Penn Kemp, BA’66, CertEd’68
Poet Laureate, playwright, novelist, and sound poet.
The London Arts Council named Kemp as Poet Laureate in September, and she will serve a one-year term. Her mission for the next 12 months: spreading poetry in as many ways as possible, from the streets to the libraries to the schools.
With 25 books, 10 CDs and a 40-year performing career, Kemp has enjoyed a long history of bringing poetry to the people. And the London native has made a name for herself far beyond the Forest City. With writer residencies in India and Brazil, as well as performances at arts festivals in Scotland, Germany and England, Kemp has transported her literary gifts around the globe. The world has been touched by her talent, and Kemp, herself, has grown as an artist.
“With all my travels I increased my awareness of language and my immersion into cultures not my own,” said Kemp, whose works have been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese and many others.
She cites Brazil as the country that has most deeply embraced her poetry. Their fondness for her work remains somewhat of a mystery, but she reminisces with fondness about the time she spent there in 2003, shortly after her mother passed away. The occasion was a conference for Canadianistas -- students of Canadian literature – and it offered Kemp the opportunity to perform, lecture and workshop with locals in various universities throughout the country – including the deep Amazon.
“My overwhelming impression was that people were so excited to work with a real live Canadian writer. I’d be put on a train at midnight and woken up at 6 a.m. and passed from person to person,” Kemp recalled.
She found that same literary enthusiasm in India. As writer-in-residence at the University of Mumbai (1995 and 1999), Kemp was sent to colleges and universities in the state of Gujarat. She also met one woman who did her PhD – a feminist critique of writing and the body -- using Kemp’s works as examples.
“A lot of my work has been translated into various Indian languages, and that was extraordinary. I would hear my poem in Hindi and the rhythm would be the same. I remember conducting a sound orchestra of professors and students. I was doing it in English; they were doing it in Hindi.”
Canadian works are often more celebrated abroad than in our own borders, and in India Kemp experienced firsthand the respect that foreigners had for her poetry.
“Canadian literature is revered throughout the world as being fascinating and innovative,” she said. “It’s the whole colonial thing as well. There were lots of discussions about Colonialism, urban degradation. The typical Indian could relate to being part of the Commonwealth.”
Another quality that endeared Kemp to her Indian colleagues was her knowledge of Hinduism and her practice of Buddhism.
“I was much more involved with the locals,” she said. “Most visiting scholars would fly in and out, but I stayed.”
Living in India also exposed Kemp to a different way of living and being in the world. Theirs is a philosophy that embraces the chaos of life, she said, instead of resisting it.
“I was recently at the Tibetan Centre in Toronto, watching the Dalai Lama, and it was complete chaos. But I was able to just sit and relax with it. I have a lot more patience. The Western mind tries to fix things.”
Kemp has a long association with The University of Western Ontario. In 1966 she graduated with an honours degree in English Language and Literature and in 1968 she earned a teaching certificate from Althouse College. Her radio show, Gathering Voices, airs every second Wednesday on CHRW Radio, and features interviews with writers as well as Kemp’s sound operas. Born from her desire to lift poetry off the page and to the stage, sound operas combine text, voice, music and computer manipulation.
“Writing is a solitary work, so it’s a great joy to collaborate with musicians, dancers and multimedia/visual artists in this new form I call sound opera.”
Last year Kemp was Western’s writer-in-residence, a position that saw her interface with both Western students and the London community.
“It’s been inspiring to return to my alma mater,” she said. “I was especially pleased that so many folks returned for a second or third consultation, as it was gratifying to see their progress over the year.”
There is no finer example of Kemp’s international appeal than her Poem for Peace in Many Voices. With 128 translations, ranging from ancient Egyptian to Ojibway -- and more being added each year -- the poem continues to be a work in progress that captivates listeners. Kemp proudly calls herself an activist poet, dedicating herself to political, social and environmental issues. Her project during her residency was the DVD Luminous Entrance: A Sound Opera for Climate Change.
“Poetry in performance is the way I spread the word for the arts and inspire action to support them. A poem can transform people’s lives or contribute to a shift in consciousness and of ideals.”
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