Foundation grant helps bring Newfoundland poetry to all Canadians

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Newfoundland author and poet Mark Callanan had an idea: a poetry anthology featuring the most notable poets from Newfoundland who followed in the footsteps of E.G. Pratt. Callanan put together a book proposal that caught the attention of publisher Breakwater Books and working with co-editor, James Langer, the Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry was born. Published in 2013, the anthology sold out in its initial print run and gained favourable notices in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire and other publications.

While researching and creating the anthology, Callanan applied for and received a research grant from the Access Copyright Foundation. The grant gave Callahan the opportunity to dedicate himself solely to the anthology.

Recently, we caught up with Callanan to discuss the anthology and the support he received from the Foundation.

What inspired you to create an anthology of contemporary Newfoundland poetry? 

I felt its time had come. Over the last decade or so, there have been a number of anthologies featuring Newfoundland poetry, but they featured only slim selections from each contributor. I felt these broad surveys had laid the groundwork for a more detailed anthology. My co-editor, James Langer, and I are both admirers of Paul Muldoon’s anthology, The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, precisely for its scope: the small number of poets it included and the consequently longer selections permitted from each featured poet. It seemed that this approach was the ideal vehicle for introducing a wider readership to the poetry of this island.

What would you say are some of the defining characteristics of the poets and poetry that you researched and included in the anthology?

One of the defining characteristics of many of the poets included in the anthology is a sense of twin, inherited traditions—not just the tradition of the English poetic canon, but also (and in some ways, more importantly) the oral tradition of storytelling and song that continues to inform Newfoundland culture. Poets like Michael Crummey and Mary Dalton, among others, are highly attuned to these dual influences. They straddle both worlds.

I think, also, that a defining characteristic of Newfoundland poetry is its strong sense of place. It is a poetry very much rooted in its geographic origins, but also in its sense of history. 

Lastly, much Newfoundland poetry seems preoccupied with the notion of cultural loss. Given our history (the overwhelming loss of life during the First World War’s failed Beaumont Hamel offensive, the loss of responsible government, the loss of nationhood with the advent of Confederation, the loss of ancestral homes during the government mandated Resettlement program, and the loss of a traditional industry in the wake of the northern cod moratorium), the notion of cultural dissolution can’t help but influence our writing.

But then there are poets like Ken Babstock, Sue Sinclair, and Patrick Warner whose work doesn’t fit so easily into the above categories I’ve imposed.

As you were working on the anthology, what was the most surprising thing you discovered about contemporary Newfoundland poetry?

The thing that most surprises me is its ability to successfully draw on local material in the creation of work that is of universal interest. The late Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh has a great line about this, about achieving universality through the particular. In “Epic” he has Homer’s ghost comment on a contemporary Irish conflict: “I made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.” That line remains a touchstone for me, an imperative to create art through the vernacular. Our greatest writers have the capacity to do that, to renew the familiar and make it alien to us.

How did you hear about the Access Copyright Foundation and the research grant program?

I came across it online while researching funding opportunities for writers and editors.

What led you to decide to apply for a grant?

Hubris. Seriously, though: I felt the Foundation’s mission fit well with my intentions to develop the anthology.

How did you feel once you learned that your application was accepted?

Very pleased and somewhat vindicated. Whenever one applies for funding, there is the niggling self-doubt that one’s concerns, one’s research interests and creative preoccupations are perhaps too private to matter to anyone else. To receive funding is to have one’s intellectual passions tacitly endorsed.

In what ways did funding from the Access Copyright Foundation assist with the anthology?

Crucially, it allowed me the time to conduct my research, time Imighthave eventually found on my own… probably some twenty years hence. Or maybe I would have abandoned the idea entirely. At the very least, I feel I would have had to set it aside for a while. Receiving Access Copyright Foundation funding allowed me to dedicate myself to the project, to a degree that would have been otherwise impossible.

What do you hope those who read your anthology take away from it after they finish it?

I hope they find therein at least one poet with whom they have been previously unfamiliar, or have previously overlooked, and are moved by the anthology’s selection to seek out said poet’s original collections. I hope also that they come away from it with the sense of a distinct and vital body of poetry that continues to be grown here in our tiny corner of the world.

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