Donna Porter-Howlett goes from fish plant worker to poet

Published on January 22, 2013
Burton K. Janes

Editor's note: the following column also appeared in the Jan. 22, 2013 print edition of The Compass.

Donna Porter-Howlett grew up in Port de Grave. Following graduation from Ascension Collegiate in neighbouring Bay Roberts, she worked at the local fish plant for some years. Before long, she realized she had a talent for turning everyday occurrences into poetry.

"As a young girl," she recalls, "I always dreamed of publishing my own book. My family was very encouraging and, lucky for me, I kept everything I wrote."

She won her first award in Grade 6 at St. Luke's School with her poem, "Newfoundland."

She self-published her first book, "Portrait of a Newfoundland Poet," in 1997. Her poems reflect "both the culture of Newfoundland outport life, as well as the humour and imagination of the author," she explains. The content encompasses "a fairly broad range of emotions and topics." She occasionally depicts "the unusual Newfoundland dialect originating from English cockney ancestors."

She writes movingly about a mother who had lost her son: "the grief showed with tears, / In a matter of days she had aged 20 years. / She seemed to remember when he was a lad / And recalled all the years of good times that they had."

She pays tribute to her parents, Alva and Eric Porter: "all the world is proud of them / Because they are so kind, / Some people are not proud of theirs / But I am proud of mine."

Donna's humour is readily evident in "Mixed Up": "me eyes are where my nose is / Me knees are in me face, / If only you could see me / You'd say I'm out of place." She concludes: "who cares if we're out of place / We're a little bit defarmed." In "The G.S.T.," she writes: "well, I had myself a dollar bill / I thought I was in heaven, / Went into the store for a bottle of drink / She said, 'A dollar seven.'"

Donna's proud to be a Newfoundlander, "and I'll go to the highest hilltop / And shout it out aloud."

Her recently released second self-published book is "Reflections of a Newfoundland Poet." She wrote this one, she jokes, "to own a Mercedes-Benz. I'm still working on that one." On a more serious note, it's a tribute to the memory of her late father. "I wish to continue to smile on my father's behalf," she writes, "and shine through his memory."

She writes about "A Fisherman's Faith": "tomorrow he knows he'll start a new day / As he and his boat steam out across the bay." She writes about a chickadee: "Let your wings beat free and wild, / For, you see, I too was just like you / When I was but a child." She writes about a computer course she took: "So ... glad enough, I quit that course / I'll not become a technician / I'm gonna pick something simple / Hmm ... maybe a politician."

In "How we Spent Mudder's Day," she writes: "well, let's go fer a feed of trout / Let's dodge down to the pond / 'Me hip is painin',' me mudder said / 'And me bones is not that strong.'" In "The Fairies," she writes about a popular Newfoundland tradition: "whenever you go in the woods / Be sure to take some bread / Though you may not believe in fairies / You may feel a sense of dread." She reflects on Mother Nature, who "stretches her arms / And drinks dew from her cup / She slowly arises / As she tries to wake up."

"Read these poems with caution," Donna suggests. "For some may make you cry. / There are tales of great adventure / Where many people die." Some of her poems are "full of wisdom / And some are filled with hate. / There are poems of joy and happiness, / There are poems of truth and faith." Others are "of funny incidents / And of people pulled apart. / There are poems of love and sadness / That would really pierce your heart." Some "will relax you / And take tension from your mind." Her sole ambition, she says, is to do "a useful deed."

Wayne S. Morgan, Port de Grave's so-called "singing fisherman," comments: "Donna has once again captured the true meaning of being a Newfoundlander through her poetry. From silly humour to reality and old Newfie cockney, Donna's poetry will capture the heart and soul of all." Mike Madigan of the Sharecroppers regards Donna's poetry as "a tasty delight of emotion, humour and insight."

"I love poetry and all sorts of it. I truly believe it's a gift from the Man Above," Donna explains. "Writing comes very easy to me."

Today, Donna and her husband, Jerry, live in Conception Bay South, where she's employed as a respite worker with Eastern Health.

Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at