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Catching up with West Coast poet Robin Durnford

West Coast poet and professor of English at Grenfell Campus, Robin Durnford.
West Coast poet and professor of English at Grenfell Campus, Robin Durnford.

Robin Durnford’s poetry is spun with the kind of intensity and visceral imagery endemic to the Newfoundland she was born and raised on.

Her work often depicts the ways people are shaped by their landscape, and the ways people shape their landscape in turn, but always told by a speaker with an ear tuned to the music inherent in all speech.

Take for instance the short, brunt line, from her 2012 book “A Lovely Gutting” which admits simply: Jesus couldn’t live here.

Durnford says she came to poetry, or, poetry came to her, when her father passed away suddenly while she was away at graduate school.

“A Lovely Gutting” became a process for her of healing, and understanding what had happened.  

Now, Durnford, who has been back on the island living in Stephenville for the past few years, and set to head back to Grenfell Campus in the fall to teach English, has her attention set elsewhere.  

She’s currently in the editing process for a novel titled “Sea Glass” – a story about girls from different sides in the Bay St. George area who end up in love. A concept not foreign to Durnford’s childhood in Stephenville, who went through a school system divided for Protestants and Catholics.

Durnford is also at work on a poetry manuscript titled “Gap-Toothed Girl.” She says it is a semi-autobiographical book that will use her body to talk about girlhood, and what it means to be an artist in a space like rural Newfoundland, which can meet artistically minded people with a problem of not knowing what exactly to make of their lives.   

However, while she admits she’s still ticking away at the above-mentioned books, another recent project with Creative Gros Morne will soon be released. Durnford contributed audio recordings of her poems for the backing track of a “portable museum box”. The display sought interpretations from various artists on what it may mean to forage within Gros Morne.

Forage is a verb not alien to Durnford’s poetry — sometimes it seems it is exactly what the speaker of her poem is doing, and in a sense, it is what Durnford has done as a poet.

She admits that as a child, she’d dress up and read from old anthologies of poetry, in the same way kids often dress up and mock-sing their favourite rock songs in character.

When she moved to St. John’s to work for the The Express, she found herself living next to poet Agnes Walsh. She jokes that it was a revealing time, looking out the back window and realizing that “poets hang up their clothes” like everyone else.

But despite holding an affinity to the figure of the poet, Durnford always brushed it aside as something unobtainable. That was until she needed the act of writing most, and foraged the poet out of her past and onto the page.

“When my father died, all the bullshit, the desire for anything outside the writing itself, the external validation, kind of went away.” she said.

She says it’s not something she’d wish for someone to have to go through but that the space it provided her – where the external noise surrounding writing disappeared — is something she says was important.  

Durnford says she still writes for the joy of writing first, something that shouldn’t waver into the next phase of her writing career.

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