Penn Kemp will be launching her latest collection, from Dream Sequins, at the reading. A batch of her poems from the chapbook follow the interview below.
Penn Kemp, a native of Strathroy and raised in London, has been heralded by The Writers’ Union as “a one-woman literary industry”. A poet, activist, performer, playwright and editor, Kemp was UWO`s writer-in-residence in 2009-10 and the Inaugural Poet Laureate for the City of London in 2010-12. She received the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Award for contributions to Canadian arts and culture.
SB: When and how and why did you get started writing poetry?
PK: I started writing when I was six, recognizing the power of the written word as a step to independence: I could write down my own stories and poems, without having to wait on a parent’s availability to read them aloud. “I will do it myself,” said the Little Red Hen. “And she did.”
My grandmothers were grand sources of inspiration. My Strathroy grandmother knew many poems by heart (that delicious phrase!) which she would recite to me in a kind of incantatory lilt. My Irish grandmother told me wild tales of legends that sparked my imagination into new realms, revealed through the power of stories.
Having just come from Dr. Ross Woodman’s funeral, I’m thinking of all the dimensions of possible expression and articulation that his shamanic presentation inspired. Ross was a professor of Romantics, whose Honours course I took in 1963. He opened my eye and ear to the kind of oracular poetry that was akin to prophecy, the kind that sprang directly from the Aeolian harp or the Delphic spring. Who would not want to become a poet in the tradition of Blake, Keats and Coleridge?
I’d always known that words were magic: they called me. So I attempted to recreate that wonder in my own work. Western’s poetry magazine, Folio, published my first poems (after juvenilia in The Masonville Gazette andMedway Magnet!) in 1963. As Blake was Ross Woodman’s Muse, so the magical resonance of the spoken poem became mine.
SB: You began your career by earning an Honours degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Western Ontario (1966) and then a high school teacher’s certificate, and later completed your M.Ed. You taught English for three years and, since then, have performed your poetry and plays in schools and have given many class workshops for students and teachers. Were you originally thinking of being a teacher for the rest of your working life, or did you always want to do poetry full-time somehow? You have combined the two quite often, in teaching poetry and teaching creativity.
PK: I had always wanted to write full time, but in the mid-Sixties, that seemed impossible. I taught full-time till 1970, with 1967-8 spent exploring Europe and North Africa. Inadvertently, I hit every revolution going, including Paris, London, Prague. It was quite an education and I was politicized. Since then, I’ve been an activist… and supported myself through writing and/or occasional teaching of writing… along with happily lowering my standard of living in order to have time to write!
SB: You have had a lifelong fascination with ancient and world mythologies, resulting in extensive world travels. How has this affected your own world view, your spiritual life, and finally your poetry and other writings?
PK: Many of my books have been based on travels: Travelling Light, Changing Place and Clearing, for example, and most recently, Helwa!, a long poem describing an overnight visitation between the walls of the Sphinx. Several of my books have been dedicated to goddesses of creativity, poetry and wisdom from different traditions: for example, Celtic Brighid, who was both an Irish abbess and an ancient goddess; the powerful Egyptian cat-headed Sekhmet; and the Hindu/Buddhist deity of compassion, Tara. They have all been what I call Inspiritrices in integrating all aspects of living.
SB: You have offered retreats and workshops on Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of creativity and have long been a student and teacher of “Spirit”. Please tell us something about this.
PK: Sarasvati is both the Hindu and Buddhist deity of wisdom and writing and music. You can find her statue or image as you enter any school in India. She is my primary Inspiratrice. I draw on her energy to create, and the retreat writing workshops I give offer participants an experience of that creative force. For me, “Spirit” needs to be embodied and ensouled: the vehicle for me is voice.
SB: You refer to your poetry now as “sound opera” instead of “sound poetry”. What do you mean by “sound opera”, and how do you differentiate it from “sound poetry”?
PK: A sound poem is for me performed by a single voice, even though Canada fostered marvellous sound poetry groups. I’ve enjoyed pushing textual and aural boundaries, often in participatory performance work, working across a variety of poetic practices to engage the audience. Since I often work in collaboration with musicians, theatre folks, videographers and other multimedia/ visual artists, I looked for a term that was less focussed on a specific literary tradition, even one like Dada. So the sound poem naturally developed into “Sound Operas”: poetic narratives that weave sound, imagery and music in a contemporary counterpoint of many voices and different forms. My writing life is divided between poetry and theatre: Sound Opera jumps that gap and allows for both. Seven of my Sound Operas have been performed at London’s glorious Aeolian Hall. Poetry in performance is the way I spread the word for the arts and inspire action to support them! It’s a great joy to collaborate with artists from different media: they expand my sense of possibility.
SB: What have been the biggest influences on your poetry over your life?
PK: — –World mythology and travel, as you mention, which fed a fascination with language formation as well as other languages. — Thanks to an eye-opening, ear-opening early association with Coach House Press in the early Seventies, my first works were published. — Other writers. In organizing reading series at A Space in Toronto (1973-75) and later in BC and Ontario, I met the poets and writers I admired and happily I’ve stayed in touch with many through the decades. – Illness gave me time to reflect deeply, and themes on which to reflect.
Feminism has been a huge influence. In 1973, I edited the first anthology of women’s poetry in Canada, IS 14. My first play, Angel Makers, was the earliest play produced in Canada to discuss the issues of abortion and choice. I coined the term Siolence for a Feminist Caucus anthology for the League of Poets. My Master’s courses at O.I.S.E focussed on French feminist texts and a history of feminism.
SB: Has your family life had an effect on your poetry?
PK: My early books were all about my children, as I raised them as a single mother. My first book, Bearing Down (Coach House Press), was a long sound poem, perhaps the first poetic description of labour! In Some Talk Magic (Ergo Productions), my babies’ exploration and entrance into language entranced me. I was fascinated by their babble. Binding Twine dealt with domestic violence, separation, divorce and custody in the only way I could, through poetry. I’m presently writing about growing up in London.
SB: Can you say something about your return to live in London?
PK: London has welcomed me home as if I hadn’t left, even though after graduating from Western in 1966, I went off to teach English in Timmins, and except for six months in 1981, I didn’t return until 2001. Since moving back to London, I’ve dedicated myself to promoting the arts in my home town. It was a delight to return to Western as Writer-in-Residence. As London’s first Poet Laureate, I was proud to act as ambassador for local arts and artists. My Lit.-on-Air radio show, Gathering Voices, plays on Radio Western alternating Tuesdays 6:30 am/pm: http://chrwradio.ca/content/upcoming-episodes-gathering-voices.
Pendas Productions, the publishing company I run with my husband, Gavin Stairs, has been dedicated to producing hand-bound book and CD combinations to further the sense of community that such collaboration involves. Poets with Panache! See/ hear more on http://mytown.ca/twelfth/ and my monthly updates on www.mytown.ca/pennletters.
SB: What can we expect from you in the future?
PK: I’ll be doing some writing workshops for Youth Arts Week and several Festivals this May. At present, thanks to a Theatre Creators Reserve Grant from The Grand Theatre, I am writing a play about my father, the London painter Jim Kemp, and the arts community in mid-century London as I was growing up here. AlvegoRoot Theatre is producing it in 2015. Videographer Dennis Siren has done a videopoem with me that will loop during my father’s exhibition at The Arts Project for the London Visual Fringe, June 3-14.
Five Poems by Penn Kemp
They are all in From Dream Sequins, a handbound chapbook which will be launched April 16 at London Open mic Poetry Night. Art by Steven McCabe. Lyrical Myrical Press, Toronto, December 2012. Second printing, 2013.
Naturalized, the Dream Spreads into my Back Yard
It is raining. I have fallen asleep listening
to downpour on a greenhouse vinyl roof.
I have fallen asleep listening to laments
by Natalie Goldberg. Nat, she calls herself
when chiding or coaching or encouraging
more writing. The gnats have emerged
from hibernation or larvae to buzz about
my face, agitated by the upcoming storm,
or are these midges? Fungus gnats all
winter have harboured among my too
well watered plants, breeding, eating
the sweet succulence and now emerging.
Lightning flickers and the computer growls,
but it will go on backup if struck,
I hope. Thunder roars back, shaking
the window frame, but still far distant.
The pressure before a storm weighs down
upon my head, flattening the scalp, wedging
premonition into my febrile brain.
The storm itself will not shake free. It is not just
the drama of stirring boughs and pelting rain. For
Natalie’s voice, as I sleep, advises writers to rein in
their wild mind, even though it might rear and buck.
Through the storm, I listened to her Thunder and Lightning
tape. Now in morning sun, I’ll plant snapdragons, zinnias.
Sunflowers preside over the garden with stately crimson nods.
Dimensions cross over like water colours bleeding but not muddy,
merging separate realities. A commonality of cloud connective
tissue. Striating web strands between blue spheres. Here.
Let the light in, please. Open
the blinds to see that shadow
lies where light does not fall.
Where there is no shadow,
there can be no fear. Where
there is no fear, all is light.
Let light penetrate all
our permeable membrane
of skin. Let it illuminate
dark corridors of blood
and vein. Let light fill
our whole body till cells
dance like dust motes.
Let the sun beam light
through our pores till
we glow luminous and
as the day’s eye.
Let us eat light like
plants. Let us chew
the bright air till we can
swallow light like
fire-eaters. Let us
assimilate light till
we are light, just that
Sounding The Aeolian
We’re in the green room rehearsing Dream Sequins at Aeolian Hall,
papers scattered about, but the piece is coming together magically
when Clark comes through, inviting me upstairs for a casual snack.
As I follow him into the hall, sunlight streams into the hall, lighting
the Black Madonnas into radiant Life. The shutters are thrown open.
The entire hall is alive with refracted light that sparkles crystalline in
a vibrating web of energy. Clark agrees that the hall is sacred space,
resonant with possibility. It’s a nexus, a new Jerusalem. As Clark opens
a small door on our left to his apartment, a gorgeous, gigantic Monarch
butterfly with a fluid swallow tail attracts my attention. One leg is caught
in the rafter by a dense cobweb. Turning to the tall blonde woman who
suddenly appears on my left, I ask if she can cut it free. She flashes
a curved knife, long enough to loosen the webbing, though some guck
is still stuck to its leg. I hold out my index finger and the butterfly alights.
It’s attracted, I laugh, to the residue of jam I’ve just been eating.
The butterfly rides with me up the narrow but sunlit spiral staircase.
The buttery wood is beautifully carved in warm maple, a shell’s whorl,
leading us up. A shell to sound. A breeze to blow throughout the Hall.
Stirring Not Stirring
Honey drips from my nose, coats
my hair in blond stiff strands.
I am standing very still calling
bees by scent. Pheromones draw
them to collect on me, hiving off
to a giant new temporary queen,
spun down from my chin in a grand
pharaoh’s beard. My eyes, my ears
are bee-shut, open only to their buzz.
What I didn’t know is that I’m here
in front of a bear’s cave on the first
warm day of summer, attending
emergence, as the swarm births
from entrails of bull and bear.
Bee goddess, bear goddess, mid-
wife, be with us mid-life and beyond.
Homing to the Given
I am moving into old time
Fire embraces my shadow,
absorbs darkness into heat.
Friends linger, huddle under
our circular warmth. 10,000
years melt away in the current
climate shift. There goes snow.
Too late for comfort, too late to
reverse trends toward entropy.
Decades, centuries speed past
future possibles into the past as
currencies of passable presents.
How to turn this tendency around.
Rapidly, rapidly. Restraint is not
enough. Constraint does not serve.
That’s not the story. I’m drifting.
The ceremony commenced while
attention was off in is own helium.
I am standing before the entrance
of deep cave, a cave I recognize
only by the dark its shadow casts.
Fire gleams. Fire climbs the walls.
Shapes dance into consistent form.
The sense of bear emerges into three
dimensions. Someone from behind
must be holding up the bearskin for
Orsel, Artemis, Bear Woman, shape
shifter. There is no one there but
this bear shape is now my contour.
Bear shape becomes me. Becomes
my own, new comfort large enough
to roam back, large enough to call home.
All poems are from the handbound chapbook, From Dream Sequins, which was launched in London April 16 at London Open Mic Poetry Night. Art by Steven McCabe. Lyrical Myrical Press, Toronto, December 2012. Second printing, 2013.
Penn Kemp’s poems illustrate the challenge of living in a setting which overwhelms the dream world with strange stimuli. Steven McCabe’s matching ink drawings depict a cathartic process of reimagining the poems in intricate imagery.
“I love to enter the dream flow of these evocative poems & drawings as they converse. Scintillating and flowing, they draw you simultaneously outside to the big order of things & inside to the mind, heart, & deep tissues of the body, celebrating the primacy of vital speech & visual image.”