Artist, class making town-and-gown connections

By Adela Talbot, BA'08, MA'11

Penn Tn

For the past three years, Penn Kemp has enjoyed working with Western students in what she sees as a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship cultivated by a course offered in English and Writing Studies.

“It’s the interconnectivity between town and gown – I just love it. When I was Writer-in-Residence, I felt the divide. When I was a student, there was a vast divide. There’s an enclave here and an enclave there,” said Kemp, BA’66, CertEd’68, the first Poet Laureate of London and former Writer-in-Residence at Western.

But the class she has been involved in – English professor Manina Jones’ Community Engaged Learning (CEL) course, Canadian Literature, Creativity and the Local – has bridged this gap in ways she couldn’t have imagined.

“This course gets the students into the hall of horns in (London pioneer) Teresa Harris’ house; they go to the archives and see her handwritten letters and even a lock of her hair. They go to Museum London and see Greg Curnoe or my father’s (Jim Kemp) paintings. They come to my wild house and they work with me.”

Next week, Kemp will perform some of her poetry with Marta Croll-Baehre, a student she met in 2015, the first year the CEL course was offered. Each will read original poetry and the two will perform a poem they wrote in tandem, alternating authorship every two lines. The performance will be part of a local launch of a new anthology edited by Kemp, Performing Women: Playwrights and Performance Poets, and will be video recorded by students from this year’s CEL class.

Kemp has been more than happy to partner with CEL students over the last three years, and her relationship with them has woven strands through all of her work during this time.

Last year, students from the class worked with Kemp to promote The Triumph of Teresa Harris, her latest play, by maintaining a blog, designing a CD and even editing copy. They have helped her curate her written works and her performances online, including on SoundCloud and YouTube. At this month’s Words: London’s Literary and Creative Arts Festival, students manned a table, selling and promoting Kemp’s works.

The video the students will be recording at the book launch next week will be repurposed for another event in April, Kemp added.

In the spring, Insomniac Press will publish Local Heroes, a book that fits well into Museum London’s mandate of connecting with community. In the book, Kemp celebrates local artists like Greg Curnoe and her father; writers such as James and Colleen Reaney, Bonnie Burnard and Alice Munro; local publishers like Brick Books; and, of course, Teresa Harris. The 30-page section devoted to Harris consists of outtakes from Kemp’s most recent play.

“I love the collaborative energy; I love collaborating with the students. The enthusiasm of the young students – it fuels the project. It’s extraordinarily exciting and energizing and it’s fun to watch them connect with the local community and art in the local community,” she said.

“They help focus me. All of my work has been scattered and they are helping me promote and organize my work. I have a lot of praise for CEL just because of the different connections the class has. It’s so exciting for the students to embody the local art,” she continued.

“I guess that kind of threading or yarning or spinning or knotting or weaving (between town and gown) is really nice. The students get to experience a culture of another city and it gives them an idea of what London is, because otherwise it’s just bars or whatever.”

Performing Women: Playwrights and Performance Poets is an anthology of six essays by prominent Canadian women playwrights and performance poets. The contributors explore dramatic personal experiences of their work in performance. The book’s essays expand the possibilities of performing to include ritual and visual references as well as the resonance of sound. The book will be launched at 8 p.m. Nov. 23 at 42 Adelaide St. N. (Upper Studio). The event will feature performances by Kemp and Croll-Baehre, as well as a reading from Kemp’s upcoming book, Local Heroes.