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Vol 39  No 13
Apr. 26, 2007


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Mary Dalton’s poetry: exploration and accolades
by Leslie Vryenhoek

Mary Dalton’s original research into the language continues to garner acclaim. (Photo by Paul Daly)

For Professor Mary Dalton, poetry is a kind of pure research where language is the laboratory and cadence the catalyst. Her experiments have made
her one of the province’s – and the country’s – most important poets.

“Writing poetry is original research into the language,” she explained, and likened the work to that of mathematicians who devise original equations. “The best poetry is an exploration. It’s the making of something new which others can then build on.”

Her own explorations have been garnering accolades for years, and just this month, Prof. Dalton’s most recent book of poetry, Red Ledger, was nominated for both the Atlantic Book Awards Atlantic Poetry Prize and the Newfoundland and Labrador E. J. Pratt Award. (Memorial Librarian and poet Patrick Warner is also nominated for that award.)

In addition to favourable reviews locally and across the country, the collection appeared in the Globe and Mail’s Writers’ Round-up of the Top Books of 2006.

Like so much of her poetry, Red Ledger examines the natural, cultural, political and social landscape of her home province. Between its covers, readers will discover A Litany to Be Said for Newfoundlanders, as well as Lies for the Tourists and 25 riddles in verse. But Prof. Dalton’s treatment of this terrain is anything but prosaic. Rather, she turns salt piles that fill St. John’s harbour into Lot’s wife’s breasts – “these massive salt mounds/laced tight in their black vinyl tarps,” — and recalls Argentia in the forties, “streets paved with Americans.”

In March, Prof. Dalton was the Canadian Poet of the Month for CBC.ca’s Words at Large. In an interview on that site, she said she began writing poetry because she was “besotted by words, especially the sounds of words knitted into patterns ....”

She developed that love of words growing up in Lake View on Conception Bay. Her undergraduate studies took to her to the University of Toronto, and after completing a master’s at Memorial, she was a Canada Council Doctoral Fellow at the University of Liverpool before returning home. She became a member of Memorial’s faculty in 1984.

Still, Prof. Dalton credits spending time “’round the bay” with keeping her connected to the sea, the landscape and the character of community.

Her ability to translate the distinctive voices, idioms and images of Newfoundland has created international interest in her work, which has been anthologized widely, including in Open Field, a collection of Canadian poetry. In writing about that anthology, Stephen Burt of The Yale Review singled out Prof. Dalton for praise, calling her “The best pure discovery ... the most original poet whom almost no U.S. readers will know.”

But she’s also gained acclaim closer to home. For example, Prof. Dalton won the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards for Poetry in 1997, 2002 and again in 2006, as well as the inaugural TickleAce/Cabot Award in 1998.

In 2003, her third collection, Merrybegot, hit the mark with its short, dramatic monologues that painted a rich picture of outport Newfoundland. Amid the dazzling reviews, Prairie Fire referred to it as “a language festival, a lark, a goof-off of words.” Merrybegot won the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award, and was shortlisted for the 2004 all-genre Winterset Award, the 2004 Pat Lowther Memorial Poetry Award, and the 2005 NL Heritage and History Award. It was also released as an audiobook by Rattling Books in 2005.

Prof. Dalton’s passion for language extends well beyond her own words. “I’ve been pushing literature out there for a long time,” she said.

An avid promoter of literary events on and off campus, she is a former editor of TickleAce and of the interdisciplinary journal Newfoundland Studies (now Newfoundland & Labrador Studies).

And every year, she leads seminar students in an intense exploration of poetry, exhorting them to listen for the music in the words, to read widely, to revise constantly and to engage, always, in experimentation, as she continues to do. She is soon to release a chapbook of riddle poems, and is exploring collaboration with an Ontario artist who wants to mount a national exhibit that marries the Merrybegot poems with visual art.

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