Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! Pedlar Press interviews Stan Dragland about Newfoundland Culture & Arts

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Stan Dragland

Newfoundland occupies a unique space in the Canadian and literary imagination. The province consistently turns out more than its fair share of talented and award-winning writers (including the likes of Lisa Moore, Michael and Kathleen Winter, and Michael Crummey), and its tough climate combines with its welcoming culture to create a place that is like no other.

Today we're talking all things Newfoundland in celebration of Stan Dragland's new book, Strangers & Others: Newfoundland Essays (Pedlar Press). We're pleased to host an in-depth interview conducted by Pedlar Press director Beth Follett, who speaks to Stan about Newfoundland's identity as the "tattered island", the writers who first drew him to the Rock and his experience living in Newfoundland's rich culture and arts community as a "CFA".

Looking to get in touch with your own eastern side? Don't miss Strangers & Others at the Pages Unbound festival, on Monday, September 21, 2015 (The Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen Street West in Toronto). The event will feature an on-stage interview between Stan and CanLit icon Dennis Lee, as well as (fittingly for an event focused on Newfoundland) musical guests. Doors open at 7:00p.m.

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Beth Follett for Pedlar Press:

In his blurb for Strangers & Others, Newfoundland critic Patrick O'Flaherty calls the province “this tattered island” and your essays about its cultural workers “provocative.” Care to make any comments?

Stan Dragland:

The “tattered island” is Newfoundland and I think the word “tattered” stands, in this brief statement, for a history of hardship that goes back centuries. O’Flaherty is referring to my “genuine affection” for his island place, and perhaps there is a hint in the word “tattered” that the place does not draw heartfelt affection from every outsider. The writer of a book has no authority to interpret the words of his blurbist, of course, so I’m not sure.

As for “provocative,” again only O’Flaherty knows. I hope that the book will provoke its readers to think. Newfoundlanders may be interested to see how a mainlander responds to its art; mainlanders and others may be surprised to find how good (I think) it is. Other than that, mild-mannered critic though I am, I can think of a few remarks and ideas that may be controversial within Newfoundland. I have a genuine affection for the “Ode to Newfoundland” (once a national anthem), for instance, but I feel obliged to say that the lyrics are both derivative as poetry and remote from Newfoundland reality, that they were so even when, in 1905, back in colonial days, it was written by a British governor. Is the “Ode” untouchable? I’ll probably find out. I’ll keep quiet about certain other observations that may provoke, since maybe they won’t.

But my difficulty in answering the question is a perfect illustration of one basic thesis of the book: an outsider may research his ass off looking into a foreign culture without ever reaching an insider’s intimacy. No matter what expertise s/he accumulates, s/he remains a stranger. The stranger’s view may of course be interesting, even enlightening, to the native, but it’s best not to claim too much credit for objectivity. Newfoundlanders have learned the hard way to be skeptical of the view from outside, and mistakes are easy to make.

The fact remains that Patrick O’Flaherty was willing to praise my book. As the author of The Rock Observed, a beautifully written literary history of Newfoundland, he is the Newfoundlander whose judgment means the most to me.

BF:

Was there a particular writer whose work you first encountered that turned your head toward Newfoundland and Labrador literature?

SD:

I’m not sure if the first was Paul Bowdring (fiction) or Agnes Walsh (poetry). I encountered books by both writers during my first year in Newfoundland. Both are highly original and worth any reader’s time. I wrote first about Bowdring’s second novel The Night Season, but an essay on Walsh’s In the Old Country of My Heart, her first book of poems, came not long after. Both essays, revised and newly framed, are included in Strangers & Others.

Or maybe the first was poet / songwriter Ron Hynes. His words and music grabbed me on first encounter and have kept on doing so. He was the first performer I ever went out of my way to hear as often as I could, and why not when I easily could for just $5 cover at the Rose and Thistle pub on Water Street, downtown St. John’s. I have written briefly about Hynes and intend to write something more substantial about his body of work. I have also gone out of my way to insert a reference to him and/or his songs into everything I’ve written since I arrived in Newfoundland in 1997. Dispersed homage.

BF:

What was it about its literary culture that made you want to live in Newfoundland?

SD:

There were many reasons why I wanted to move to Newfoundland from Ontario, not just the literary culture. I was attracted to the rugged beauty of the place; to the distinctive cityscape of downtown St. John’s; to the fine people I met and wanted to know better; to the live tradition of ballad and story, both with ancient roots. The distinctive and vibrant culture called to me as a whole. I was drawn out of a near total ignorance of Newfoundland culture into a desire to find out all I could about it, the long history as well the literature.

Why wouldn’t I go that hard at prairie culture, one might ask, since I was brought up in Alberta? or Ontario culture, since I taught for thirty years in that province? There is mystery in discovering a deep affinity with a foreign culture, perhaps especially when it is officially your own — Canadian in this instance. But Newfoundland still is and is not part of Canada. Withholders lament the loss of their independent nation by absorption into another. So a Canadian like myself feels like some sort of a stranger in Newfoundland. I am a Come From Away (CFA). The stranger never completely belongs.
But the stance of the outsider comes naturally to me. Part of me has always been like Peter Pan looking into the Darling house at the joyous family reunion within: “He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.” Choosing to live where you don’t entirely fit will chafe at times, but it’s also bracing to a grown-up, a spur to thinking about identity of all kinds and at all levels. In most ways, I ain’t no Pan.

BF:

Can you talk about the motivation behind your assemblage of this new collection of essays?

SD:

The maturity of Newfoundland culture was an eye-opener to me. Over the years since I arrived on the island, I wrote various essays about it and published them in reputable but obscure magazines. Eventually I wanted to make a book that would share my responses more widely. I also wanted to do more than just collect essays already written, so I composed an introduction, a long first chapter and a concluding bridge to volume two — since one volume would not hold all I had to say. The book now follows the trajectory of my immersion in Newfoundland culture. Admiration got me going and kept me at it. One reader has called Strangers and Others a “biographia literaria.” Nobody is going to rank it with Coleridge’s book of that title — well, I’m certainly not — but I liked the connection. It calls attention to the personal style and substance of the book: SD meets Newfoundland and tries to figure it out.

BF:

In the essays you often mention pitfalls faced by any champion of distant places and cultures, places not one's own. You also mention the moral questions that can emerge when one relocates to distinctly different cultures. When did you first begin to understand that what we might call a life of ‘betweenity’* would be a moral practice for you?

SD:

I haven’t put it to myself that a life “between” is a moral life. I hope that I was an ethical sort before I moved to Newfoundland. I wrote a novel called The Drowned Lands set in the Ontario I left to move to Newfoundland, and the introductory chapter ends thus:

Whole chapters of the story of “progress” are so easily lost between the lines. Between is where it behooves us to look, when we can, because that is where we are right now, all of us. Between is where we always are, if we would only accept and embrace that truth. We are always, always, being swept along in a moment of becoming. Let us for once hold such a moment, brimming again, with precious fragile life. Let us grasp and hold it. Dearly belovèd, let us open it wide and make sure that it lasts.**

“Betweenity” is a word for the way we always live, it seems to me, but for Don McKay it’s also a proper place to stand, not on one side or the other side but with a foot in both. The ending of my small book Deep Too also goes between. But a mainlander who moves to Newfoundland and discovers for the first time that he is a mainlander (only an islander would use the word) — suddenly he is a foreigner. When he decides to settle in the new place, he is and is not at home there. I am a Canadian and a permanent resident of a province that was once a country and still harbours “unrequited” national dreams. Identifying with the lost nation as I do, my own identity is unsettled. I am a little less solid in my Canadianness, which never was a real tight fit anyway. I like this country, but you won’t find me painting a maple leaf on any part of my body. It’s good to be shaken up, even at the cost of feeling an outsider in your own dominion. It provokes the re-thinking of many things. It exercises the useful capacity to prefer both/and to either/or.

I do think that truly being in the midst of complexities discourages knee-jerk responses to anything. I was between long before I came to Newfoundland, but living here has made that stance a useful way of approaching Newfoundland culture, really any culture. And it turns out that many apparent insiders are also, in this way or that way, estranged, none more likely to be so than the artists.

BF:

Thank you, Stan.

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*Don McKay's 2010 Pratt Lecture, The Speaker’s Chair: Field Notes on Betweenity
** Stan Dragland, The Drowned Lands (Pedlar Press, 2008)

Stan Dragland is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, The University of Western Ontario. He was founder of Brick Magazine and Brick Books, and is still active with the latter. Among his books are Wilson MacDonald’s Western Tour (critical collage), Journeys Through Bookland and Other Passages (fiction and non-fiction), The Bees of the Invisible: Essays in English Canadian Writing, Floating Voice: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Literature of Treaty 9 (criticism), Apocrypha: Further Journeys (non-fiction), Stormy Weather: Foursomes (prose poems) and The Drowned Lands (novel). He lives in St. John's NL.

Beth Follett directs the Canadian literary publishing house, Pedlar Press. She lives in St. John's NL with Stan Dragland and their lovely cat, Lew.

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