What better way to mark April as Poetry Month than to talk about Planet Earth Poetry? Known to its devotees as PEP, the series is one of the most influential poetry-reading successes in Canada. Planet Earth sponsors a wide range of established and emerging poets. It has bolstered many a flagging poetic spirit and fostered a number of lyrical spin-off events in Victoria. PEP’s roots lie in the Mocambopo reading series started in 1995; the irrepressible Wendy Morton was its third host/organizer. In 2007, the series moved to its current location at 1633 Hillside Avenue, just across the street from Bolen Books. Except for a summer hiatus, you can find poets and listeners gathered at 7:30 p.m. every Friday, where “words are most important.” Famous for its well-run open mic, Planet Earth functions as “a launching pad for the energies of writers and poets established and not.” In September, Daniel G. Scott will take over as host and artistic director for the series from new Victoria Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer, who has directed the series since 2009. Scott, who will soon be retiring as a professor in the School of Child & Youth Care at the University of Victoria, has long been involved in the arts and has published two books of poetry (Black Onion and Terrains). Blomer has three published poetry books: As if a Raven, The Book of Places and a broken mirror, fallen leaf. She is also co-editor of Poems from Planet Earth. Both recently talked with Lynne Van Luven about their aspirations for Planet Earth and poetry in general.
Yvonne and Daniel, you are both community-engaged poets, if I can put it that way. Yvonne, can you comment on the coffee/poetry scene in Victoria over the past few years?
I think over the past three years or so, more cafes have been opening their doors to readings. Tongues of Fire is celebrating its tenth year in 2015, so spoken word has gained a lot of energy. Think of the literary events happening on Vancouver Island just in the past four months: WordsThaw in March, The Creative Nonfiction Collective’s conference April 24 through 26, the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Nanaimo April 30 to May 3 . . . The youth poetry slam Victorious Voices was just held, not to mention Planet Earth Poetry every week, and we have readings at Munro’s and Russell Books. Cafes are plugging into the enthusiasm of writers to launch their books or do readings. Hillside Coffee and Tea’s owners Nataliya Kapitanova and Michael Kowalewich are superb supporters of PEP.
Daniel, can you talk about your area of academic focus and how you got to publishing poetry from there? (I know your sister is Quebec author Gail Scott.)
Actually, academics are the accident. I got an 8.8 GPA in my master’s work and somebody said I should go on to do a PhD. I thought, “That sounds interesting,” and studied the work of narrative in our lives. I came up with the word “narraturgy,” that never really went anywhere. But before I came back to academic studies in 1991, I spent over a decade in professional theatre, including three years as theatre artist-in-residence and summer youth theatre at the University of New Brunswick. I also worked for over a decade for the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, leading and developing youth programs and training youth workers. I’ve been an actor, done radio and print journalism, and written poetry for years. It’s all congruent for me.
Yvonne, you have been engaged with the writing community since you were a student. You have carried on that work through motherhood, further education (an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia), and now you are engaged in your own teaching career and have a four-year stint as poet laureate. Does all this seem like “part of the same thing” to you?
Yes, I do think it is all within the same field, as say, a family GP might see patients, work with student doctors, have hospital hours, look over records and assign follow-up appointments. The key thing for me is the writing, and then all the other things just go with it. Teaching certainly does–you learn from the engagement from different writers’ works but also from your students. It’s just a part of me to support everything. I always say yes to students, tell them to keep on writing. I sometimes long to be like PD James’s Scotland Yard poet Adam Dalgliesh, who writes poetry between solving crimes, but does not feel the need to promote himself [Here, Scott interjects, to remind Blomer that “Dalgleish is a fictional character.”] I long for quiet time . . . but I also feel it is important to support literary arts in any way that I can. My work is a flow of something larger that moves towards readers and thinkers.
The world is filled with violence and disaster. Many people’s lives are chaotic. How do you answer philistines who say, “How can poetry help us?”
Daniel: One of the pluses of poetry is that it gives you a way to draw near to things indirectly. There is such uncertainly and confusion in the world, we need voices prepared to go into emotional territory, but to make sense of it intellectually. That’s why I am so drawn to Jan Zwicky’s combination of poetry with philosophy.
Yvonne: Engaging those afraid of poetry, and helping them feel something shows how poetry connects us . . . as a new poet laureate, I feel less sure of how poetry can measurably help, but I want poetry to change the path we are on by making us all think, by drawing action from thought.
Talk a bit more, both of you, about your hopes and dreams for poetry in Victoria.
Yvonne: Through Planet Earth and other public events, I hope that poetry will reach more people, change their relationship to it, that they can move from feeling lost and confused or even scared when they hear a poem to being engaged emotionally. I held an event at the Art Gallery of Victoria last week . . . and for the first time some of the regular gallery visitors experienced how poetry gave an alternate way of engaging with art. At Victorious Voices this month, someone commented on how important it is to come out and LISTEN. If no one is listening, then communication fails. I just want to draw more people into the intimate conversations poetry creates.
Daniel and Yvonne: And we would like the Planet Earth website to become more of a hub. We’ve applied for a B.C. Arts Council grant for the first time this year, so we can professionalize and pay some of our workers a small stipend, and pay the poets a standard rate of $125 an appearance. I think we are starting to build a listening audience. It’s exciting that people are starting to realize that hearing poetry read aloud changes what it is. People have forgotten it comes from an oral tradition.