There's a Carnival for You
An Interview with Mary Dalton
Mary Dalton was born at Lake View, Harbour Main, in Newfoundland, and now lives in St. John's where she teaches in the Department of English at MUN. Her poems, essays and reviews have appeared in journals and anthologies throughout Canada. She has published two collections of poetry, The Time of Icicles and Allowing the Light, both with Breakwater. She is a former editor and publisher of TickleAce and a former editor of the interdisciplinary journal Newfoundland Studies. She co-edited Wild on the Crest: Poems of the Sea: Newfoundland and Labrador, published by Jeroboam Books. In 1998 she won the inaugural TickleAce Cabot Award for Poetry for the poems discussed in this interview, poems now included in Merrybegot. Other poems from this book also won a Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Poetry Award.
Barbara Nickel lives in Vancouver, BC, where she is a musician, violin teacher and writer. She has published two books of poetry The Gladys Elegies (Coteau Books, 1997). and From the Top of a Grain Elevator (Beach Holme Press, 1999).
Barbara Nickel: What first prompted you to write these Newfoundland speech poems?
Mary Dalton: For as long as I can remember, speech rhythms have fascinated me. When I was five or six, an Irish policeman dropped into our house to ask for directions. I was ravished by what I described to myself as the ripply sound of his voice. When he left I asked my mother what made his voice like that. She explained that he was Irish, that he had an Irish accent. Voices--their timbre, their cadences--have always had a powerful attraction for me, in literature and life. I wrote an M.A. thesis on the plays of Samuel Beckett; later I wrote about the dialogue novels of I. Compton-Burnett; and for a while I wrote for radio. Fragments of speech have also found their way into my earlier poems, in The Time of Icicles and Allowing the Light. For the past few years, however, I've become more preoccupied with the riches of speech rhythms and idioms in Newfoundland. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English helped me to re-connect with the energies of Newfoundland voices. A word sometimes had the effect of Proust's madeleine; it awakened a flood of aural memories. And the vigour of the voices in the dictionary's illustrative quotations, many of them drawn from recorded speech, was such that I incorporated them into the poems. It was as if those speakers, their voices caught in the dictionary, became a kind of choral force enabling me to reclaim my own voice, the voice of my community. As I wrote more of these poems, the dictionary came to play less of a role; the poems were more often prompted solely by conversation and memory.
BN: Was the time you spend in Gallows Cove, on Conception Bay near the community where you grew up, important to the writing of these poems? Would you be able to write them in Victoria?
MD: In Gallows Cove I talk to people whose speech hasn't been flattened out, made entirely homogeneous. The cadences carried there by the Irish in the 1700s are still echoing. But these voices are to be found in the city as well as in the coves and harbours; and these voices are in my head. Yes, I could write them in Victoria. The imagination is its own country.
BN: The Newfoundland landscape, the sea, the weather--the shrieking cliffs in "Old Holly," the cold winter in "Conkerbells"--feel integral to many of these poems. Are these elements triggers?
MD: You make me think of Wallace Stevens' poem "The Snow Man": "One must have a mind of winter/To regard the frost and the boughs/Of the pine-trees crusted with snow...." The Newfoundland landscape is part of my being; I'm part of it. But the weather in the poems is also considered weather; it's the weather each poem needs. I'm wanting the poems as a whole to reflect a certain wild energy, something at times anarchical, in the people and the place. The cliffs and the wind, the flux of weather, help to embody that in the poems. I wouldn't call them "triggers", though. Words or cadences or images--or some confluence of those--are more likely to prompt me to write.
BN: The length of these poems reminds me of fiddle tunes. Most are short, with a fairly short line.
MD: I wanted them to be concentrated--bursts of linguistic energy containing within their small spaces a world. Yes, a fiddle tune, or the flaunt of a step-dance.
BN: Or a song telling a story? 'Conkerbells" is in the voice of a character. Would you say it's another voice speaking through you? Or are there elements of your own voice in this? "Arse-over-teakettle," for instance--is this an expression that you use?
MD: The speaker in "Conkerbells" is a man remembering a certain winter night when conkerbells (icicles) hung heavy. His girlfriend's young brother (a dogger, as young boys who spied on courting couples were called) interrupts his love-making. It's another voice than mine--and it is mine--just as the voices in fiction or a play are and are not one's own. "Arse-over-teakettle" or "ass-over-teakettle" is a common expression to describe someone falling head-over-heels. I've heard it more often than I've said it. I love its vigour, its concreteness, its bawdy surrealism. It's just the right word in certain contexts.
BN: I found the meanings of "dogger" and "conkerbells" in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English earlier. It helped me, too, to discover that "a feed of tongues" in "Berry Pails" is a scolding, that "crooked" in "Not One Thin Dime" means cranky and "racket" is a party. Knowing these things helped me inside the poems. Do you think your readers outside Newfoundland need a copy of this "oral treasure," as you called the DNE in one review, to understand your work?
MD: Yes, "a feed of tongues" is a scolding, or as we'd say, a bawling-out. "Racket" has five meanings--the one I wanted in "Not One Thin Dime" is "a fight". Maybe my correcting your reading of "racket" would, in the view of some, illustrate how essential the DNE is to these poems. I'd say that the DNE would definitely enrich one's understanding of the poems, but that the context of each one helps to make clear what a particular word is. It's likely that I would include a brief glossary in a book of these poems, to help the reader. On the other hand, I think of various Irish poets writing in English; their poems arise out of the particularities of place and idiom, often. Their readers go out to meet them. Of course, anyone in love with words, with the vast possibilities of the English language, would probably want a copy of the DNE on their shelf.
BN: A sense of possibility--that's one of the things I love about these poems. Those words are so rich--they open up so much even when one doesn't know their exact meaning. When I read those lines in "Not One Thin Dime": "He was that crooked he'd have a/Racket with the weather"--and I looked up "racket" and found "a party" as one of the definitions, I imagined some mean weather, a howling storm, and this guy that was so cranky and ill-tempered, he found such weather good company.
MD: Like a bad-tempered Cuchulain carousing with the waves. That expression came back to me when I read something like it in a fine short story by Patrick O'Flaherty called "Little Arthur's Christmas." About the possibilities of this speech...I'm coming to realize, too, what a wealth of phrases there are in Newfoundland speech which may not appear distinctive to others but which are actually formulaic and laden with nuances. The frequent use of two or three consecutive prepositions is one feature of the speech that I relish--someone may go in up over the hill, for instance. This probably comes from Gaelic constructions.
BN: Then there are the nuances of humour. I love that image in "Conkerbells" of the dogger toppling into the boughs, and the play of words and sound used to render that humour. Can you talk about how you see humour working in these poems?
MD: The humour arises from a sense of carnival, I think--a delight in the tumble, the pratfall, the unexpected overthrow of expectations. It is linked to that anarchic energy I spoke of earlier. And as often it can be a laugh at oneself and one's awkward situation as it is a laugh at others. It's all bound up with a keen sense of community somehow. And there's a delight on the part of these speakers, these tellers, in the telling itself, in the smack and tang of a good story, even if it's against oneself. The poems--whether they do or not--are meant to reflect a world of complex social relations, with a complex relation to language and story.
BN: I felt that sense of community in "Berry Pails": "The whole works of them/Are gone in the back, in on the Runs/All the way to Skibbereen." It's that sense of people knowing what the others are up to. What did you mean by "in on the Runs"?
MD: The Runs is the name of an area back in the woods in Lake View. My uncle tells me that the runs were paths along steep inclines that men used in winter on horse-drawn catamarans, bringing out wood. It is an uninhabited area, a place you'd find blueberries--and privacy, if you were looking for it.
BN: The poem gives us a glimpse into a whole way of life.
MD: Yes, and I'm hoping that because they're now assembled in a book that will be even more the case. Readers here give me the impression they're been waiting for such a thing...
BN: As have readers here on the other side of the country. You've said that you live and write in a "Newfoundland-centred universe." Are these poems a way of redefining where the so-called centre is?
MD: This is a hard question to address in a short space. But no. When I write I'm not thinking about some hypothetical centre. David Solway's recent essay in Books in Canada, on the double exile of Montreal poets writing in English, contains some astute observations about the temptation to go into what he calls "a defensive huddle" if one feels oneself to be on the edge of things somehow. My poetry may be seen--has been seen by various reviewers and critics--as bearing on questions of feminism, marginalization, exclusion, subversion. It is part of their task to map out territories, to create categories. The poet's task is of another sort. It may sound pious, but what I'm up to is trying to be true to the possibilities of poetry, to be true to the sum of my knowledge and experience--to write the best poems I can. I inhabit the country of my imagination. To consider the implications of margin and region has some value, but I think that such questions are of limited usefulness in arriving at an understanding of the distinctiveness of any writer's work. And I believe it can be damaging to writers to preoccupy themselves overmuch with these questions in any direct way. The psychic energy is needed for the art.
BN: Given the oral quality of the speech poems, do you find giving public readings of them important to their realization?
MD: I hope that the sound has been realized on the page by the usual means, that I've signalled adequately the pacing, the echoes, the places where the sound is a pounding, where it's a whisper or a wavering. Still, poems are meant to be voiced--and perhaps my own particular vowel and consonant sounds add to the texture of the poems. Listeners seem to gain something more from hearing them read. I like to read them in a space in which they can be properly heard. That may seem obvious, but there could be a wonderful comic anthology of poetry-reading nightmares. I read once at Chapters in Victoria while overhead belly dancers thumped to the sound of tambourines. Now, there's a carnival for you.
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