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Exploring poetry in a whole new way

By Tracey Mills | Nov. 3, 2005

Students looking for an in-depth exploration of poetry will find just what they are looking for in a seminar class being offered by the Department of English in the winter semester 2006. English 4911: Advanced Creative Writing (Poetry), taught by acclaimed poet and professor Mary Dalton, is a one-of-a-kind class that gives students the opportunity to create and publish their own poetry.

Structured in a manner somewhat similar to English 3901, a basic course in writing poetry, English 4911 is designed to further develop the poetry-writing skills of those who have demonstrated some level of achievement in poetry. Offered only once before, the course was designed to strengthen students knowledge of poetic craft and to give them the opportunity to develop it further. While having taken English 3901 will enable students in many cases to benefit more fully from 4911, English 3901 is not a pre-requisite for the course.

Professor Dalton is looking for students who have been writing poems and have achieved some measure of competence. Students must, therefore, submit to her a portfolio of 10 poems as an application for admission to the course.

“It has been the experience of those teaching creative writing at universities that a will or desire to write poetry is not enough; you need to have demonstrated that desire by having already written some,” she added. “The course demands a certain level of experience in order that the whole group benefit from discussing one another's creations. The course is structured so that students have both a supportive and stimulating environment in which to work on their technique.”

Response to the course has been very positive. The first class of students not only developed their skills in poetry writing, they also published the results of their endeavours. Each of them took the sequence of poems they had been working on and designed and printed a chapbook. They launched these at a public reading at the end of term. Copies were deposited in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies. Some were sold to those who attended the launch and a review of the books appeared in The Northeast Avalon Times.

The word chapbook, Professor Dalton explained, once meant “cheap book.”

“First produced in the 18th century, these books were small pamphlets hawked about on the streets and printed very cheaply. Over time a range of these has been published. There are limited-edition hand-sewn issues on fine paper, such as those published by Running the Goat Books and Broadsides here in St. John's, but there are also many with simple production values. The students in 4911 produced a range themselves; they tried to follow my advice to design a book whose form somehow reflected the content.”

She added, “Creating a chapbook gives younger writers a chance to see their work in print form before they are ready to publish a book. Many authors like Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood began in this way, designing and printing their own work.”

English 4911 is organized as a seminar with students (a maximum of 15) sitting around a table. Professor Dalton sometimes starts with a brief commentary on some aspect of poetry, and there is some consideration given to contemporary models, but the majority of class time is spent discussing poems submitted to the group for consideration in the previous week. Professor Dalton makes written editorial suggestions on each student's poem each week and there are individual meetings at points during the term.

Ground rules are established at the beginning of the course to ensure helpful discussion.

“It is a highly structured course, as it needs to be. We are dealing with a delicate and personal matter - an individual's own creation,” she pointed out. “But as the course progresses people become more comfortable with each other. Once they become used to the process, they gain a good deal from the conversation. Indeed, the course can be transforming.”

“I've observed these writers get close to literature in a way that others may not - it's demystified for them,” she said with a smile. “Courses such as this one lead students to reading the canonical writers much more closely because they want to see how their craft works and how the giants of literature get their effects.”

“As well, there are sometimes quite experienced writers in these courses, so younger writers learn from them. Last time there was a writer who had already published a book of poems. She organized a trip to a traditional printing press where students printed out a postcard poem, a collage created by the entire group.”

English 4911 is being offered in slot 32, winter 2006 semester. Copies of the course outline can be found in the box on Professor Dalton's office door, Arts and Administration Building, room A-1009 as of November 7. Those wishing to register for the course should contact Professor Dalton directly by e-mailing

Mary Dalton is the author of three volumes of poetry, The Time of Icicles (Breakwater, 1989 and 1991), Allowing the Light (Breakwater, 1993) and Merrybegot ( Véhicule Press, Signal Editions, 2003), in addition to a chapbook of poems also entitled Merrybegot (Running the Goat Books and Broadsides, 2002). Her fourth volume of poems is being released by Véhicule Press in 2006. She has won various awards for her poetry, among them the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Competition for Poetry in 1997, and again in 2002, and the inaugural TickleAce/Cabot Award for Poetry in 1998. Merrybegot was short-listed for the 2004 all-genre Winterset Award, the 2004 Pat Lowther Memorial Poetry Award (a national award given annually to the best book by a Canadian woman), and is the winner of the 2005 E.J. Pratt Poetry Award, the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Poetry.