Think of Them as a Lottery:
2012 Far Horizons Award for Poetry Judge Mary Dalton on Poetry and Contests

Mary DaltonThe final judge for our 2012 Far Horizons Award for Poetry, Mary Dalton, talks with Malahat poetry board intern, Portia Carryer about poetry and contests.

You were the editor of TickleAce for six years and currently work as both a professor of literature and creative writing. Have those roles shaped your writing or thinking? How so?

In editing a journal and in teaching literature and creative writing, one engages the analytical aspects of the mind more, I would say. One is responding to texts, thinking of them within various contexts, rather than being involved in the intuitive process of creating one’s own poetic texts. That said, experience as an editor and teacher helps one at the secondary stage of stepping back from one’s own creations and considering how they might be strengthened in the revising process. I do think of the stages of initial creation and of revision as quite distinct activities.

Also, editing and teaching demand that one reads widely, sometimes in areas one might not have explored otherwise. This breadth and depth of reading enriches one’s own writing, sometimes in oblique and unexpected ways.

Your books to date speak in a distinctly Newfoundland voice. Are you continuing to work in this vein?

I am currently working on two books, one of which draws upon Newfoundland’s particular traditions of wordplay; another book, Hooking, which is coming out next year, draws upon the poetry of the current and the twentieth century—it is what might be called a thoroughly literary project, with texts begetting texts. All of my books, from The Time of Icicles to Red Ledger and the recent chapbook of riddles Between You and the Weather, have a dual source: the language and culture of Newfoundland, and the books of the Western literary tradition. Even the new book, which is one level entirely derived from print culture, can be seen as being linked in some sense to my experience of Newfoundland culture. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m the child of an oral culture and a print culture. It is perhaps obvious that the poems would reflect this dual heritage.

Isn’t it marvelous that so many poets of Canada, like those of New Zealand and Australia and Ireland, speak in the various voices of their places and psychic territories, and that there’s such a diversity of language exploration in this country? Northrop Frye in an interview with Robert Weaver stressed that regionalism was in fact the source of the greatest literary energies in Canada. And some critics have spoken of poetry as the genre most deeply rooted in place because of the tension between the singing and speaking voice characteristic of the form. That Canada is an ecology of various voices and cultures is one source of its strength in the genre of poetry, it seems to me.

Can you tell me about one of your favourite poems, and what you thought when first reading it?

I'm thinking now of poems which made such a strong impression on a first reading that I can remember now, many years after, their effect on me. I'll talk about three. In high school I encountered the Scottish ballad "The Twa Corbies." The combination of this dark tale of betrayal filtered through a dialogue between a pair of hungry crows, the gruesome imagery, and the eerie music of the poem had a visceral impact; I could feel the poem along my nerves and sinews. It went into my body and mind: after reading it once, I knew it by heart--I could recite it. The poem still moves me.

Seamus Heaney's poem "Digging" is another which had a strong initial effect. By the time I read it I was immersed in university life and thoroughly steeped in the tradition of English literature. Heaney's poem, along with Patrick Kavanagh's "Epic" a little later, "gave me permission," to use Heaney's phrase, to focus on my own culture in poetry. The voice in both these poems is very similar to the voice of my Irish-Catholic area of Newfoundland, and the rural experience which each poem honours is in important ways similar to my own cultural background. Like Heaney, I had moved from that world into the world of the pen. His poem and Kavanagh's poem asserted that the two could be linked.

A recent poem which has dazzled me is Alice Oswald's book-length poem “Dart.” Her depiction of the river Dart, both in itself and as a life-force gathering voices and energies to it, is one of the significant poems of our time, embodying a sense of history, a breadth of vision and a great variety of technical strengths. It's breath-takingly beautiful and wise.

Since this is a poetry contest for emerging authors, what are your thoughts on contests like these, geared specifically for those of us still starting out?

My thoughts on contests are these: enter them, if you think you must, as one would enter a lottery, a lottery which gives your poem a chance to find new readers and a chance to earn some money. Understand that tastes in poetry, as in all else, differ, and that being chosen as a winner indicates simply that your poem was lucky enough to find a reader who is sympathetic to your kind of making. Don't allow winning to puff you up; don't allow being ignored to cast you down. For various reasons, contests have become common; while they may help to get your work known and perhaps attract the attention of editors and publishers, there is a danger of taking them too seriously---thus my recommendation to think of them as a lottery and not much more.

Do you have advice for young or emerging poets (not just those hoping to win this contest)?

Ah, the advice. So easy to give (especially with the passing of years and the advantage of hindsight), so hard to follow. But since you asked, I'll play Polonius for a moment. Read widely, voraciously, passionately--contemporary poems and poems through the ages. Learn the craft. Learn about formal structures of various kinds, so that you can smash them if you want. Read not only poetry but fiction, philosophy, history, anthropology, myth. Haunt galleries and museums. Feed your mind and
spirit. Take good care of your body. Be with people who have a positive energy, who foster your belief in yourself. Live every day of your life. Make a writing schedule: it's a net to catch the days.

If it needed to go on a T-shirt, this advice, I'd say: Read. Write. Revise.

Portia Carryer

Portia Carryer

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Check out the guidelines for our 2012 Far Horizons Award for Poetry.