RUSTY TALK WITH PENN KEMP
London, Ontario performance poet, activist and playwright Penn Kemp is the 40th Life Member of the League of Canadian Poets. This year she received the Queen Elizabeth 11 Diamond Jubilee medal for service to the arts. Penn has published twenty-five books of poetry and drama, had six plays and ten CDs produced as well as Canada’s first poetry CD-ROM and several award-winning videopoems. As the inaugural Poet Laureate for the City of London, she initiated and judged Poetry in Motion and the National Haiku Competition. As Canada Council Writer-in-Residence for University of Western Ontario for 2009-10, her project was the DVD, Luminous Entrance: a Sound Opera for Climate Change, Pendas Productions.
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Penn Kemp: I remember my own early discovery of and delight in language. As a child, I did not coddle my dolls. I sat them up and read the poems, stories and nursery rhymes my mother had read to me. The words she read would sink into the well of my hearing and become part of me; their rhythms would dance inside my body like northern lights. I ate up those words with a necessity as strong as hunger. Even at first hearing, the words were somehow familiar as if I recognized in them old friends. I remember swelling proudly with the power of words, in learning first to read and then actually to write, to put down the letters so that they made sense to anyone who could read.
I wrote my first poem when I was six, excited and amazed at having created through apparent magic something out of nothing with marks on a page accompanied by a drawing of kids skating. I glimpsed a world in which words had a life of their own, just as toys did. I knew that if I could wake at the right time at night I would catch my toys at play. So too, I felt words could be surprised and brought to life on the page.
Writing that first poem was the first time that I recall consciously feeling that I was doing an adult thing creating something entirely on my own, assuming independence growing up! I felt like the Little Red Hen in the nursery story: "‘I can do it myself,’ said The Little Red Hen, and she did."
KM: What keeps you going as a poet or why do you write?
PK: When I write, I begin an adventure equipped with my writing tools and everything else I know about myself and the world. By the end of the day, everything I knew and thought may be transformed or discarded. It intrigues me that what I know and start off with is the very means for realizing what is unknown.
I write to articulate the moment, to puzzle out feelings or incidents I can't figure out. The best poems come, though, when I follow the language of a striking phrase. Sound leads me.
KM: Could you describe your writing process? (For example, do you write every day? When? Where? How do you approach revision, etc.)
PK: I write every day, in the morning, in the little room that was my childhood bedroom. It looks out on a small greenhouse, a source of inspiration and delight all year. The green throughout the winter keeps me from getting restless and hungry for sun. Often in the morning as I transcribe dreams, they become poems. They're not usually very good poems so they don't see the light of day beyond a file in my computer, but they keep the energy of poetry flowing. The problem I have with them is that they are too narrative and I feel I need to stick to the literal story line that the dream gave me.
I revise constantly, even when I am performing, pencil often in hand. Reading the poem in front of an audience allows me to really hear what works...and what does not.
My first book, Bearing Down, was performed in four voices for a Seattle FM radio show in 1973. That performance opened up the door to possibilities for the spoken word in those early days. I've been lifting the word off the page any way I could since then, most recently in videopoems. But the ear remains my first love. Concentrating on the voice rather than gesture or physical presence in communicating poetry has taught me to listen acutely, and that's had an effect not just on my sound poetry but on all my work. Collaborating with artists of different disciplines is exciting and energizing. And with the Cloud, friends and fans can hear the work in Brazil, in India, in Britain simultaneously!”
KM; What writers were influential to you when you first started out? And what poets are you reading now?
PK: Victor Coleman, the editor at Coach House Press and a neighbour on Toronto Island, was influential and encouraging in introducing me to the poetic community across North America. My first book, Bearing Down, came out from Coach House, 1972. I organized a poetry reading series at A SPACE in Toronto for several years in the early Seventies. I invited poets I admired, like P. K. Page, Phyllis Webb, Daphne Marlatt, all of whom became friends and correspondents. In those days, the Canada Council sponsored American poets so I invited heroes like Diane di Prima, Allan Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn, all very influential.
I read avidly and widely as poetry continues to inspire new poems. These days I edit quite a few manuscripts for poets, and I read poets coming to London as well as books for my literary radio show, Gathering Voices. And new books coming out: I particularly like Brick Books.
KM: Your funniest literary moment, if you have one.
PK: The funniest literary moment happened this year on January 11 at 8.30am. As Poet Laureate for the City of London, I was formally addressing 1200 folks at the Mayor's STATE OF THE CITY ADDRESS” at the London Convention Centre. The topic was “Believe…”. Well, I couldn't believe the three very audible interruptions! They turned out to be the complaints of a Russian robot. It was squawking in Russian that its battery was wound down. I kept on talking: you can see the situation on livestream.
KM: What are you working on now?
PK: I wish I could say that I'm finishing a manuscript and I am, slowly, but the times demand I continue as an activist in protesting federal budget cuts.
So I'm organizing a reading Saturday, September 29, 2012, 2-4 pm. "100,000 Poets for Change" Reading for Culture Day. Landon Public Library (downstairs), 167 Wortley Rd., London, ON. Our free afternoon reading will be part of an international event which will take place in many cities, in many villages and in the countryside all over the world, at the same time and date.
The first order of change is for poets to get together to perform, educate and entertain, simultaneously with others around the world, changing how we see our own community and the global community. The host in Toronto who asked me to organize a London reading may be doing some Skype connections with us and other cities, other provinces. Such an event ties in nicely with our national Culture Days happening at the same time. There will be a blog for us on 100,000 Poets for Change. Twenty-three poets are signed up, including Susan McMaster, President of The League of Canadian Poets. Musicians Jennifer White and Robert McMaster as well! Good will? Immeasurable!
And I am writing a book on Jack Layton's support of and interest in the arts in Canada. I'm now collecting anecdotes, reminiscences and opinions or observations about Jack and the arts
Jack in the arts (that guitar, that piano, that revised song!) the role of the arts for him. As Jack would remind me, he was a proud member of the Writers’ Union! I've just collated all his emails to us and they include some interesting discussions. They're bitter-sweetly sad to read now, given all we have lost in Jack...but of course we continue in hope. I’ll also be interviewing folks for my radio show, Gathering Voices.
Olivia Chow endorses the work: "I heartily encourage folks to send Penn your stories of Jack’s relationship with and his support of the arts. This project is a great opportunity to share our stories about how Jack and the NDP celebrated our Canadian cultures and what we must do together to continue this relationship. You know he loved to make music and we loved to dance!"
When Jack Layton died last August, he was given a state funeral. Roy Thompson Hall was packed; the lineup of artists celebrating Jack stellar and the street theatre outside was sublime. I would like to commemorate Jack’s birthday in July and the first anniversary of his death with two e-shorts on Amazon.ca. I believe such pieces would be timely and widely read, given the nation’s outpouring of love and sympathy. Jack Layton's support of and interest in the arts in Canada underlay his politics. In his long municipal and federal political life, he always included and encouraged artists to become activists. My working title is Jack Layton: Art for Action!
On Saturday, August 4, I'm participating in The Summer Soirée Festival of the Arts, Aeolian Performance Hall, London, Ontario. Afternoon workshop Gary Diggins, Jocelyn Drainie and me on The Healing Nature of Sound and then an evening performance, Sonica Hypnotica. Chris Meloche and I will kick off the evening event with new work in progress from The Electric Folklore Machine.
PENN KEMP'S MOST RECENT BOOK
Helwa!, PigeonBike Press, 2011
PigeonBike Press has launched Penn Kemp's chapbook of Helwa! alongside the release by Pendas Production of Penn Kemp's CD, Night Vision, which includes Helwa!.
Since her first book was published by Coach House Press in 1972, she has been pushing textual and aural boundaries, often in participatory performance work. Many of her recent CDs are what Penn terms "Sound Operas": poetic narratives that weave sound, imagery and music in the counterpoint of many voices. Working across a variety of cultural practices to engage her audience, she hosts an eclectic literary show, Gathering Voices, archived on CHRW. Having performed in festivals around the world, most recently in Britain, Brazil and India, Penn lives in London Canada, where she edits poetry for Pendas Productions, a small poetry publisher she and husband Gavin Stairs run. Penn has been heralded by the Writers’ Union as a “one woman literary industry”.
Between Between is a short film that concerns the process of mourning, translating some of Penn Kemp's performance poetry into visual imagery for a compelling, evocative portrayal of that state. Between Between examines the experience both of the mourner and (perhaps) of the newly dead. A Penn Kemp and Dennis Siren collaboration.
Kathryn Mockler is the publisher of The Rusty Toque.
Karen Schindler is the managing director of the Poetry London Reading Series and a contract researcher at UWO’s Faculty of Education. Previous professions include chemical engineer, systems analyst, and high-school teacher. Her poetry and poetry book reviews have been published in literary journals such as The Antigonish Review, the Fiddlehead, the Malahat Review, and The Windsor ReView, and she was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC literary awards and longlisted for Descant's 2011 Winston Collins Prize.She has served as a grant juror for the Ontario Arts Council and a judge for the Hamilton Literary Awards. Her chapbook press, Baseline Press, was launched in the fall of 2011.
RUST TALK WITH KAREN SCHINDLER
Kathryn Mockler: Why did you decide to start a chapbook press?
KS: Because I was pretty sure I would love it. I’ve spent the last nine years happily becoming more and more immersed in poetry. Doing some writing. Organizing readings. Going to workshops and literary festivals. Picking up some editing and reviewing skills. And reading poetry—books and books of poetry. A friend, Ottawa poet Sandra Ridley, published a chapbook with Jack Pine Press in 2008, and it just blew me away—the book itself. It was such a beautiful thing. A piece of art. I wanted to be involved in the making of something like that. And I saw it as a natural extension of the other poetry-related things I’d been doing.
KM: Why is it called Baseline Press?
KS: London is home to two Baseline Roads—I’ve lived on one of them for the last 15 years, and I grew up on a side street of the other. Also, a baseline is a starting point--something basic and essential to refer back to. Although running a press is a continuation of the things I’ve been doing, I like to think of it as a taking-off point for me, and hopefully for some of the poets I’ll publish too.
KM: Who is in the fall line up? Is there a particular theme for the press or how did you choose your authors?
KS: I’m launching three poetry chapbooks this fall--The Black Car by Christine Walde, Sputniks by Andy McGuire, and Cardiogram by Danielle Devereaux. The London launch is Wed. Nov. 2 at Brennan’s Beer & Bistro. And we’re doing a joint launch with Cactus Press in Toronto on Thu. Nov. 3, as part of the Livewords Reading Series.
Christine and Andy I’ve known for several years through the Poetry London Reading Series. And Danielle I met two years ago at a poetry festival. They’re all terrific poets on their way to publishing their first full-length collections. The chapbook is the perfect stepping stone towards that.
I’m also publishing two single-poem broadsides—by Jeffery Donaldson and Sharon McCartney. As well as helping new writers take that first dip into the publishing pond, I’m looking forward to working with more established poets who I admire.
KM: How many books are in each edition?
KS: 75 copies of each chapbook, and 50 copies of each broadside. Those numbers may change from year to year, as I figure out demand.
KM: How did you approach book design?
KS: I did a lot of playing around before I approached any poets—made a few mock-ups using a dozen poems by Wallace Stevens. Pretended it was the real thing—shopped for cover stock and fly-leaf, chose a title, designed a cover, experimented with layout. This gave me an example to present to my prospective authors. Once each poet was on-board, the design was very much a joint effort. Each provided input regarding paper, graphics, etc. I made suggestions they didn’t like, and vice versa. Compromise is a given.
KM: What surprised you the most about the process of launching a press?
KS: I was overwhelmed by the support of the small-press community. I knew very little about how it all worked—paper suppliers? printing options? poet royalties? A few presses in particular—Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 (Ottawa), and Jim Johnstone’s Cactus Press (Toronto)—were over-the-top helpful. Seemed not the least bit bothered by my endless emails and phone calls. Everyone who does this seems to be in it for the love of poetry, and there’s a nice camaraderie between the presses. I’ve seen this at the small-press fairs I’ve attended too. So I’ve never felt stuck at any point this year. Good advice was always an email away.
The other surprise was how much I enjoyed the hands-on work—the paper cutting, the folding, the thread binding. It became kind of a meditative thing for me. I bought a terrific German-made rotary paper cutter, which I’ve kind of become addicted to (if anyone has any paper they need cutting…)
KM: Did you face any challenges?
KS: My first year has involved a tremendous amount of work, that’s for sure. Especially because I don’t yet have the funds to buy publishing and design software that allows for shortcuts. But I was prepared to put some hours into this. One thing that perhaps took me the whole year to figure out (and that I still can’t get my head around) is how much mistake paper I’d go through…
KM: Do you have any specific goals for the future?
KS: I would love to have access to a letter-press machine at some point. Especially for broadsides.
KM: London's had a rich art and literary history. As a poet, reviewer, reading event organizer, and now publisher, can you tell us a little bit about the literary scene in London, Ontario today?
KS: The Poetry London Reading Series, started by poet Cornelia Hoogland, is at the top of my list. Over the last seven years we’ve featured some of the country’s best (Lorna Crozier, coming October 19th!) as well as giving local writers a chance to take the stage. The poetry community that has grown around the series and the associated workshops is a dedicated group. And we’re always looking for new poetry aficionados. The series runs out of Landon Library in Wortley Village.
And there’s plenty more going on in London. We’re home to a number of excellent writers. Poet Laureate Penn Kemp has done a great job stirring things up this year—with her “Poetry in Motion” bus project, for example. London’s Kitty Lewis, general manager of Brick Books (one of the country’s top publishing houses) is a huge local poetry cheerleader. The London Writers Society is a big support to the city’s writers. And then there are the people you don’t hear so much about, who are doing their thing every day to nurture literature in the community—English teacher Ola Nowosad, who was involved in the Poetry In Voice high school recitation pilot project this year; Kelly Bradley, who facilitates the Grit Uplifted creative writing group for people who are homeless; Amy Van Es, who just launched Writtle Magazine. There are dozens more. Hats off to all of them.
KM: Do you have any advice for new writers and aspiring editors or publishers?
KS: The piece of advice I keep coming back to, concerning all things creative, was given to me six years ago when I attended a writing program at Banff. I was very new to writing and when I saw the work of some of the other participants, I was convinced that I was only there due to some fluky clerical error. One day one of the faculty, novelist Curtis Gillespie, told me that years earlier, when he himself had attended the program as a student, he had felt the same way. But he kept at it. And he told me that if you took all those intimidating writers he’d been thrown in with, and looked at where they were at today, you’d find that very few of them were still writing and getting published. But he was. Point being, to do something, you don’t have to be the best at it right off the bat. The desire to DO it counts for an awful lot.
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