K: What is Words?
Tom Cull: Well, Words is a creative and literary arts festival, the inaugural literary arts festival for London. For one weekend, from this Friday the 24th to Sunday the 26th, it brings together national and international writers as well as showcasing regional writers. There will be events all throughout the city, including readings, workshops, performances and panel discussions. * Reading from www.wordsfest.ca * “Words is a new festival of all things wordy – books, poetry, song, children’s literature, writing for the screen and stage, new media, spoken word performances and much more.” So, events will take place all over the city, and we can talk more about those specific events, but that’s the basics. The festival is the product of a partnership between Museum London, London Public Library, Covent Garden Market, and Western University - in particular the Public Humanities, English, and Writing Studies programs. Poetry London - with which I’m a committee member - came on board to advise on, and encourage, poetry-specific content. There are other poetry partners as well, including London Poetry Slam. And it’s ongoing and developing as we move towards the date.
K: Do you have a sense of what the impetus or the spur for this festival was? Whether someone heard people walking down the street using poor grammar, or whether a good example of this was observed elsewhere and it was decided it would be an interesting -
T: Well, that would be a good question to ask the original organizers. If I had to speculate, a city of this size, which has a vibrant literary arts scene and is an important city in Canada that produces writers, is due for something like this. That’s my perspective on it. We have a population of people who are consumers, creators, and supporters of literature and the arts in general, who I think are going to come out because they’re interested. Also, we have writers that need showcasing, and I think there’s a real desire for it, a real call for something like this. And of course other cities host literary arts festivals and I think they’re a fantastic thing for a city. So, we’re having one because we need one, you know?
K: If you would, address specifically Poetry London’s involvement. In what capacity is Poetry London involved in Words?
T: We came on board to the organizing committee and became part-sponsors. Working with the organizers, we’ve co-created a number of the events. We’re also helping to bring specific poets like Jeramy Dodds to the Words. And then I’ve been working with Josh Lambier and Phil Glennie on a number of projects, specifically the Guerrilla Poetry event and the Poetry Lab event.
Guerrilla Poetry & PoetryLab
K: What is each of those events about?
T: So, the Guerrilla Poetry event is more the brainchild of Phil Glennie -- he came up with it when we were talking about what poetry events we could imagine for the festival, and one of the things we wanted to capture was the idea of poetry as a living, embodied thing that happens in a community, that forms and engages a community. The idea is that we’re going to fill as many street corners in London with poetry and spoken word as possible. We’re going to go in groups of volunteers who will read poetry and/or literature - anything from their own work to the classics - to specific street corners along the corridor in which many of the events are happening.
Volunteers will meet at 11:15am in the front lobby of Museum London on Saturday, October 25th. Here they will be put into groups and given instruction as to their reading location. Each group will include an organizer to help facilitate the event. We will leave Museum London at 11:40 to take up our positions downtown for 12pm. The public readings will run for 45 minutes (until 12:45pm). Volunteers will be welcome to read anything they like---from their own work to world classics. We also welcome any poetry that is in a language other than English.
So, basically, we’re going to populate those corners and, starting at noon, stand on apple boxes and read poetry. The idea is, you know, to have a cacophony of poetic voices raised at one time so that the city becomes alive with poetry. It’ll also give us an opportunity to talk with people on the streets and tell them about the literary festival. We’ll have information that we can give to people about all the events that are going on over the weekend. In terms of the readers themselves, we’re hoping for all kinds of poetry: everything from spoken word, slam, traditional, lyric, experimental - whatever’s your pleasure, come and join together with other poets. And even if you don’t want to read poetry, if you want to read a particularly lovely passage of, say, Moby Dick, do it - the idea is to come and put your words out into the air. So that’s a really exciting thing that’s going to happen that Saturday.
And then Sunday there’s PoetryLab, which will be happening at Museum London. It’s a cool event. I read at an earlier PoetryLab when it was hosted at Western in Conron Hall. It is an immersive poetry experience. It blends visual poetry and sound effects to create a unique poetic experience, and it uses multi...
T: Multi-media. The reading takes place in a dark room so it’s really immersive, which helps you focus on the poets. At the previous PoetryLab I read with Joel [Faflak], NourbeSe [Philip] and the student writer in residence, Scott Beckett.
K: Hell of a line up.
T: Yeah, it was great. And the line up this year is Penn Kemp, London’s -
T: - former Poet Laureate, our first and only Poet Laureate, Penn Kemp, Laurie D. Graham, who was shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, Andy Macguire who was long listed for the same award - he’s a musician, poet and all around awesome dude. And then there’s Emma Blue, who is on the 2014 Poetry Slam Team. And then Steven Sloka, who’s the student writer in residence this year at Western. He recently read with Gary Barwin, who is the writer in residence up at Western - he’s fantastic. It’s a fantastic line up.
K: So, just to get a sense of the way in which the visual media intermingles with the poetry, would there be a projection display behind the poet?
T: Yeah, there’s a projection display behind the poet, [overseen by] Phil Glennie, who works with Josh [Lambier] in the Public Humanities at Western. This is his brainchild.
PoetryLab blends visual projections, sound effects, and poetry to create, an intense and immersive literary experience. It features an interactive component, by which attendees are invited to bring a Twitter-enabled mobile device so that they can record their impressions and help shape the event as it unfolds. These impressions are projected on a screen during “Twitter-ludes”- interludes between the poets where people in the audience comment on the event as it is going on.
And the poets take turns reading one poem at a time, so it’s a really dynamic, sensorial, multimodal event which engages the audience by reinventing the poetry reading. So, the poetry readings [hosted by Poetry London] - I love them - are very traditional readings: the poet reads at the front of the room for a period of time.
K: It’s not everybody’s cup of tea?
T: It’s a good cup of tea.
K: No question.
T: But there’s room for other kinds of reading too. PoetryLab re-imagines what a poetry reading can be. And Poetry London has been a supporter of this experiment from the beginning. It’s a lot of fun, it’s dynamic, fast-moving, you’re always getting different voices. The poets are asked to read their stuff, but they also read poems [of other poets that they admire]. Having participated in it, and also having been an audience member for it, I’d say it’s one of the most exciting things happening in poetry in London. It’s fun.
Also, Poetry London has also been instrumental in bringing Jeramy Dodds to the festival. Dodds is the Writer in Residence at [the University of New Brunswick], and a former Griffin nominee. He’s got a book coming out with Coach House which is a translation of classical Icelandic poetry. It’s really cool stuff. He’s fantastic. And that’s just a part of the poetry content of this whole festival. I mean, there will be plenty of local voices and great events such as the London Poetry Slam at the London Music Club on Friday night between 8 and 11.
I’d say it’s really important that people go to www.wordsfest.ca because there’s so much more than I could even hit upon. We haven’t even talked about the headline writers, you know: Vincent Lamb, Guy Vanderhagen, Joe Sacco, Joan Barfoot, James Barwin, Gary Barwin, Matt James, Jeremy Dodds and more, you know? So, it’s gonna be a great weekend.
Tom On Poetry, Politics and Posterity
K: W.H. Auden said something to the effect that ‘every creative act is innately political.’ ["In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act." – “The Poet and the City”]
T: Well, language at its root is political. During the recent controversy surrounding PenEquity’s development of Dingham Wood outside London, an interviewer asked Penn Kemp something to the effect of, “Should poetry be political?” And I thought that that question could even be asked was amazing. I mean, “Can it be political!?” What would it be otherwise? As Karen Connelly said [at her reading] the other night, “The choice to be non-political is a political choice.” The non-political stance is a form of status quo support. When you say, “I’m not political,” what you’re doing is tacitly supporting the status quo.
I mean, part of the reason that I write is that it keeps me sane---it helps to calm a general panic that is always with me about this world, a panic that is not showing any signs of easing.
K: That’s an understatement, isn’t it?
T: Yeah. I mean, yesterday on Facebook I read an article put out by the World Wildlife Foundation that said that since the 1970s, half of the population of animals in the world has disappeared. So, that just becomes another kind of meme, you know. So, every comment that I make on Facebook for a month, I’ll respond with that article. Someone’s gonna say: “Hey, I made a great dinner last night. Here’s a picture of it.”
T: And I want to respond, 50% of the animals are gone. To me, I just can’t understand why people are not running around in the streets pulling their hair out. But instead, what people are doing - and I’m guilty of this myself - is passing that information along and downloading cute animal photos. So, I find… I find an urgency and a panic, and those are the things that propel my desire to speak and my desire to speak through poetry. I mean, there are other ways to do it, but poetry is the form that I choose.
I hope that the festival is a place where people come together to talk about poetry, talk about literature - its place in the world and what it does. It’s not just an event where we come out and listen to great writers read and speak - that is what part of it is about - but I hope it’s also about conversations, that part of what it is or becomes is an opportunity for conversation about literature and art and what it does and who does it and why people do it. That’s what I hope for.
Tom Cull was born and raised in rural Southwestern Ontario. He holds a PhD in English Literature from York University and is an adjunct professor at the Centre for American Studies at Western University. He is also on the board of Poetry London and is a co-facilitator of their poetry workshop. Tom created and runs Thames River Rally, a volunteer group that meets monthly to clean up garbage in and along the Thames River. His first book of poetry, What the Badger Said, was published by Baseline Press in September 2013.