Poet for humans and hounds

The goat skin mysteriously appeared one day on the back porch of the Berton House. Jeramy Dodds and his partner Brecken Hancock don't know where the fluffy white thing came from.

Dawson City

The goat skin mysteriously appeared one day on the back porch of the Berton House.

Jeramy Dodds and his partner Brecken Hancock don’t know where the fluffy white thing came from.

But its sudden appearance seems oddly fitting to Dodds’ residency here.

Dodds is interested in taxidermy. And animals. And he’s a poet.

Animals appear in the myths and literature of almost every culture. This gives poets a challenge: a bird or horse in an image needs to be familiar enough to be identified, yet the writing needs to catch attention and present something new.

Crabwise to the Hounds is the first poetry collection by Dodds, Berton House’s current writer-in-residence.

The title might lead readers to expect labours of anthropomorphism. But Dodds’ poems are experiments with time warps and word rhythms more than attempts to imagine animal intelligence.

“Animals are phenomenal,” says the Ontario-raised writer, “But I don’t believe in anthropomorphism. So I usually try to come at animals by looking at what we have in common, which is the physical.”

As an example, Dodds mentions Second Glance at Corrag, a poem he wrote to memorialize an Alsatian he lived with for two years. The lines move between simple itemization and lyrical metaphor: Corrag’s “mouth is my mother crying in the car-wash” and “his cochlea is a spoon-dug tunnel beneath/ the pet cemetery.”

A more concise emotional punch comes in The Casual Matador.

Here, the narrator wakes and, thinking the lover is gone for good, totters “like a bull/ full of swords.” The pain of stab wounds probably crosses species lines.

Digging into the physical is literally the basis of Dodds’ first professional career – he worked for several years as a research archeologist.

However, he has been writing since childhood.

“I don’t really remember when I started writing poetry,” he says.

“I think of writing poetry more as a practice,” he adds, half jokingly. “Not unlike medicine. My poetic licence could be revoked at any time, depending on readers’ reactions and if I still have anything worth saying.”

Crabwise to the Hounds (Coach House, 2008) did unusually well for a first book of poetry. It was nominated for the 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize and won the 2009 Trillium Award.

After this success, “I wanted to make sure I was pushing myself out of any habits I was getting into as a writer,” Dodds says.

To ensure a new relationship with words, why not learn a new language?

He started learning Icelandic to translate old Icelandic lore. He even moved to Reykjavik, his main home these days, while he earns a masters degree in Medieval Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland.

Talk about planning creative works over the long term!

Dodds is translating the Edda, a series of Old Norse poems originally recounted as live entertainment during the Viking age.

“The Edda were only written down in the 12th century, so the version we have is like the oral tradition being ‘flash frozen’ in time,” he says.

Dodds is more than two years into the project. He maintains the plot points, the metaphors and the musicality of language in the original, only updating the occasional idiom.

“The original uses ‘cross-dressing,’ so I use that term and also ‘drag queen,’” he says, explaining a scene that involves the god Thor dressed as a bride to retrieve his stolen hammer.

Translation was part of Dodds’ world before the Edda project, too.

In Crabwise, Dodds presents a unique poem about Ho Chi Minh by recreating the phonetics from a taped telephone conversation with the politician. Dodds does not speak Vietnamese. Instead, he composed English syllables that form sentences acoustically similar to the ones on tape.

And for a piece about Glenn Gould, Dodds invented a “complex and highly suspect form” of tabulature to “translate” the pianist playing Bach.

Dodds has been active in Dawson’s writing community since he arrived six weeks ago.

Publicly, he read his Thor-as-bride translation at the Break Up Theatre Festival in May, with his partner Brecken Hancock providing the second voice for dialogues.

One-on-one, Dodds offers feedback on works-in-progress, drawing on his experience teaching creative writing at the University of New Brunswick.

So far, local writers have discussed autobiography, poetry and drama pieces with Dodds.

“I enjoy the individual sessions because there’s more time to think about the work,” he says.

Dodds is at the Berton House until the June 29, so interested writers are encouraged to contact him for mentoring.

In terms of his own work, the residency has been fruitful for Dodds.

“The translations have been invigorated just by being here,” he comments, “all those Pierre Berton books staring me down from the bookshelf saying, ‘what are you waiting for … type!’”

And so, with ravens circling the house and a goat skin hanging on the back porch, Dodds continues bending legend into contemporary form.

Jeramy Dodds reads at the Dawson Community Library on June 16 at 7 p.m. and at the Whitehorse Public Library on June 30 at 7:30 p.m.