Penn Kemp's Literary London Life - A Personal Overview

[Editor's Note: The following article appears on the website Open Book Ontario: Focus on London and is re-printed here with the author's permission]
Surrounded by placid, excellent farmland all too quickly mushrooming into suburbs, London lays claim to many acclaimed writers, whether they were raised here, lived in the area most of their lives; left and returned; or are now here for the duration. Think Joan Barfoot, Bonnie Burnard, Emma Donoghue, Frank Davey, Don Gutteridge, Jean McKay, Orlo Miller, James Reaney, David Suzuki, Colleen Thibaudeau, Elizabeth Waterston, Marion Woodman and Ross Woodman. We claim too, those who were just passing through for a year or so, like Michael Ondaatje at 19, and those who stayed for years, like Stan Dragland and Don McKay.

Sometimes considered a staid, conservative county seat by those who live elsewhere, London has been a haven for literary eccentricity for decades. Louise Wyatt, my Grade 13 teacher at Central Collegiate in 1961, was truly an Eccentric and a learned one, declaiming poetry, with frowsy hair and dishevelled blouse, her glasses on a string bouncing as she gesticulated. Her house and desk were equally buried in stacks of books, half-read and all marked with placeholders. She'd sweep off a space for tea. An eye-opening influence on me as to what the literary life could be! She showed me the possibility of poetry as a career... she'd studied at the University of Chicago, and brought back issues of Poetry Magazine.

London has long been a place of refuge for novelists, playwrights and poets who want the privacy of home life to write and/or raise their children... and such an easy place to escape! It’s halfway between Toronto and Windsor/Detroit so that each metropolis is accessible, but how lovely to return to such a pleasant place. I asked several London writers to give their perspective on the London literary scene: Why do they live here?

Novelist Joan Barfoot writes: “I’ve written almost all my 11 novels while living in London, the city I moved to from Toronto so that I could, um, write novels. Even relatively naïve as I was then, I realized how rare it was to make a decent living from fiction, certainly right away. I’d gone to university in London, working part-time at the local newspaper. Naturally I left after graduating for jobs on newspapers elsewhere, loving the pursuit of news but starting also to take pokes at fiction — until finally, contemplating less acidic employment than Toronto’s newspaper-world, work that would give me money and time but still be interesting and even possibly challenging, I remembered London.

“Just for a couple of years, I thought — about my maximum stay anywhere to that point. Long enough, anyway, to spit and polish the first novel (Abra) and get a decent start on a second (Dancing in the Dark). I make jokes about London as quicksand — by the time you realize you’re sinking, you can’t get out — but no kidding, here I am, years and quite a few novels later.

“London is: manageable and affordable. It contains enough writer-type friends, and friends with other pursuits and passions, as well, to be getting on with. It’s far enough from the publishing centre-of-the-universe in Toronto to prevent regular drink-ups and eat-ups and gala-ups, not to mention overdoses of authorial whine-ups.

“It’s not exactly glamorous, living in London, but by and large it feels a bit like a hug: a warm, friendly enough, mainly trustable place. Also, hard and pointless to leave, and therefore, still quicksand.”

The literary scene here is vibrant, accessible and inclusive, both for emerging and experienced writers. Poet Andreas Gripp writes: “From my perspective, being involved in the literary scene for the past 20 years, I’m happy to say that London has a polite, appreciative and faithful poetry audience. My experiences as a poet in doing live readings here have been positive, with attendees being attentive and a number of them willing to buy books and support local writers. For years, Poetry London has maintained an excellent standard in terms of developing a regular reading series at the Landon Library in Wortley Village, primarily featuring visiting poets from other places who have attained national acclaim.

"This fall, a new series, London Open Mic Poetry Night, emerged to help fill a void for local versifiers to share their poems with a live audience. It is currently held at Mykonos Restaurant, a fantastic venue for artists to render their work in a relaxed, open mic format. The monthly series features one local poet offering an extended set of their poems. The London Poetry Slam is also very robust and extremely popular here and is part of the national slam network. Oxford Book Shop, serving the city for nearly 65 years, has always been supportive of local and area poets. These are all constants which enable opportunities for both emerging and seasoned poets to find a readership and people eager to hear.”

The Poetry London Reading Series presents readings once a month featuring Canada’s best poets. Founded in fall 2004 by poet Cornelia Hoogland in partnership with the Landon Branch Library, Poetry London co-operates with a handful of other Ontario venues to provide national poets with multi-stop tours. The pre-reading workshops are free and offer encouragement to developing writers, as well as enabling participants to interact with poetry in a community setting. Recent special projects have included a Poetry Month street billboard in April 2012 with the work of the late Colleen Thibaudeau, and the publication of Possessions, a poetry anthology to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Eldon House, a local historic home, and featuring many local writers.

There are a number of small, dedicated micro presses and literary magazines here. The first was James Reaney, Alphabet, which I remember from university days. Poems were set by hand, by necessity or by choice. Alphabet inspired Applegarth Follies, which morphed into the internationally respected Brick Books and Brick Magazine as well as my own Twelfth Key poetry magazine.

Brick Books General Manager Kitty Lewis lives in London, and that likely explains why she can get done all she does for publishing in Canada! Kitty writes, “Brick Books is the only publishing company in Canada that exclusively publishes poetry. Founded in 1975 in London, Ontario by Stan Dragland and Don McKay, the press continues its dedication to fostering interesting and compelling work by both new and established poets. With administration in London, Ontario, Brick Books is a unique publishing organization that works.”

Brick Magazine began here in 1977: “Set by hand, the original Brick featured articles and book reviews from writers across Canada and attracted a devoted audience through the diligence and eclectic taste of its founding editors, Stan Dragland and Jean McKay.”
London's Baseline Press publishes limited edition broadsides and hand-sewn chapbooks featuring the work of new and mid-career Canadian poets. Karen Schindler founded the Baseline Press in 2011. "The press aims to create unique hand-made works of literary art, and involves a wide range of other local artists in its activities,” she explains. A recent broadside project involved letterpress work by All Sorts Press. Book launches are held each fall.

PigeonBike Press came into being decades ago, then went quiet, only to return with a roar in 2011. “With a simple mandate to promote diverse writing, the press has published such writers as Penn Kemp and R. L. Raymond," explains Rob Raymond. "PigeonBike goes beyond the local, the national, the international. PigeonBike has produced three print editions, three chapbooks and three full-length collections, all of which were edited, compiled, printed and distributed from London. When an emerging writer, poet, artist, or even an established one, catches the Editors' attention, the green light for a project switches on. There are no plans, no rules, no quotas. One thing IS certain: PigeonBike will always immortalize meaningful writing in a beautiful package. Long live the small press. Long live print.”

Pendas Productions, run by my husband Gavin Stairs and myself, has been in operation since 1977. Our mandate is art books of poetry, combined with CDs of spoken word.
I was raised and schooled in London, left at 21 and returned to my family home in 2001. London has welcomed me back. As Canada Council Writer-in-Residence for the University of Western Ontario for 2009-10, my project was the DVD Luminous Entrance: a Sound Opera for Climate Change Action. As the inaugural Poet Laureate for the City of London (2010-12), I initiated and judged Poetry in Motion, thanks to the London Arts Council. In my role as LAC’s ambassador for the arts, I presented poetry at many civic functions, including London Culture Days (2011, 2012); the Mayor’s Address to the City of London (2011, 2012); the Creative City Summit; Museums Association Conference; London’s Cultural Prosperity Plan Culture Fair; and the Mayor’s Poetry City Challenge. For the last five years, I have hosted an eclectic literary radio show for CHRW called Gathering Voices, archived here, featuring local writers and visiting speakers.
The Libraries system is an essential service to London's cultural life. It has become a lively centre for the very diverse London community: Like many other writers, I have given workshops, talks and readings in a dozen libraries; I’ve hosted poetry events and performed several of my sound operas. The outreach is phenomenal. A couple of articles have appeared in the Library's magazine Access. Over the last decade, I've performed my sound opera at several libraries, as well as at King’s and Brescia University College and, for seven summers, at the glorious Aeolian Hall. Local London papers actually cover events quite well.

Creative writing is thriving over at Western, where several writers teach, with a new literary journal and two creative writing degree options. Writer, editor and professor Kathryn Mockler writes that in 2008, the Minor in Creative Writing was developed, and this past fall, the Program in Writing merged with English to form the Department of English and Writing Studies, which is home to a new and very popular joint degree program in Creative Writing and English. Students can take courses in a diverse range of genres such as screenwriting, humour writing, travel and food writing, non-fiction, short fiction and experimental writing. In 2011, colleagues Aaron Schneider and Kathryn Mockler started an online journal called The Rusty Toque: “Our mandate is to support innovative literary works by local, national and international writers and artists. Some of our London contributors include Penn Kemp and Karen Schindler.” King's University College also celebrates writing at The Write Place and the wonderful Centre for Creativity, which well lives up to its name.

The theatre scene is so lively that I can't begin, except to mention the upcoming Playwrights Cabaret at McManus Theatre on January 25 and 26, 2013. Another annual event is the treasured Brighid Festival, hosted by The Circle at Brescia University College, February 15-17, 2013.
Come to London! You may, like Joan Barfoot, like me, not want to leave…
With thanks to Andreas Gripp, Joan Barfoot, Kathryn Mockler, Rob Raymond, and Karen Schindler. Photo credits belong to: Author photo, Leona Graham; other poets: Gloria Alvernaz Mulcahy at 100,000 Poets for Change, Landon Library London; Book Cover: Lyrical Myrical Press.

PS - Yes as well to London's children's authors, playwrights, creative non-fiction, biography, all our writers! The piece was supposed to be my personal take, so I focused on poetry.

Activist poet and performer Penn Kemp is the 40th Life Member of the League of Canadian Poets. Penn received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal for service to the arts. As London’s inaugural Poet Laureate (2010-12), she presented poetry at many civic functions including the Mayor’s Poetry City Challenge. Writer-in-Residence for Western University (2009-10), she continues to host the Lit-on-Air program, Gathering Voices, at CHRW Radio. Penn has published 25 books of poetry and drama, had 6 plays and 10 CDs of Sound Opera produced as well as award-winning videopoems. Her latest book is From Dream Sequins (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2012). Since Coach House Press published her first book (1972), she’s pushed textual/aural boundaries, often in collaborative performance. Her M.Ed. thesis from O.I.S.E was on creativity, a visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen. Having performed in festivals world-wide, Penn lives in London, Ontario where she edits poetry for Pendas Productions and recently worked on the book Jack Layton in the Arts. Her play The Dream Life of Teresa Harris is part of London's Playwrights Cabaret this January. Penn has been heralded by The Writers’ Union as a one woman literary industry.