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‘Perfect platform’

St. John's poet laureate marries wordplay and technology with Flahoolic podcast

Part of a special feature that illuminates the synergistic relationship between individuals, communities and community organizations and Memorial, with a focus on Memorial’s supporting role to community-led work.

By Janet Harron

“We’re just two poets from around the bay,” said St. John’s city councillor Maggie Burton with a laugh, as a photo session wrapped up in Prof. Mary Dalton’s office.

Appointed poet laureate of St. John’s in December 2018, shortly before her retirement from teaching English and creative writing at Memorial, Prof. Dalton has been vigorous in bringing poetry to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city.

‘Collective sense of who we are’

On March 21, World Poetry Day, and with financial support from law firm Cox & Palmer, she organized Cornucopia: Poets and Poetry of St. John’s, a gathering of 11 city poets who each recited poems about some aspect of St. John’s — one of their own and one by another poet, past or present.

Held in the city’s historic Neal Building (the first arts event in that space), the event drew a lively and appreciative crowd.

More recently, Prof. Dalton launched Flahoolic, a poetry podcast produced in partnership with the City of St. John’s and CHMR Radio on Memorial’s St. John’s campus.

From left are Prof. Mary Dalton and Maggie Burton read poetry together at CHMR.
Photo: Submitted

“The word flahoolic has roots in the Irish language; one of its senses is that of being overly generous,” she said. “It seemed an apt word to suggest the abundance of poetry in St. John’s, and it has a delicious mouth feel – its own music.”

Prof. Dalton accepted the appointment as poet laureate in order to continue the work she has done over the years to foster the reading and writing of poetry at Memorial, including founding the SPARKS Literary Festival.

“The primary responsibility of the poet laureate — indeed of any poet — is, in my view,  to write the best poetry she has it in her to write,” she said. “However, insofar as the position involves working with the community, I see the role as one of seeking to make the public more aware of the wealth of poetry being written and read here; and of raising awareness of poetry’s important contribution to our collective sense of who we are.”

She went on to affirm St. John’s as a “vibrant and vital culture, a good place for poets to be.”

“Poets can have tremendous influence in helping us appreciate the joy of difference, of embracing multiple ways of seeing the world around us.” — Maggie Burton

Originally from Brigus, Maggie Burton, whom Mary Dalton describes as “crucial” in the realization of the Flahoolic project, is a writer and musician who was elected to St. John’s city council in 2017.

She is the council’s representative on the Arts and Culture Advisory Committee, which recommended to council to offer Prof. Dalton the poet laureate role.

“I believe poets can have tremendous influence in helping us appreciate the joy of difference, of embracing multiple ways of seeing the world around us,” Ms. Burton said.

The podcast initially developed from a conversation over coffee between Prof. Dalton and Ms. Burton, who then set up a meeting with Hans Rollman, program director of CHMR.

“The first meeting was meant to be exploratory, but somehow before that session was over we had recorded a set of poems and we had come up with the name and a format,” explained Prof. Dalton. “The quality of the acoustic space put me under a spell, I think.”

‘Ideal psychic space’

Flahoolic’s podcasts are all under 10 minutes and, with a few exceptions, feature Prof. Dalton’s poems, along with a brief commentary.

The poems explore familiar places and spaces, with poems about The Ship Pub and Cape Spear, to mention a couple. The first season can be accessed on  Soundcloud, ITunes or other podcast platforms, and can be listened to as well on CHMR-FM.

A second series is in progress and plans are underway for a third and fourth series.

Prof. Dalton hopes  to present  work by other poets in these future series of Flahoolic. To that end, she has applied for a grant from the Office of Public Engagement, to pay the artists for their work and to extend the reach of the podcast online.

“The podcast form is like a deluxe form of radio.” — Prof. Mary Dalton

Mr. Rollman’s role as producer has also been crucial, according to Prof. Dalton.

“He creates the ideal psychic space to work in, and he is an inspired editor.”

For his part, Mr. Rollman is pleased to be part of the process.

“It was a delight to have someone as talented and creative as Mary Dalton to work with in the studio. CHMR’s role is to produce programming that speaks to and gives voice to all of our community,” he said. “Partnering with the city to produce podcasts that showcase this province’s incredible poetic voices is something we’re proud to do.”

A  lover of radio, Prof. Dalton wrote scripts for the CBC School Broadcasts Series in the mid-1970s when she was completing her MA degree on the plays of Samuel Beckett. She recalls being fascinated by the power of radio drama, in particular Beckett’s radio play, All That Fall.

“Radio allows the imagination full play; it creates a world with voices and sound alone,” she said. “And, of course, sound patterning is at the heart of poetry. The podcast form is like a deluxe form of radio; it’s the perfect platform for poetry.”

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