Q&A with Mary Dalton

Shannon chats with Mary Dalton on her new book and more.

Newfoundland’s renowned poet Mary Dalton’s life hinges on the poetic. From several books of poetry, to her latest book, Edge: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews (Palimpsest Press), she has devoted her years to writing, reading, and teaching poetry.

Dalton is a professor at Memorial University, founder of SPARKS Literary Festival, and has received numerous accolades for her poetry, Dalton is a professor at Memorial University, founder of SPARKS Literary Festival, and has received numerous accolades for her poetry, including: the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award, and being shortlisted for the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Poetry, and the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry.

Her poetry collections: The Time of Icicles (1989), Allowing the Light (1993), Merrybegot (2003), Red Ledger (2006), Between You and the Weather (2008), and Hooking: A Book of Centos (2013), are rich with language and imagery. Edge is a slight departure, and pushes beyond poetry’s boundaries to reconfigure marginal literature, culture and the political.

Edge is a collection of essays, reviews, and interviews spanning decades of your work. What was it like to return to all these texts and years of literary labour?

Well, on the simplest level, it was a technical challenge. Some pieces existed only in typescript. I discovered what odd errors could be introduced into a work by the process of creating pdf files and then converting them to WORD files—more than I ever wanted to know. On another level, the gathering of various sorts of writing let me see interconnections and continuities in my work in various genres. A preoccupation with voices and an interest in the outsider and the marginalized, for instance.

How did this monumental collection come into fruition? Did you approach Palimpsest Press, or did the publisher approach you?

For years Carmine Starnino, the editor of my poetry books with Vehicule Press, had been encouraging me to gather my prose works into a book. This time when he broached the idea, I said yes. He is editor of Palimpsest’s series of prose writings by Canadian poets, and he brought the project to them.

The book is divided into poetically titled sections: Wood, Water, Stone : A Miscellany; Of Margins and Moles : Interviews; Edge : Essays; A Colyumist, Her Colanders : Reviewing; Newfoundland Theatre Reviews; and Coda. What’s the inspiration/intentions behind these titles? 

Mainly the titles gesture towards the content of each section. The images of wood, water, stone, and of moles appear in works within that section and are meant to gesture towards thematic preoccupations within the sections.  Some of the section titles, of course, are straightforwardly descriptive, as with “Newfoundland Theatre Reviews.” That section gives a picture of theatre here during an exciting time, the early ‘eighties, when many fine pieces of collective theatre were created

In Edge ‘s  introduction you describe the process of this book as being like conducting an archaeological dig, or embarking on time travel – an encounter with former selves. Im interested in these various selves, as the reader encounters some of variations of your voice as reviewer, poet, essayist, etc. What did you learn or discover about your latest self, and your own voice in this process of returning? 

I learned that my latest self was keen to return to work on the book of poems I’d interrupted to ferret out all these earlier works. Joking aside, I noticed that all this writing in various forms and on various genres did reflect something like a coherent vision. Essays on the Boatman paintings of Gerald Squires and on the depiction in Newfoundland literature of the Beothuk, for example, focus on embattled figures, as do essays on the playwright Samuel Beckett and the dialogue novelist Compton-Burnett. I discovered in the work an ongoing interest in power relations. The young theatre reviewer, the essayist, the poet interviewed—-all explore ways in which muted voices struggle into speech.

What role does academia play in your poetry?

Because I teach various poetry courses at Memorial, I am reading widely and engaging in an ongoing conversation about poems and poets with others who are exploring that territory. My writing and teaching nourish each other. 

 Who came first – the poet, or the critic? 

If production is the proof, I’d have to say that poems manifested themselves early. I had a spate of writing poems when I was eighteen and in my third year of university. But if those essays we write for our university English courses are a fledgling form of criticism, well, I was writing criticism of a sort then, too. Maybe it is most accurate to say the writing impulse came first and expressed itself whenever and wherever circumstance allowed. I recall the pleasure I felt when a Grade Four school project involved making a book of my own. I can still see that pale blue cover… 

As a Newfoundlander having grown up in post-Confederation, what is your relationship to the language of this place? How has it evolved/shifted?

M.D. : Several pieces in Edge address this matter, as I discuss the impact of being groomed for public speaking and of attitudes towards Newfoundland accents, as well as of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. I can’t give a quick response here, other than to say that the resources of Newfoundland English are a huge gift to a writer. My book Merrybegot celebrates the vigour and beauty of the idioms and rhythms of vernacular speech.

I continue to be delighted and beguiled by the resources of the vernacular. A long essay of mine about the history of the vernacular voice in Newfoundland poetry came out recently in a book called Pathways of Creativity in Newfoundland and Labrador, edited by a Spanish scholar, Maria Hernaez and published in the U. K., a book containing essays about all the arts in the province. And the chapbook Waste Ground, coming out from Running the Goat Books this fall, draws on colloquial speech.

How do you see your work’s role in the preservation/expansion of Newfoundlands distinct literature?

You know, I think that is a question better answered by others. I hope Edge contributes something to the general conversation.

What are you currently working on? 

I recently wrote a little essay on the influence of certain words for Newfoundland Quarterly. Now I’m settling back into the series of poems I put aside for the Edge project.

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