Since April is poetry month and all, Andreae Prozesky caught up with the extremely busy St. John’s poet laureate Agnes Walsh to find out her plans, and to ask how things are going halfway through her term as the city’s official scribe.
Once upon a time, a poet laureate would be expected to compose laudatory verse for the reigning monarch. Today, the role exists here and there to raise the profile of the arts in a community. Canada has nineteen poets laureate at the moment, working away for the poetic cause at the national, provincial, and municipal levels.
Agnes Walsh, author of the well-loved In the Old Country of My Heart, and of 2007’s beautiful Going Around with Bachelors, took up the post as St. John’s inaugural poet laureate in 2006, at the same time that the city was named one of Canada’s Cultural Capitals by the Department of Canadian Heritage.
In 2008—more than halfway through her term—she’s still busy. Her publisher, Brick Books, has just sent her on a tour around the country with Halifax’s poet laureate Lorri Neilson Glenn. Reception of her work, she says, has been positive.
“I had a real feeling of being from somewhere else,” she says. “I felt kind of exotic.”
Walsh recalls one reading where she was explaining to the audience loss of dialect in Newfoundland, and about her feeling about having lost hers.
“People in the audience were laughing,” she says. Then a man came up to her and told her “you haven’t lost your accent, darling.”
Much of what Walsh writes has to do with place, with speech, with a Newfoundland in which outports butt up against the downtown, where the New World looks over its shoulder to the Old.
Who better to represent this town to the world?
Walsh’s time as poet laureate is more than halfway through, but she has a couple projects that she would like see come to fruition before her term ends.
One is to encourage St. John’s sister city of Waterford, Ireland, to bestow the laurels on a poet of its own. Walsh would like, ultimately, to establish a poetry festival featuring writers from both cities. There’s ample precedent. The Corner Brook-based March Hare festival celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a launch in Waterford, and the St. John’s writers on the roster would surely enjoy any excuse to go back. Much ink has been spilled on the influence of Irish writing on our own, and on the historic ties between us and Ireland.
Much less ink has been spilled on the relationship between this city and coastal towns of Portugal, but Walsh sees the ties as just as significant, if not in a genealogical way than certainly in a cultural one.
She says writers who weren’t born and raised here in the 1940s and 50s—who don’t know of the Portuguese presence—might be surprised to learn that Portuguese sailors were as much a part of St. John’s life as were the Irish and English locals. “They were such a thriving part of the scene,” she says.
Walsh recalls a time, years ago, when comic actress Mary Walsh was artistic animateur at the LSPU Hall.
“She wanted to open the theatre up to the Portuguese,” and Walsh jumped at the opportunity. “I walked down to Dick’s [bookstore], which was on Water Street, and I bought a Portuguese dictionary and went on board the boats.” The result was a summer of fado, the Portuguese traditional singing, and of dances, all led by Portuguese fishermen at the Hall.
According to Agnes Walsh, “If you go into any coastal town in Portugal and say “Terra Nova” or “bacalhau” [codfish] they know what you’re talking about.” There are museums dedicated to Newfoundland and the Atlantic fishery there, but here at home, the Portuguese are seldom mentioned. Walsh writes about Portugal with frequency and with reverence. Her books have been translated into Portuguese, and she has lived in that country, hosted at times by families of fishermen she met here in St. John’s. She would love to see a Portuguese festival here.
Another idea that she has put to the city is to produce, through Marnie Parsons’ Running the Goat Press, a book featuring poems she has written about Portugal, in their original versions and in Portuguese translation. Walsh wouldn’t want to be paid for her part of the work, but there would still be costs involved in producing the book and paying for translation. “It was put to the city, but it didn’t go anywhere,” Walsh says, adding, “It’s back on the table again, because I’m so stubborn.”
Today, St. John’s takes part in an annual exchange with Portuguese students. During one of the last exchanges, Walsh used her official capacity to welcome the young people: she greeted them in Portuguese.
“They came to me and said, ‘Agnes, we’ve never been greeted like this before,’” she says.
“And that’s what the poet laureate should be doing.”