Today marks an exciting day for local poet Jeramy Dodds as he puts himself, and also Orono, on the literary map with the release of his first book of poetry, Crabwise to the Hounds. Published by Toronto’s Coach House Books, the collection of 44 poems is now available for sale in bookstores across the country, as well as in the U.S.
Dodds, 33, is set to begin a reading tour this fall starting in Toronto on Oct. 9, and including stops in Montreal, Guelph, Waterloo, and Fredericton, NB. A reading at Trent University in Peterborough is scheduled for Nov. 20.
Dodds was the winner of the 2006 Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award and the 2007 CBC Literary Award in poetry. He held a residency in Sweden at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby, on the island of Gotland, in January of 2007.
In a telephone interview with the Orono Times, Dodds said it was in Visby that he finished the bulk of Crabwise, and began work on his present project, translating the Old Norse collection of mythological poems known as the Poetic Edda. He said he hopes to return to Iceland for a year or so to work directly with the medieval manuscripts.
Dodds also held a residency in Greece this summer on the island of Rhodos, where he did his final edits for Crabwise, and worked on some new poems as well as the translations, he said.
On the eve of the launch of his first book, Dodds was on the east coast, “writing and eating loads of scallops.” The Orono Times reached him in Fredericton and spoke to him about his poetry and the upcoming tour.
You have put a lot of time and effort into creating these poems. How does it feel to have them published? The poems are from a span of about seven years and were written in a number of locales. I finished one of them a few days before the book went to press. I tend to let each one sit for quite a while, often going back, even after a year’s time, to see how a poem has aged and if it still holds my interest. Generally, for me anyway, it’s an incredibly slow process. At this point I feel that I’ve taken all the poems in the book as far as I can. It definitely feels nice to see them all penned-up inside these covers. The book feels complete, and I’m ready to put my energy elsewhere.
How did the deal with Coach House come about? Originally, I sent them a manuscript. Then Kevin Connolly, a poet whose work I really admire, heard me read at an event in Toronto and started pestering them to publish it. Soon he began editing poetry for Coach House and the deal was sealed. Alana Wilcox (the editor-in-chief at Coach House), and the rest of the crew there have been superb to work with. I was able to go in and see the printing and binding of the book, which they do in-house, and they’ve been doing most of the publicity. My experience from start to finish has been great and I’m really happy to be there.
The cover art by Michael Krueger echoes the animal imagery in the poems. What are your thoughts on the cover and the artist, and how was he found? I found Michael Kruger’s work in a journal called New American Painting over a year ago now, and I instantly wanted “Monsters that Walk the Earth” for the cover. Who wouldn’t love to see an unlikely bunch of animals hanging out together, milling around in a semi-arid landscape, looking at one another as if they’re hoping to escape some twisted child’s diorama? For me the illustration seems to be an impressionistic tableau capturing the magic realism many of the animals in the book possess. Coach House agreed, so I contacted Michael and he was very excited to be part of the design. We couldn’t offer him much money so it was quite kind of him to get on board.
Am I correct in noting you dedicated the book to three friends who are fellow writers? How important was the support of friends/fellow writers in developing your work? Yes, Josh Trotter, Leigh Kotsilidis, and Gabe Foreman were integral to the book’s development. They all write poetry and I really respect their work; their hands were often helping my hand through each of these poems. We all lived in Peterborough at the same time and met mainly through Trent University. Even though now most of us live in separate cities, we still make an effort to meet as often as we can to edit each other’s stuff. From the beginning, we’ve been well-synched and we’ve been able to be really honest about each other’s work.
Are you looking forward to the book reading tour? How will you be travelling? I’m looking forward to the tour. I’ll be travelling by plane, train, oxcart, automobile, and hovercraft, whatever I can commandeer. I’m planning to do readings in most major cities across the country. I’ll be in Ontario and Quebec this fall. In the winter and spring I’ll be on the Atlantic coast, the prairies, the west coast and the territories with some readings in America as well, most likely New York and Chicago. Coach House is helping me get to the readings in Ontario and Quebec, and they’re organizing the overall tour, but generally the poet supplies the touring funds.
How does the process of “transliteration” work, and what led you to that process? In my case I was transcribing from one language or art form into another. It all started when I bought a set of C.I.A. cassette tapes on EBAY—they were supposed to be wire-taps of Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. I’m still not sure if they are authentic. Anyway, since I didn’t know any Vietnamese, I began moving the speech into English by mishearing the words but keeping the rhythms of the speech intact. This developed into the poem, “The Official Translation of Ho Chi Minh’s August 18th, 1966, Telephone Call.” I experimented further with music and paintings. I’m by no means the first to do this—it gets done all the time, a rigorous kind of telephone game I suppose.
There is a lot of archetypical imagery yet you write, “a wolf is a wolf is a wolf.” So many of the poems are coloured by the threat of wolves. Do they suggest there is always a dark side to the experiences you are evoking? I don’t think wolves are dark at all. They may be doing so-called bad things in the book, but those bad things are only bad to humans. I think the rabbits in the book are worse than the wolves. Wolves seem to be steeped in myth and rife with human characteristics. Or visa versa, I can’t really tell. The archetypal human/wolf confusion seems to justify any human traits we want to assign to them. I’m especially interested in wolves as representations of our tie to nature—in the case of the werewolf it’s supernatural. They do attack people and livestock in the book but I often feel that it is in response to something we’ve done to them, or to their cousins in Europe.
There are also lots of non-archetypical, unconventional images that transfer from poem to poem: ash, shiny shoes, scraped shins, spoon-dug tunnels, sooty owls, pianos, rags, mouths, and rag-stuffed mouths, wooden legs, birdbaths and circus references. Are these images also thematic in linking the poems? Much of the imagery does echo throughout the book. I’d like to say it was conscious, but it seemed to take on a mind of its own as things progressed and the manuscript started to cohere. I wanted a sense of ongoing narrative as the individual narratives progressed. A larger picture made entirely of smaller pictures. What that larger picture is I don’t pretend to know, nor do I really want to.
Many of the animals in the poems seem to be dead, dying, or wounded. Are they a commentary on the cruelty of the natural world or the human experience? I think that there may be some reverse psychology occurring here. The animals are dead or dying so we are forced to focus on what their lives may have been like—whether those lives were wild or domestic. We always imagine that our animal companions would have been worse-off in the wild. It is so odd to me that, because we are such social beings, we train/force animals to live with us—mostly with comfort-type bribes, always fuelled by our idea of what will make their natural lives easier. On the other hand, we hunt them or we exploit them with little regard for their lives or well-being. We use them as tools. Of course some do try to befriend us (like volunteer lumberjack-moose or dolphins), but rarely just for camaraderie. No matter how much we want to believe they really do like us, we can never know for sure. Even poets use animals to their own ends. It’s not a leap for me to say that, in these poems, the animals are us.
On the lighter side, there are lots of instances where the poems cause the reader to laugh out loud. Is a sense of humour important in poetry? And do you have fun when you’re writing? There is humour in our lives, so why wouldn’t there be humour in our imitations of it? Because I always have to be enjoying the poem as I’m working through it, I write things to amuse myself—so, often the humour is a matter of personal taste and a little self-indulgent. But I do hope it gets through to the reader too. I recently heard on the CBC that 1% of Canadians read a poetry book in any given year. The 99% of Canadians who don’t read poetry often shy away because poetry is billed as elitist and stuffy and severe and serious. But there is a lot of funny stuff out there, from Robbie Burns to James Tate.
There is a very lyrical quality to many of the poems, and there are sounds and rhythms that probably would make them very well suited to the spoken word. Are you conscious of that when you write, or is it just a happy by-product? I spend a lot of time reading the poems out loud while I’m working on them. I often record them and play them back, listening for inconsistencies and then editing accordingly. At the moment, I’m attracted to the aural aspect of poetry and the music that a measured line creates.
There are a few local references: Oronolian t-shirts, the Crown Lands, and the Castle Hotel scene. Does this area have special meaning to you? Yes, some of the poems are well-rooted in the Orono area. The poem “Credit Theme from The Rag Castle Hotel” is based on the original Bowmanville Castle hotel, named the Rag Castle Hotel, as it would have been in the late 1800s. The poem “Crown Land” is also based on the land in and around the crown land in Kendal, while the obvious “Oronolian Reel” features intersections of overheard legends and phrases situated in a local orchard. The landscape in this book is primarily the Clarington landscape, but there are stints of sea and exotic imagery as well.