An Interview with Penn Kemp

Sophie and Penn discuss Incrementally. You can access Incrementally for free here!

Sophie Guillas: We’re talking about Incrementally today, your collection of sound poetry. This collection takes a mathematical or geometric approach to poetry. How do you describe it to someone who’s unfamiliar with your work or similar works? 

Penn Kemp: I didn’t do well in mathematics so it’s pattern poetry for sure. Steve McCaffrey in his endnote calls it “mathematical” or “schismatic,” but I would describe it as pattern poetry.

SG: You’re a poet, playwright and performer. And people can find Incrementally online as a text or as a digital collection of your readings. I thought “Night Orchestra” was particularly striking to read and listen to simultaneously. 

PK: It’s so much fun to perform because I work in workshops or with an audience in the summertime; I only perform that piece in the summertime because it is perfectly apt for then, but I have people take up different sections or perform some of the repeated things, so it becomes an orchestra, it becomes truly an orchestra. 

SG: That’s so interesting. How do you find composing or directing for an orchestra through poetry?

PK:  Fun! I’ve traveled a lot and I was the writer in residence at the University of Mumbai. They sent me around to 19 different colleges and they had translated my poems to Hindi and Gujarati and different languages, none of which I know, but because I knew the rhythms of the pieces from Incrementals, I could direct them. So I would set up different sections and have them do a whole choir in Gujarati. That was in Baroda in Gujarat. 

SG: I was really struck by seeing the text version of the poems and listening to them in the recording. How do you navigate writing and performing in different formats, for the page versus for an album, considering what you lose or gain with each medium?

PK: You lose and gain both and you gain and lose! I think the sound usually comes first, sound guides me. I know that it’s a true poem if it’s a sound that leads me and sometimes it is just a susurration, just a murmur. Sometimes it’s words, sometimes if I’m lucky it’s phrases and that takes me through a whole bunch of grammatical devices like onomatopoeia that seem to just flow out of that particular sound. 

Then, I have a belief that the mind is never empty, at least my mind is never empty. So if you put one word down on the page, it follows, as night follows day, that the next will pop into mind. I even wrote a workshop book called What Springs To Mind and it sets out that idea of just following the thread through to its natural conclusion, and then the shaping comes afterwards. 

My father was a painter, an artist, so I have a very strong visual sense of how things should be. I would love to see them in three dimensions, but I’m technically not astute. So I don’t play, I collaborate a great deal with people far smarter technically than I, so that we can create three and four dimensions. For Incrementally, it’s really a flat surface. A flat line approach of two dimensions. 

SG: How would you recommend that people who are coming to Incrementally take in the collection? Would you recommend they read it first and then come to the recording or the other way around or both at the same time?

PK: It depends on your sensibility. Depends whether you’re visually acute or orally. For myself, I would just be immersed in the sound. I really, really love the sense of gestalt, immersive gestalt. To read the poems one by one as you would different kinds of poetry, like lyric poetry, you would just take one poem and savour it. You kind of have to do it with the Incrementally as well with how it’s set up on the page, it’s schematic in that sense. So it has its own sense of puzzle and play. But hearing it out loud is when you start to really hear all the layers that I would love to have surface. 

SG: Listening to it I got so much out of the atmosphere of layers and echo, but reading it on the page there’s also so much interesting geometry along with the way the words change through the line. 

PK: For me, it’s more limited on the page just because I love working with visual artists who can take it again to another dimension. I’m very interested in dimensionality.

SG: I found this collection is very playful in breaking down words into fragmented sounds and rebuilding sentences with often very different meanings. In one poem “I amulet” becomes “I emulate, I am you lettuce, I am you let us be” and so on and so forth. Can you tell me more about how your poems take shape, and how the individual word relates to the complete sentence and the complete idea?

PK: With Incrementally, I start with one syllable and I add another and another and another until I come to a sentence that makes sense. All the way along with each additional phrase, I am trying to trick the reader to add another dimension, another meaning. It is play.

SG: Do you have an idea of what the final sentence will be?

PK: I do, it can go either way. There’s a book I did with Caitlin Press called Animus. “Once having known you, the certainty of seeing you” is a long poem that was a complete sentence but it was a forlorn end of an affair, so it was just neurotic. That whole sentence was given to me as a thing to meditate on as I was grieving this loss. So this phrase worked through Animus in sections over seven or eight iterations.

It actually became a play called Eros Rising as well that Theater Passe Muraille did. It was a theater in the round with my voice in sixteen iterations. One was going “Whoa! Whoa!” One was going “Once-a, once-a,” all coming at the audience at once and building up to this huge crescendo. 

To replicate that feeling in this passage, at the end when the character – and it was really a character I was thinking of – it becomes very ordered in its lines, very pretty or structured. But at one point, I did a mirror version of the text when the character was upset, so it becomes more disorganized. Each of those iterations, introduces a new section of the book. 

So that was an example of starting from the sentence and playing with all the possibilities in a kind of obsessed way. That’s a poem of complete and utter obsession. Other poems start with a phrase that I play with. So I would take a word, like you suggested amulet, and then play with all the different sounds and words that come up with that. So it’s word association.

SG: What would you recommend for people wanting to get into reading or writing more sound poetry?

PK: Eric Schmaltz just edited a fantastic volume from University of Calgary Press, Borderblur Poetics looking back on sound poetry through the 60s, 70s, 80s: all my peers. I highly recommend that if you want to take a more academic approach. If you don’t want to take the academic approach, if you’re, say, a young mother with a toddler, then listen to your baby babbling. That’s where my sound poetry developed. I’m so curious as to how children explore and develop language; they had nine months in the womb of listening through the permeable membrane. McLuhan relates this to the Catholic church because without a microphone you get all this resonance. So a child in the womb, the fetus, is already attuned to the mother tongue and it comes out with that linguistic structure, like English and subject, verb, object. It was fascinating to me how the babies, the toddlers would come into language through babble. When I’m working with kids, which I often do, I talk about that and have them explore, and just babble and explore how sound leads one into speech. 

SG: I love that image of the toddler as the most adept poet!

PK: Indeed! My children ended up speaking English well, but I was far more interested in listening to how they came into language.

Penn Kemp has been celebrated as a trailblazer since her first publication (Coach House, 1972), with 30+ books of poetry and prose; seven plays and multimedia galore. See and For CV2, she co-edited the issue on Spiritual Poetry in Canada. The League of Canadian Poets’ Spoken Word Artist of 2015 and Life Member, Penn was acclaimed “a foremother of Canadian poetry” and London, Ontario’s inaugural Poet Laureate. Recent poetry collections include the co-edited anthology, Poems in Response to Peril for Ukraine and Incrementally, on

Sophie Guillas lives in Winnipeg where she is the Managing Editor for CV2. Her writing has been featured by FreeFall Magazine, Hungry Shadow Press, and Moody Zine. A reading of her play, How They’ll Tell It, is upcoming at the Village Conservatory of Music Theatre’s Inhibition Exhibition.