Local poet Jeramy Dodds wins national literary award

Jeramy Dodds in Orono, 2008.

With his second major poetry prize in just over a year, and a publishing deal already signed, Jeramy Dodds is well on his way to being recognized as a major literary talent. The Orono poet won first prize in the English-language Poetry category of the 2007 CBC Literary Awards for his group of poems “Sundress, Fortress.”

The annual awards acknowledge excellence in unpublished work submitted by Canadian writers, and are presented by CBC and Radio-Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, and Air Canada’s enRoute magazine.

Just over a year ago, in December 2006, The Writers’ Trust of Canada presented Dodds with the 2006 Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award for his collection of poems, “Planning Your Seascape.” The $1,000 prize is awarded each year to a poet under the age of thirty-five for an unpublished collection of their work.

“It’s been a nice year,” says Dodds of his recent accolades. The thirty-three-year old, who currently lives in Toronto, continues to list Orono as his hometown. He grew up in Orono, and returns there often since it is where his parents still live.

In the fall of 2008, Coach House Books will publish Dodds’ first collection of poetry, Crabwise to the Hounds. The book will include the award-winning poems from “Sundress, Fortress.”

Dodds moved to Orono from Oshawa with his parents when he was ten years old. He attended Ontario Street Public School in Bowmanville, and then Bowmanville High School, before spending his final year at Clarke High School in Newcastle.

Asked if Orono has shaped him as a writer, Dodds replies, “Very much so. I spent a lot of time in Orono — hiking around the area, growing up with people in the area. And I love the landscape here, along the moraine and around some of the drumlins and eskers, on the outskirts of Orono.”

Those drumlins and the crown lands of Orono seem to figure prominently in “Sundress, Fortress.” But while the landscape is a feature of the poems, Dodds says he does not write with an intentional set of themes.

He has noticed, however, that animals are a recurring image in his poetry. “This book seems to have a lot of animals in it. I don’t know why. I clearly like animals. There are lions, deer, pheasants, mules, and hounds. Next one I’m going to have to slow down on the animals,” he says with a laugh.

As the title of the upcoming book suggests, he often uses animals adjectivally to create menacing or empathetic moments in the poems.

“With Crabwise to the Hounds, there is the idea of them being a weird cross of domestic and mythological,” says Dodds, of the use of animals in the poems. “To go crabwise, to skirt the hounds, imparts that there is some kind of danger with them.”

“The language dictates the poem. It sort of moves the poem. Language is the most important thing. If the language is pushing some kind of boundary it can often key open something in your mind, make you reassess something. My writing is based on trying to do that sort of thing,” he explains.

The jurists for the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award recognized Dodds’ imaginative use of language, saying, “His poems are most notable for an inventiveness that couples lyricism and constant surprise, perfectly fashioned metaphors with a nose for the compelling and idiosyncratic turn of phrase.”

The CBC Literary Awards jury said of Dodds’ poetry, “Strange, densely-layered, ruthless and funny by turns, these poems (with nods to Transtromer, Lou Reed, Linnaeus, Heimlich, and Emily Dickinson) force us to go slow at their sudden ingrown turns. They are full of creature music surprises.”

And even if you find the literary references daunting, you can still enjoy poetry, according to Dodds, “Sometimes people are afraid of poetry. They think it’s hard to understand, but it’s not.” He says his favourite poets include Frederick Seidel, Ted Hughes, and Michael Ondaatje.

Dodds graduated from Trent University’s Departments of Anthropology and English Literature. Employed as a field director with Northeastern Archaeological Associates, he has put his education to good use in a profession many would find interesting in its own right. Dodds enjoys archaeology, but admits that poetry is his prime interest. He is, however, reluctant to complain that he cannot write full-time.

“I suppose the writing is the main thing. It just doesn’t pay that well. It’s hard financially, but I want to do it. So in that case it’s not hard, it’s exciting,” he says.

That excitement must be tempered by patience, as he says Crabwise to the Hounds was “distilled from seven years of work.”

“I am a really slow worker,” admits Dodds. “Some of the poems are seven years old and I’m still working on them. Not every single day, of course. I often let them sit and then come back to them.”

Family and friends have been “super supportive,” according to Dodds, who says his parents are always among the first to buy a copy of whatever journal publishes his work. So he was pleased that his parents were on hand at the CBC Literary Awards ceremony in Montreal on Feb. 21, to see their son receive his $6,000 prize for first place.

“It was great,” says Dodds of the ceremony.

While he awaits the publication of his first poetry collection, Dodds is already working on a second set, a translation of poems from Old Norse to English.

“I really like the literary history of Iceland, the historical sagas describing the rise of the Viking age. I ran into the Norse literature and thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to see the landscape.’ So I did a year of university there [through Trent’s study abroad program] to study the myth and religion. The poems are spelling out the Viking mythology. They are in Old Norse. I am learning to read it on my own,” he explains.

His enthusiasm for the material is evident, as he describes this new project and its working title. “I’m working on these translations, The Poetic Edda. That’s the next project I’m hoping to get published. Who knows how long it will take. But that’s okay,” he says with a shrug. Once again, Dodds says, it’s the language that will dictate the poem.

Dodds’ winning submission to the CBC Literary Awards was chosen from more than 5,000 entries received from across Canada to compete in one of the three categories of Poetry, Short Story, and Creative Nonfiction, for both English and French compositions. The English-language jurists were writer and Rheostatics band member Dave Bidini, poet Di Brandt, and authors Nino Ricci, Barbara Gowdy, and Thomas King.

Winning texts will be published in enRoute between March and August. The winning entries, including “Sundress, Fortress,” can currently be heard in a podcast from CBC’s Word at Large web page (cbc.ca/wordsatlarge).

Dodds also won first place in the 2000 annual Dan Sullivan Memorial Poetry Contest, established by the Writers’ Circle of Durham Region, and has had his poetry published in The Fiddlehead, Grain, Arc and Event.

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