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BRAIDING THE WAVES : Penn Kemp on Collaboration

The feminine as weaver is a maker of profound destinies which, lived courageously, become the tapestry of man's striving. Particularly so is the Spider Woman of the Navahos. "She is the quiet holding on in a time of fear. She is protective feminine objectivity. Spider Woman is the unobtrusive but powerful archetype of fate--not in the sense of determinism but in the sense of the magical law of one's own 'gravity' which, heeded, leads always beyond itself toward wholeness" (Sheila Moon, A MAGIC DWELLS).

The language of poetry conveys the web of interconnectedness, the immense, intricate dance of relationships happening in the most spacious of moments, now. For humans, sounding is our first and perhaps our last resource for creative expression. Such communication can resolve the tension between inner and outer worlds through musical play. Writing for me is emblematic of sacred, physical realities but it is solitary until shared. Nature has been a source of wonder, metaphor and inspiration but the completion of a poem for me is the connection to people in its performance. Between image and sound as a poem's priority, I cannot choose, so this work becomes concrete or performance poetry. A piece is meant to lift off the page in as many dimensions as it can.

Caught between personal and communal conflict, how are we situated? Poetry in collaboration is my defense against the complexities of living in a setting that overwhelms the natural world with artificial stimuli. Alone, I hang ambiguous between description and analysis, attempting to hold both ends taut in a poem. Wresting something out of nothing, that is something even the gods must rest from. In collaboration with friends, I hope to discover a new sense of where and how the words for a poem emerge out of the larger well of silence, the Plerosis that is so full of possibility. Sound poetry is a variety of wail that allows for any eventuality. Sub-verbal, sounding explores languages in widening waves of individual expression. Whatever the subject, it is great fun to create and perform.

Thanks to a recent Canada Council grant, Pendas Productions has issued a CD/CD-ROM of performance pieces, ON OUR OWN SPOKE, including aural and animated selections and a web site at I have invited some favourite artists to collaborate with me on this project. We're excited about the discoveries this process allows in the interweaving of several voices to make a new whole. A new stance: weaving the strands of stanzas. This exploration continues into the present as a new form which I have called Sound Opera.

For twenty-five years, often with collaborator Anne Anglin, I have enjoyed developing poetry into other media, working off dance, music, theatre, and painting. Our full-bodied uninhibited voices can improve communication by releasing spontaneous, inventive dialogue beyond linguistic rules. As performer, I love speaking "poetic" text, allowing the meaning and emotions to ride on the vowels and diphthongs ... sounds not permitted in naturalistic dialogue of many plays. But if the average theatre audience tends to balk at such playful expansions of language, where does this creative voice belong? We have to weave a sacred new space for all the possibilities.

WHEN THE HEART PARTS is a Sound Opera, now available as a CD from Pendas Productions and performed by Anne Anglin, John Blackwood and myself. It is based on my play, WHAT THE EAR HEARS LAST, which Anne Anglin directed for The Gathering at Theatre Passe Muraille. As a performance piece, WHEN THE HEART PARTS will be performed in November with Anne Anglin at the University of Guelph in a conference on "A Visionary Tradition: Canadian Literature and Culture at the Turn of the Millennium." Janis Rapoport calls our performance "layered & evocative, and rendered with a haunting musicality."

After my father, painter Jim Kemp, died, I wrote about the last week of his life, "When the Heart Parts." Using the particulars of one family's experience, I wanted to create a piece that would treat the dying process as a ritual to acknowledge the importance of this most intimate of all life passages. Sounding can express the environment and the inner space of the dying so that grief is transmuted to acceptance and to a spacious sense of joy. The atmosphere of the Intensive Care Unit is fraught with the voices of the family and of the hospital staff above the continual hum of those infernal electronic beeps which calculate the progress of a beloved one in a code inaccessible to those not trained in modern medicine. One voice also reflects the breath of the dying man, and his gradual surrender. Another voice repeats phrases from "The Tibetan Book of the Dead." When words fail the enormity of emotion, the inner space can be intense, indeed.

All the sound poetry was produced by the meticulous John Magyar at Psychospace Sound in Toronto. Recorded, our prepared tape enlivens vocal delivery for excellent aural quality through engineering techniques like multi-tracking, layering and looping. It also encompasses the influence of current environmental and electronic noise as transformed in our collaboration. The live performances are not replicas of the CD, but include spontaneous expression as the performers interact with the audience and encourage their participation in the exploration of sounding.

BREAKFAST @ EPIPHONEMES begins a second Sound Opera that feasts upon new musical forms. Pendas Productions will be releasing this work in CD format as well. It is a collaboration of Honey Novick's vocalese, Dan Sargeant's nylon-string guitar, and my sound poems. We begin with the text as a basis for natural voice: spoken, sung and plucked. Honey is a vocalist who in always reinventing her work defies definition. Dan is an inventive, ingenious musician very open to collaboration. Our improvisations interweave vibrant intricacies into surprising dimensions. Together, the spontaneity of the work in the moment of rehearsal creates bright possibilities. Free improvisation is then progressively worked into a composition of complex harmonies. This soundscape depends on the colours of the text as it develops into a libretto. The text provides a narrative, incremental flow for all three talents as it breaks open into music, yet grounds us firmly in form. Dan Sargeant, composer, remarks that "the music was designed around the different psychological characteristics of Penn's poetry."

Live, the performance of BREAKFAST @ EPIPHONEMES leads the audience to the experience of spontaneous, inventive dialogue beyond familiar musical and linguistic boundaries. After our performance in Poets For Peace at Oasis, Toronto, Sharon Singer, poet, writes: "Penn Kemp speaks with the voice of the inner child, primitive shrieks of joy and wails of pain and despair. Counterpointing this wild rhythm of human desire is Honey Novick's clear mellifluous song and Dan Sargeant's bountifully creative guitar. This trio will lift you out of your seat and take you on a journey of discovery of your own longings." Dan has mounted a web site,, with three samples of these poems.

A new CD from Pendas Productions, TIME LESS TIME cracks open musical expectation with electroacoustics by Darren Copeland and French translation by Claude Girard. Harmonies emerge through synchronized entrainment, as we each find their note for Sound Opera. The three voices, each in its quixotic way, are complementary, acting out different characters in a revisioning of polyphony. The libretto explores the nature of the unexpected guest at table: "Who the host/ And who the ghost." The voice of the Other is heard in the three samples we have chosen. Vocalization becomes a story layered with texture through our linguistic and musical exploration. A phoneme is the smallest intelligible sound that we can play with. The simple sound, "Hu, hoo, who", resonates through the work, conjuring different meanings from different languages that call out to each other: in the case of 'hu', Egyptian, owl and English. This is an example of our process of improvisation. One motif leads into another as 'who' becomes the French 'qui' and our 'key'. 'Ki' is revealed to mean 'because' in Hebrew, and so the narrative of cause and effect begins. What then is the nature of epiphany by phoneme? A revelation that is not the logic of the word but an interdimensionalty which only the freedom of music allows.

Commtted to finding that musicality within poetry, I've been working on interweavings of poems in dialogue with other women poets, from which a third piece arises. The process feels sacred to us, and is dedicated to the Goddess of Creative Spirit. Braiding the words, upbraiding convention.

Susan McMaster and I have recently recorded a collage of our sound poems, "Tender Lions," with Alrick Huebener on bass, at his studio in Ottawa. We chose two sequences of poems that worked together and interspersed them. Our poems follow one upon the other, to form a new narrative whole. We took each other's text and improvised, wailing, bleating, laughing. Our voices are on two tracks, performing each other's poems, together. Susan describes the process as presenting a performance that brings poetry springing off the page with lively, emotional, delightful, and moving duets of voice and sound. We are both widely known performance poetry innovators, each with two decades of experience, Penn in sound poetry and drama, and Sue in wordmusic and music and poetry. This is the first time we have brought our creative voices and stage skills together, working over recent months to develop pieces that interweave our spoken poetry. The result is exuberant and engaging.

With Patricia Keeney, the poems themselves are interwoven and the lines interspersed to create a third piece. As Patricia writes: "Our collaboration of poetries is an interweaving, a Celtic braiding--exponential, incremental, binding. It circles round, dives down, leaps up, opens out." We're very excited about the richness of discovery this process of working allows. We are stimulated by the imaginative dimensions it reveals.

Vocally, we braid our separate poems to form dramatic new patterns. Our concerns merge as well. Pat's mother recently died and mine is in hospital so we combined separate verses into a poem for them:


The first thing, the only thing
my mother could say after
her stroke was: "Three..........Times."

She sailed so strange on the bed
loomed so large and rigged with tubes from every orifice
a ship without bearings wrecked on the rocks.

This woman, calm and violent
spoke emphatically, oracular as
Sybil, these different syllables.

Her eye was milk of magnesia
blue bottle blue. Her white hair
shrill against pink scalp.

Under my fingers the head was huge
a globe I finally leapt over
left bobbing out at sea.

She knew. What?
That things come in sibilant
threes. Three's a crowd. I'll sing you
three-oh. Threeee, threeee the rivals
Her chorus of pure prayer.

What other words, I wonder could otherwise
bracket her unconditional world?

After the second stroke, she learned
yes, she learned no. Of all the useless
words to speak, yes and no, I
thought: she could have nodded,
she could shake her head, but, no,
she had to speak her gesture no
matter how hard.

I stood over her while she rocked
and rocked, wanting
to stroke her back
to babyhood, sing lullabies
saying how much I owe.
My mind drops down to black rocks
the water rinses and rounds
to their long stillness and dark shine
to dispossession.

As a child I watched her shine
herself for the mirror.
Crimson lips and blacken brows and take
that firm pink flesh parading down the street.
Always the cheerful one

invoking those "Three times."

Telling me once she never had been
happy, she jabbed a finger south
pointing and beaming, fixing her
cataract stare where the child she
so doted on in her dotage lived
with a family that did not visit.

Slavery's numbers hurt.

What would spook her when at last
her third time came around?

The new poem can also be written out for two counterpuntal columns, like dialogue. We are finding that our themes mesh so well it is difficult to tell who wrote what, surely the sign of happy collaboration, as in this new poem:


leave her if she screams
that's what they told me
when you were a tot
squirming hot from the womb
a clenched velvet fist
twitching through the night
in your small creature cot

black leather and lace
now you breathe smoke
wringed and wreathed, fire-tipped
lit and dangerous

sultry sixteen

while I flash at points
no compass can record

the subject of hot flashes never arises
in our conversation--are we ashamed
to admit the extraordinary, the poet

as heating system gone berserk in
the everyday climacteric, proclamation
of sweat the race is conditioned to?

how does it feel

the pregnant purity I strove for

you flourish tiny customized pills
against conception, each blind eye
a perfect plastic bubble
encircling my reaction

a fever of estrogen deprivation confuses
my cooling system. Where else would
thermometer measure a Hermes
of despair, a message of ruin, a riot
of theorems that do not compute?

I eat nut chocolate instead of carrots, I drink
caffeine straight from the bean, I don't care
if my senses rot, cavities root in my mouth
gnaw at my brain

moods overtake me and I become
most plaintive, aspirant at the gate
of reason, querent and repondent
indignant at the indignities my minds
stoop to

I find no consolation in control

but listen while you tell me what they do
thinning walls to brittle shell
so light flows through
all weight and freight become bright air

life's sensible manager

halting the hatchery
(yet if one slips through)
glueing shut the door

is the I we, the multitude
of possible selves that congregate at
the starting gate, too late for legal entry
over-exposed and ruled out as
arbitrary legislators of the world?

momentarily alarmed
from far away, you ring
your changes through my mind

I wail a lament that was meant to
soothe and only blinds, matrix
without a mother to mend
her wary ways

the maze of binary points before the eyes
does not compute/does

we understand these deeply female things

it's rights and rules and borders split us wide
hauling hurts to private sulky beds

waning sun this maudlin day in May
plays the tops of greening trees
like harps and bells

hungry for wholeness
I bury my head in blossom and branch

as paper flames to leave
white ash of remorse

at peace

our woman silence

calm come clear
of cloud

loud as birth

Patricia Keeney and I will be performing rehearsed readings, directed by Don Rubin of the Drama Department at York University, Toronto.

Of our first performance on March 23rd in the Centre of Film and Theatre at York, Angela Rawlings wrote:

It was obvious the PKs chose poetry from their previous works which would complement the other's work. The sentiments of the poems were awash with femininity, creating a comforting motherly feeling for the event. In fact, the whole performance sprang from a Water place, if labeled from a four elements point of view. As they read, the PKs' voices washed across the students like a soothing bath, lulling the group into recognizances of the womb. The PKs are mothers, mothers of poetry and sound, birthing long tender Siamese lines of brilliance.
      Memorable were moments when the women's works echoed each others: there was poetic rhetoric discussing washing laundry and murmurs of beauty and growing age. Kemp's line "Beauty, you're a big girl now" played the audience's expectations neatly.
      The PKs' intention was to create a poetry reading with flow, which would not dull the audience's senses but would instead keep their attention bouncing between the two readers. (

Subsequent performances of interlocking themes (mother/daughter/goddess/lover) are scheduled for several venues in Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton and Toronto, Spring 2000. Venues for the poetic voice are proliferating across the country, as the general psyche assimilates the convergence electronic images, words, and sounds as never before. Aural Weavings. The public ear we believe can more easily hear overlapping cadences and meanings as found in sound poetry. I'm happy to think there are ears and eyes opening more and more to this kind of performance.

Sound poetry is such a hoot!

To develop a new sonic art, one might consider using not only the extra-segmentals of speech, but the segmentals as well. Ms Kemp is experimenting with just such a form. She uses the sounds of speech (segmental and extra-segmental) to create a form with primal power and appeal. Her work points to an exciting new sonic form evolving between words and music. (Sound Symposium, St. John's, Newfoundland)

Penn Kemp's works copyright © to the author.

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