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Di Brandt grew up in Reinland, a traditionalist Mennonite farming village in southern Manitoba, Canada, which she left at the age of seventeen. She studied English Literature at the Universities of Manitoba (BA Hons 1974, PhD 1993) and Toronto (MA 1975). She has taught Canadian Literature and Creative Writing at the Universities of Winnipeg (1985–95), Manitoba (1983-1993), Alberta (1996–97), Windsor (1997-2005) and Brandon MB (2005–present). She was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta in 1995-96, and SSHRC Research Fellow in Canadian Literature at the University of Alberta in 1996-98. She has given literary readings, lectures, performances and workshops across Canada and around the world, including at the Universities of Trier, Germany; Graz, Austria; Aarhus, Denmark; Chiba, Japan; Canada House in London, UK; the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo; the Arts and Cultural Centre in Jerusalem, Palestine; Chateau de Lavigny, Switzerland; and the 13th International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia, in 2005.
Di Brandt has published eight collections of poetry:
- SHE: Poems inspired by Laozi, with ink drawings by Lin Xu (Brandon, MB: Radish Press, 2012). Chapbook.
- The Lottery of History (Brandon, MB: Radish Press, 2008). Chapbook.
- Walking to Mojacar, with French and Spanish translations by Charles Leblanc and Ari Belathar (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2010),
- Now You Care (Toronto: Coach House Press, 2003),
- Jerusalem, beloved (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1995),
- mother, not mother (Toronto: Mercury Press, 1992),
- Agnes in the sky (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1990), and
- questions i asked my mother (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1987).
Di Brandt's poetry has been adapted for television, radio, video, dance, sculpture and theatre. questions i asked my mother was a bestseller in Canada. Di Brandt's poetry has been the subject of numerous scholarly essays and monographs.
Di Brandt's essay collections and literary critical studies are:
- So this is the world & here I am in it (Edmonton: NeWest Press 2007).
- Dancing Naked: Narrative Strategies for Writing Across Centuries (Toronto: Mercury Press 1996).
- Wild Mother Dancing: Maternal Narrative in Canadian Literature (Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press 1993).
- Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women's Poetry (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2011), ed. with Barbara Godard.
- Re:Generations: Canadian Women Poets in Conversation (Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press 2006), ed. with Barbara Godard.
Di Brandt's collaborations include:
- Awakenings: In Four Voices, a collaborative poetry/music audiorecording (CD) with Dorothy Livesay (posthumously), Carol Ann Weaver and Rebecca Campbell (2003).
- Emily, The Way you Are, a one woman chamber opera about the life and work of Emily Carr, with musical score by Jana Skarecky, premiered at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, ON, in 2011, featuring mezzo soprano Ramona Carmelly and the Talisker Players directed by Gary Kulesha.
- Coyotes do not carry her away, a musical setting of Di Brandt's poems, by Manitoba composer Kenneth Nichols, commissioned by the Brandon Chamber Society and premiered at Brandon City Hall in 2012, featuring Naomi Forman (soprano), Catherine Wood (clarinet) and Ann Germani (harp).
- Watermelon Syrup: A Novel with Annie Jacobsen and Jane Finlay-Young (WLUP 2011).
Di Brandt's numerous prizes and recognitions include:
- Gerald Lampert Award for "best first book of poetry in Canada," for questions i asked my mother.
- McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award for Agnes in the sky.
- CAA National Poetry Prize for Jerusalem, beloved.
- Foreword Gold Medal for Fiction for Watermelon Syrup.
- Gabrielle Roy Prize for "best book of literary criticism in Canada," with Barbara Godard, for Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women's Poetry.
- Brandon University President's Medal for Research, Teaching and Service 2011.
- Canada Research Chair in Literature and Creative Writing, Brandon University, 2005-2011.
- SSHRC Research Fellow, University of Alberta, 1996-1998.
- Research Excellence Award, University of Windsor, 2006.
- Gold Medal for Exceptional Service to Brandon University, 2009.
- Research Fellow, Ledig House, New York, 2004.
- Research Fellow, Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, 1999.
- Research Fellow, Chateau de Lavigny, Switzerland, 2001.
- Research Fellow, Fundacion Valparaiso, Spain, 2006.
- Governor General's Award for Poetry nomination, for questions i asked my mother.
- Governor General's Award for Poetry nomination, for Jerusalem, beloved.
- Griffin Poetry Prize nomination, for Now You Care.
- Trillium Ontario Book of the Year Award for Now You Care.
- Pat Lowther Award for "best book of poetry by a Canadian woman, nomination, for mother, not mother.
- Pat Lowther Award nomination,for Jerusalem, beloved.
- Pat Lowther Award nomination, for Now You Care.
- McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award nomination, for So this is the world & here I am in it.
- McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award nomination, for Wild Mother Dancing: Maternal Narrative in Canadian Literature.
- McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award nomination, for Walking to Mojacar, with French and Spanish translations by Charles Leblanc and Ari Belathar.
Di Brandt served as Poetry Editor at Prairie Fire Magazine and Contemporary Verse 2 during the 1980s and 90s. She also served as Manitoba and Prairie Rep at the League of Canadian Poets National Council and the Writers' Union of Canada National Council for several years during these same years.