Listening to the River

“London poet Penn Kemp helps explore identity at Wordsfest”

The Thames River moves swiftly through London’s Kilally Meadows, a turn in the river at the end of Windermere Road that is eating away at the bank, carving a new history in its journey.

It’s here on the Thames, two kilometres from her childhood home that poet, spoken word performer and playwright Penn Kemp has found inspiration that culminated in River Revery, her 31st book of poetry and drama.

It will be launched Saturday at the sixth annual Words, London’s literary and creative arts festival, also known as Wordsfest, being held at Museum London Friday through Sunday.

Wordsfest will feature 40 Canadian authors, poets, writers, songwriters and other literary stars. It’s a “celebration of creative ideas, artistic expression and cultural diversity,”  where the concept of identity will be the theme.

“The Thames River is the very centre of London – look at the forks downtown – the very heart of the city, the flow, the current and the influence,” said Kemp, sitting under a sunny sky days ago a few metres from the river.

In Kemp’s new book is the poem Riparian, inspired by the place where we had just been walking and this excerpt reflects our view:

Woodcocks drum in May at Kilally Meadows as
mallard mothers introduce their pride to water.

Cattails sieve sediment in the marsh. Let alone.
Carrying on. There a dead ash stands undercut by
spring current sweeping without resistance among
dangled roots. On topmost branch, the local osprey,
intent on a shoal of suckers suspended in shadow,

catches sunlight, breast gleaming, before plummeting
with curved claws to pluck family breakfast.”

On Saturday at 1 p.m., Kemp will be in conversation with Diana Beresford-Kroeger, an author, medical biochemist and botanist who wrote the forward for River Revery.

Beresford-Kroeger is the author of several books, including To Speak for the Trees, released in September. She was named a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 2011 and named by the society as one of 25 women explorers of Canada.

The Thames, its tributaries and the land it flows through is the land of Kemp’s childhood, where she wondered and dreamed and played and ran and walked and rode a bike.

The river meanders through her work, including her plays about Teresa Harris, The Dream Life of Teresa Harris (2013) and The Triumph of Teresa Harris (2017).

Harris was born in 1839, youngest of the 12 children of Royal Navy Capt. John Harris, one of the city’s earliest settlers and builder of Eldon House. The house was owned by the family until 1960 when it was donated to the city as a museum, while much of its property along the Thames became Harris Park.

Teresa, an independent minded adventurer, inspires not only Kemp’s work but also her heart.

River Revery, dedicated to Kemp’s grandchildren, is not just a book of poems; it’s a collaboration with London artist Mary McDonald, who provided photos and animations to support Kemp’s words. The website riverrevery.ca includes the full breadth of the work, which was first revealed at last year’s Wordsfest.

Kemp is also a wealth of knowledge about the Thames. She tells me the Thames is called Deshkan Ziibi (Antler River) in the Ojibwe language, but it was named by Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe after its British namesake – a name itself rooted in the ancient Celtic language and meaning the Dark One.

“I really think we need to return to listening to what the river and the land are telling us,” said Kemp, a lifelong environmentalist and activist.

“Ever since I was a tiny child, I’ve tried to articulate the mystery not expressed in words – the river, trees, the birds – . . . and I’m still trying to translate the mystery. I believe if I’m listening I can hear one maple.”

Kemp gets irritated with anthropomorphism of nature by people making it appear and behave as a human being even though the rivers, trees, animals and land are distinct entities.

“The land is not limited to our sensibilities or understanding and comprehension,” said Kemp.

“That’s where the listening comes in . . . We’ve been trained to project, transfer our humanness values to nature and the truth is nature is so much longer lived. It has its own life. It breathes so much longer than we do. We have to get back to honouring the land as the Indigenous People did before colonialism.”

Kemp said the Thames is more than a “metaphor” of the identity of London. “It’s the reality of our identity, staring us in the face, asking for recognition, to be honoured and valued, not just to be used,” she said.

Wordsfest artistic director Joshua Lambier said the festival’s theme of identity is about “re-imagining Souwesto” referring to name coined by the late London artist Greg Curnoe for Southwestern Ontario.

Lambier said identity will be explored from a variety of angles, including the “notion of the Forest City,” which Kemp and Beresford-Kroeger will explore, and the relationship between “creativity and identity,” which a panel hosted by award-winning author Nino Ricci, the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity at Western University, will discuss Saturday at 4 p.m.

“The great thing about Wordsfest is the diversity of the content, so there should be something for everyone,” said Lambier.

“We try to bring the Western University campus downtown to the people of London who want to meet and see national authors, but also our local writers who will all be discussing new ideas, new books, new artistic approaches.”

Joe Belanger, The London Free Press, October 31, 2019

GOING WITH THE FLOW: Kemp a natural at Wordsfest C1

London poet helps explore identity at sixth-annual Wordsfest

Penn102019 Belanger

Photo: Joe Belanger

Believe…

In the space of a year she has learned to sit,
to stand, to walk, to totter forward in a run.

She has seen one full round of the seasons.
She wraps her family round her little finger.

Now just before dusk we stroll hand in hand
to witness the evening ritual of geese return.

Gliding along the Thames in formation, they
skim overhead, flapping slow time in synch.

She studies their procedure, dropping my hand
to edge forward, neck outstretched, arms aero-

dynamically angled. She flaps and flaps along
the bank, following their flight, ready for that

sudden lift. Again, again, till the last goose has
flown. Dragging her heels home, disconcerted,

she braces her body against the rising breeze,
bewildered that she too can’t take off to sky

but game to try again tomorrow, convinced
the birds’ secret will soon belong to her.

believe 2018 Mary McDonald

 

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