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St. John’s poet laureate Mary Dalton aims to ‘foreground’ poetry in city

On World Poetry Day this Thursday, St. John’s poet laureate Mary Dalton will host a celebration of poets and poetry in the capital city.
On World Poetry Day this Thursday, St. John’s poet laureate Mary Dalton will host a celebration of poets and poetry in the capital city. - Juanita Mercer/The Telegram
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

A grey mist hangs outside the window of poet Mary Dalton’s Memorial University office on Saturday.

Juxtaposed on the windowsill are bright green potted plants. These signs of life lead into a room that seems almost without walls because it is fully lined with shelves of books.

The multicoloured dust jackets appear shelved without order, but Dalton pulls one from a section designated for Newfoundland poetry.

She lays it next to several others on a desk. There’s “Gulf” by Leslie Vryenhoek, “Escaped Domestics” by Robin McGrath, and “In the Old Country of My Heart” by Agnes Walsh, among others.

Each book is written by a poet who will be reading at the inaugural Cornucopia: Poets and Poetry of St. John’s this Thursday evening.

Dalton will host the event as the city’s poet laureate, a role to which she was appointed in December.

“I thought that a public event of this sort would reflect the abundance of this art in our city. Thus, it is called Cornucopia: an abundance, the horn of plenty,” she explains.

It’s the first of many initiatives she’s working on to highlight what she calls the “wealth” of poetry in the province’s capital.

“Having agreed to take that (poet laureate) appointment, I thought about ways to foreground poetry as an art form in this city,” Dalton explains.

The role of poetry

But in a visually-oriented, fast-paced, 21st-century world, what role does poetry play? Is it still in the foreground, or has it been relegated to the background as younger generations gorge on streaming images?

Dalton squeezes her eyes shut for a moment as she ponders poetry’s purpose.

“I think it’s important because it is carefully considered language. It can counteract the glibness of much public discourse —the soundbite nature of much public discourse — and the fact that we are swamped with advertising, with being sold things.”

Sitting at a desk, Dalton rests her cheek on a hand while she describes what people can learn from a poem.

“Poetry is an art that sometimes people think of as being very preoccupied with personal feelings only, but of course poetry, as an art, has from ancient times been the carrier of history and various aspects of culture. Poetry — like fiction, like non-fiction, like drama — is an art form that reflects a culture back to itself.”

While Dalton said Thursday’s event will celebrate mainly contemporary poets, she hopes to organize future events focusing on the history of poetry in St. John’s.

“I think of Johnny Burke and his ballads; ‘The Kelligrews Soiree’ is perhaps his most famous one. He was called the bard of Prescott Street. In his marvelously playful lyrics he often captures, in a comic way, aspects of his city.”

Podcast in the works

Another way Dalton aims to bring poetry to the foreground is with a poetry podcast she’s working on which will air on CHMR radio beginning sometime in the next few weeks.

While she’s hosting a World Poetry Day event, Dalton said that, for her, “every day is poetry day.”

“All of these formally declared days, and months, and anniversaries are a way of acknowledging whatever phenomenon it might be. It’s a way of calling public attention to something in a world in which there is a great deal of noise.”

To get away from that noise for an evening, Dalton invites everyone to celebrate World Poetry Day at Cornucopia: Poets and Poetry of St. John’s at the St. John’s Welcome Centre (348 Water St.) this Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and refreshments will be served.

The following poets will read: Andreae Callanan, Alison Dyer, Sarah Harris, Matthew Hollett, Robin McGrath, Don McKay, Anna Swanson, Laura Temple, Katie Vautour, Leslie Vryenhoek and Agnes Walsh.

Their work will also be available for purchase.

Sitting at what she describes as the ‘poetry nook’ of her Memorial University office, Mary Dalton reads her “St. John’s Haiku” – a set of four haiku-like poems about St. John’s during springtime.

Twitter: @juanitamercer_

juanita.mercer@thetelegram.com

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