Interview with poet Douglas Walbourne-Gough

September 24, 2014

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Douglas Walbourne-Gough is a poet, editor and arts administrator living in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. He has twice won and once adjudicated the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Award’s senior poetry category; been published by CV2Newfoundland Quarterly and QWERTY; awarded two NLAC professional project grants; been twice invited to read at the March Hare; given public readings in Corner Brook, Woody Point and St. John’s; won the 2012 SPARKS Literary Festival Haiku contest and co-edited Humber Mouths 2: Voices from the West Coast of Newfoundland with Stephanie McKenzie. He also spent seven years (also with Stephanie McKenzie) performing in, producing and emceeing The April Rabbit, an annual performance arts event that catered to emerging artistic talent in Corner Brook. His first full-length manuscript of poetry,Crow Gulch and Other Poems, is currently seeking publication.

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Crow Gulch was a settlement just west of Corner Brook, Newfoundland. It began as a temporary shack town to house migrant workers during the construction of the pulp and paper mill during the mid-1920s. After the mill was complete, many of the residents squat and settled there permanently, many of whom were of Aboriginal descent (at a time when being Aboriginal was wise to be hidden if one wanted to gain employment at the mill).

There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone service, not so much as a postal code, and the railroad tracks ran through the middle of it all (often as close as 15 feet to some of the homes). The land was of a severe pitch and was actually the site of an abandoned stone quarry, many boulders from which still sat between the homes (many outsizing those homes). Beginning in 1969, the community of Crow Gulch was evacuated and, by the early 1970’s, was altogether destroyed. Today, it is mostly forgotten.

Courtesy of the Corner Brook Museum and Archives.

1) Doug, you’ve just written a series of poems, a book-length work about Crow Gulch. I realize you haven’t secured a publisher yet for this work, so most of my questions will be about the research rather than poems themselves (as, obviously, most people will not have had a chance to read this manuscript). Can you explain why you chose this subject and talk a little about the history of Crow Gulch?

I should own up to it – the Crow Gulch work is about chapbook length, roughly two dozen poems. I’m currently in the process of deciding whether to incorporate the Crow Gulch poems into the full-length manuscript I’m working with now or honour it as its own chapbook.

The topic had been trying to choose me for years but I wasn’t ready to pay attention until about five years ago. Stories from my father and relatives about this community that no longer existed, the poverty and isolation despite being less than a kilometer from downtown Corner Brook, the relatively archaic way of life that continued until the late 1960’s – no water, phone, electricity, not even a postal code. For years I ignorantly mistook these for myth and legend, an exaggerated lesson in being thankful for what I had. One day it hit me like a kick in the ass – This is my heritage. This is my story, too.

During the construction of the pulp and paper mill in the early 1920’s the Bay of Islands saw a boom of migrant workers, and a few shacktowns were established to temporarily house the influx of labour. Crow Gulch, however, didn’t dissipate once the mill was completed. The site of an old stone quarry, the shacks and outhouses clung to a steep, rocky hill and was divided in two by a fully-utilized railway track.

Crow Gulch was also home to much of the native blood in the Corner Brook area, this during a time when native blood could keep you from employment with the mill (and have you seen as less-than in general). I heard the word jackytar/jackatar growing up in the 1980’s, having no idea that it was a racial slur, having no idea that, by definition, many of my father’s family fit the bill.

Corner Brook (specifically Townsite), being built as a company town, having English class, order and privilege superimposed against ramshackle settlements like Broadway and West Side could only clash with Crow Gulch. One only has to read Percy Janes’ novel House of Hate or Tom Finn’s shorty-story collection Westsiders as testament.

2) I know there haven’t been any other books of poetry about Crow Gulch—or any other ‘creative works’ about Crow Gulch in fact. And the history of ‘Crow Gulch’, or the recording of that history, seems to be as absent as the former community of Crow Gulch itself. Could you talk about the source material to which you turned to help you write this manuscript?

The only other creative work that I’ve found (aside from the above-mentioned books that simply use Crow Gulch as a foil) is a piece of art based on a railway crash by Eric Walker. I was actually quite surprised that this story wasn’t being told.

I got in touch with Dr. Neil White, a friend of mine with a great knowledge of Corner Brook’s social history and author of Company Towns: Corporate Order and Community, which examines the company towns of Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Mt. Isa, Queensland, Australia. Dr. White pointed me in the direction of George French of the Corner Brook Museum and Archives, the Bowater oral history tapes (housed at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University) and the research of Dr. Rainer Baehre, history professor at Grenfell (and another great social historian).

Once I got the first of two NLAC Professional Project Grants I began to visit the Museum and Archives where George French took great care of me – white-gloved access to everything from decades-old ledgers and meetings minutes to the actual municipal ‘Urban Renewal Scheme’ from 1966 that led to the 1969 removal of the majority of Crow Gulch, the rest to follow in the next few years. The Bowater oral history tapes (recorded around 1981, now digitized) had me pouring over dozens of hours of audio, headphones clamped on, transcribing anything pertaining to Crow Gulch. Dr. Baehre’s research interviews were thankfully typed and much easier to dig through.

I scoured both the Corner Brook Public Library and Grenfell’s Ferris Hodgett library here in Corner Brook, ordered several documents from the St. John’s public library, researched material from a few Newfoundland dictionaries as well as any/all books of fiction and non-fiction pertaining to Corner Brook (searches for Crow Gulch specifically, even online, are almost pointless as it’s not even a historical footnote in most cases). I wrote and researched simultaneously for about three years then spent two more years editing it as well as writing/editing dozens of new poems for new projects.

3) Maybe I’m asking this question because I’m writing my first novel now, As Crows and John-Crows Fly, and because I’m fascinated by crows, but can you tell me anything about the origin of the name ‘Crow Gulch’ and tell me if crows themselves appear in this work or if they were a point of consideration for you?

I actually haven’t used any of that imagery for this work, despite also being personally fascinated by both crows and ravens. Best I know, the name of the Captain James Cook Monument site, which overlooks Crow Gulch, was originally named Crow Hill (I assume from the murders of crows that can still be found there). I wanted to keep this body of work bigger than me, bigger than my poetry and as close to the people and story of Crow Gulch as I could. Dr. Randall Maggs once looked at me and said get over yourself, then write something worthwhile. I feel like this is the beginning of that.

4) I’ve read this manuscript, and I find it exciting, interesting and original. I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the discoveries you made while you wrote these poems. In particular, I’m interested in whether or not you ‘discovered’ or were led to employ a certain aesthetic (style) or voice that grew out of the history you were engaging with. As well, did any consistent ‘tropes’ appear? Were there certain images or metaphors that surfaced in the manuscript?

The biggest discovery for me was working with found poetry. A great portion of this manuscript employs text copied directly from the source material and, when it suited the poem, slightly rearranged. Some of the poems are entirely found material, others have direct quotes interwoven with my own poetry. One of them actually uses several quotes from different Newfoundland dictionaries as commentary on the term Jackatar/Jackytar, which I still occasionally hear used today:

Definition

jackatar, nalso jackie tar, jackitar,

jack-o-tar, jackotaw.

[̍dʒækətɑːɹ, dʒækə ̍tɑːɹ,].

 

Appellation for common sailor.

 

A much despised & neglected race

called ‘Jack a Tars,’ they speak an impure

dialect of French & Indian, R.C.’s

and of almost lawless habits.

 

The Scots remained resistant to intermarriage

with the French for many years (although

marriage occurred in increasing numbers),

labelling the French ‘Jack-o-tars,’

a synonym for halfbreeds.

 

Journois Brook, Shallop’s Cove,

and Bank Head, settlements known

on the West Coast of Newfoundland

as the homes of the ‘Jack-o-Tars,’

or ‘dark people’—the French-Indians.

 

A person on the West Coast

believed to be of mixed French

and Micmac indian descent; in recent decades

an epithet referring to certain individuals

of dark complexion, with a French accent

and intonation in their speech.

 

In the winter the Jack-o-tars

chiefly subsist on eels; they are a lazy,

indolent people, and I am told, addicted

to thieving; in the winter and spring

they are frequently in very destitute

circumstances; they are looked upon

by the English and French as a degraded race,

thence styled Jack-o-tars or runaways.

 

The name by which deserters

from the French Navy are known

in Newfoundland.

 

A worker of the land (Jaques terre),

referring to people of mixed M’kmaq

and French extraction and once used

as a derogatory term.

 

1881 Evening Telegram 26 Oct

One ‘jackatar’ sympathetically suggested

that a drop of “old tom” [rum]

was a grand thing to steady one at sea.

 

1990 Evening Telegram 1 Mar, p. 28

In Newfoundland the French, for centuries

living on the West Coast of the province,

are still being referred to as Jackatars.

(I’m not sure what the term means, but

everybody agrees that it is not

a term of endearment.)

 

– compiled from definitions of theword “jackatar”fromThe Dictionaryof Newfoundland and Labrador: A Unique Collection ofLanguageand Lore byRon Young, DownhomePublishing, St.John’s, NL, 2006 and fromDictionaryof Newfoundland English edited byG.M. Story, W.J. Kirwin and J.D.A. Widdowson, Universityof Toronto Press, Toronto, ON, 1982.

I don’t think any particular tropes or recurring metaphors developed but it did turn out some more angry sentiment than I usually employ in my writing. More writing from gut than the mind, maybe? Many of these poems have their teeth gnashed and I have to say I thoroughly enjoy that.

5) I know, being a writer myself, that writers write simply because that is what they must do. They must write. They can’t help but write. I’m wondering if, aside from that realization in mind, you want to say something in this work (aside from simply producing a book of poetry) or if there is something you wish your readers to learn or consider by reading your Crow Gulch poems.

Know your history, where you come from. Learn it and you’ll learn yourself. For me, it’s to know that in the same year that America landed on the moon, the year that Led Zeppelin released their first album, the same year the Manson cult murdered Sharon Tate, the place where my father was born was evacuated and destroyed. We know more about ancient Greece than we do of a community that existed right here in the Bay of Islands less than fifty years ago. Know that part of the history of Corner Brook.

6) This is your first book-length manuscript. Can you tell me if there are any specific challenges being a poet from Newfoundland who is aiming to gain a publisher for a first book of poetry?

I think my challenges are self-imposed at the moment but they are beginning to dissolve. I spent years dreaming of being published with houses like Brick Books and Gaspereau Press. Their attention to editing and the beauty of the book itself as art always floor me. I have since been very kindly and encouragingly rejected by both (genuine thanks to Barry Dempster of Brick and Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau for your kind words). Seriously, it sounds impossible but those rejection letters have been incredibly helpful because of their insight and honesty.

Another realization is that, at 32, I’m still just a youngster. I still have so much learning and honing to do regarding both my life and my poetry. I’ve made peace with that fact in the last year or so and I’m really excited to just keep getting better at it (the poetry, at least).

7) Who are your major literary influences, and can you see any of their influences in your Crow Gulch manuscript?

I really enjoy poets like John Steffler, Don McKay, Jan Conn, Dean Young, Dionne Brande, George Elliott Clarke, Adrienne Rich, Leanne O’Sullivan. Basically, poets who write fearlessly. That vulnerability just laid out flat, to be ok with letting your art (and soul, insecurities, failings, etc.) be interpreted and speak back to you outside of your control – how can anyone not respect that? That takes guts.

But, after reading Randall Maggs’ Night Work: the Sawchuck Poems and considering the decade of research that went into that collection as well as Clarke’s Execution Poems and its unapologetic exploration of social history I also began to appreciate the value of patience and humility with regard to the process. I started to trust the process instead of flinging myself into the moment of inspiration and immediately expecting great poems. That’s when I began to attempt writing the focused and fearless caliber of poem that I want The Crow Gulch Poems (and the rest of my work) to become.

8) Who are you reading right now, and what work or works would you recommend others read?

I’ve been re-reading George Elliott Clarke’s collections Black and Blue (talk about fearless writing!), revisiting Anita Lahey’s Spinning Side Kick for its amazing economy of language, I’ve got a copy of Sue Goyette’s Ocean arriving in the next day or so, very excited for that. Barry Dempster’s newest collection Invisible Dogs is another I’ve been revisiting, as well as Dean Young’s Fall Higher. Both have an emotional openness and bravery that I can’t get enough of.

I’ve also been working on a body of poems that deal with my synesthetic associations with colour so Conn’s Jaguar Rain has been in the rotation as well. That book made me fall in love with colour in a whole new way, described textually rather than experienced visually.

Concerning recommendations, I’d recommend to readers devouring whatever turns you on. Don’t like a book? Don’t finish it. One day you’ll be dead so don’t waste time reading out of obligation. To other writers, keep reading people who are better writers than you are (that’s likely how those writers got there, too). The last thing any artist should feel is a sense of safety and complacency.

Don McKay, Jan Conn and John Steffler are three poets I turn to when I need the challenge. I also own a battered, dog-eared and bookmarked copy of The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. It’s been a bit of a bible for me, as it covers the majority of the 20th century from poets like Charles Olson and Louise Bennett to Amiri Baraka and Carol Ann Duffy. Such a rich, rich sampling of modern verse. It also contains a few great essays on poetics from poets like Philip Larkin, Adrienne Rich and Seamus Heaney. I also love poets like Matt Rader, Carmine Starnino or Zachariah Wells – contemporary Canadian poets who can trick me into enjoying formal structure and rhyme.

Thanks for the interview, Doug, and all the best with your manuscript and securing a publisher for it. I think it’s a beautiful and important work.

Thank you, Stephanie! It’s been a pleasure.

Originally published at http://stephaniemaymckenzie.com/interview-with-poet-douglas-walbourne-gough/