his work, especially The Retreat. It really resonated with me.

Does your experience of working on a novel differ from that of a poem, or poetry collection?

My rituals are the same whether I’m writing an essay, or fiction or a poem. I just love that first feeling when I have a new idea. I call it “the bones”: let’s just get the bones down here. Once you have the bones of whatever thing, that’s the best feeling. It’s like a first kiss. An adrenaline excitement. I get into this lovely riff, and work through four or five hours. Then when it comes to revisions, I have marathon sessions, ten hours at a time, so that it’s all present and all immediately familiar. From the first kiss to the long haul.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Shawn Syms

Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.