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Some thoughts on Pop-Up Poetry and the role of art at conferences

A funny thing happened when four writers were tasked with creating poems on demand at a higher-ed conference in Ottawa.
MAR 21 2017

Some thoughts on Pop-Up Poetry and the role of art at conferences

A funny thing happened when four writers were tasked with creating poems on demand at a higher-ed conference in Ottawa.


The Pop-Up Poetry booth at the two-day Converge 2017 conference in Ottawa in February was a hit. A big hit. More than once we poets – Micheline Maylor, Derek Beaulieu and me from Mount Royal University, and Steve Giasson from Université du Québec à Montréal – were told that the pop-up poem was a conference highlight, and this at a conference visited by the Prime Minister and Governor General. You could see it was true in the faces of people as they read their personalized poem based on a word – and sometimes the life story – the reader had given us, that we banged out on a typewriter on a page that had been blank only six minutes before. You could see it in the way they held the little paper close with both hands, looked down at it, read it again, sometimes with tears in their eyes despite the crowded conference centre. You could see it in how they held on. It was one of the most rewarding experiences with poetry I’ve ever had. And it went far beyond the bounds of everyone’s expectations.

Photo courtesy of Universities Canada.

Originally, the poets were to be available to conference-goers during lunch and breaks between sessions. But those breaks were only about 15 minutes and it wasn’t long until our tables faced lines of people. Some came over because their friends had already gotten poems and had shared the pleasure of reading them. Some came over because one poem wasn’t enough: there were, after all, four writers. And some came over, drawn in by the typewriter sound, that snappity-snap-snap-snap that once meant the frustration of having to make a perfect page with your imperfect hands and a machine that didn’t always strike the ribbon right, or space the lines evenly, or allow for the computer-style erasure that eliminates not just the error but any sign that an error was ever there. But now that the typewriter is gone as the technology of record, all is forgiven. It is now part of the soundtrack to simpler times, and of work warmly remembered because it’s long since done.

So we all four took requests, jotting down words and a few points of story so we’d know where to go with them. And here’s one thing I learned: pop-up poems aren’t poems about things, nor are they poems about the poet’s mind alone; they are poems about the relationship between the poet at the keyboard and the person with a word to give. Once everyone had given their words and gone back to their conference rooms to talk about reconciliation and empowerment and inclusivity – concepts through which political and social and educational decisions were, they hoped, going to be made – we stayed at our tables and typed. All day. And the people we wrote for weren’t only the graduate students, the university officials and professors, the representatives from industry and Parliament at the conference; they were the staff of Universities Canada who organized the event and the workers at the conference centre.

I only started to keep track of requests on the second day. So here’s an incomplete list: Resiliency (which became “Campfire”), Serendipitous, Security, Bon Appetit, Beard, Hallway, Scholarship Team, Gandalf, Ballet (which became “Giselle”), Grit, Dalek, Blue, “When It Hurts – For the People in Power”, Impasse (which became “Settlement Is Possible”), Crusty, Movies with Mom, Kiddo, Bilbo, Vimy, Obscurity, Congratulations, Flâneur, Panda, Sound, Customer Service, Pizza, Love’s Road (a real place), Safe Journey, Miller, Humanities, Scuba, Skype, Snowboard, Diaspora, Undecided (which became “Doors”), Well-Endowed, Rock, Family (more than once), Micro-Credentialling, and Converge 2017. I expect I wrote between 60 and 70 poems in all. To my right and left, Micheline, Derek and Steve were all doing the same.

Most of those poems are gone – their only copies taken away by their owners. Some said they were going to frame them. Others took pictures and sent them into the perpetual publication of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Derek’s poem, “York University” was tweeted by the graduate students who’d requested it and retweeted by York’s president. “Converge 2017” was read as part of the introduction to the Governor General’s closing remarks. The poems may be gone, but they made their mark as they went.

The questions that lingered among the poets as Pop-Up Poetry became a larger part of the conference experience: What did this say about poetry? About art? Particularly about art made in the middle of a high-powered and hopeful think tank on the future of the nation?  And just as the pop-up poem is the relationship between poet and reader given shape through a single word, so what follows is what came out of discussions I had with Micheline, Derek and Steve.

Steve Giasson. Photo courtesy of Universities Canada.

Before Ottawa, we hosted two other Pop-up Poetry events in Calgary last year. In each session there are requests like Daughter, or Family or people’s names. This makes sense: poetry offers a concentrated expression of long and deeply held feelings, and Pop-Up is a chance to have them said once more. As the poets on the other side of such words, we look for something material – a story, an image – around which to build the poem. You need something to look at, something only the beholders have seen, to make the poem both a real poem and a connection. So we, the poets, ask the questions to find the images first, and type later.

Some people give us something we can work with pretty much from the word itself – words for concrete things like “Snowboard” or “Pencil,” or words rich with cultural  connotations – “Star Wars” (Derek wrote a love poem to a Wookiee), or “Gandalf,” or “Bilbo” (which was someone’s nickname in school). Give us words like this and away we go.

The category that’s more difficult to work with is the abstract noun: Happiness, Love, Peace, Intensity, and so on. We always get a few of those and they’re difficult to work with because the question that guides a poem is not, “What does it mean?” but “What do you see?” and “Who are you thinking of when you say this?” There’s always someone or something behind such nouns, but finding who or what takes time and digging. Pop-Up’s work needs to be done fast and sometimes we don’t have time to be archaeologists of abstraction. One of us gave up on it by the second day at Converge and to “Equality” or “Compassion,” said, “That’s an abstraction. Give me a thing.” Sometimes the answer would be another abstraction: “Fairness.” And around it would go.

The search for the word-for-a-thing behind the word-for-an-abstract-idea happens every time. But in Ottawa, it happened a lot. People would come out of their sessions with their minds full of Accessibility and Reconciliation, Empowerment and Engagement, and gave them to us. We’d write no poems about those words but poems about the people, or places, or objects that came to mind when we pressed. Sometimes that took a while, so many were the layers of abstract ideas piled one on another, so many the relations between concepts after hours of conference presentations and discussions. And that’s what the conference was for: to gather, to think big, to talk through the picture of the nation in bold strokes. But just as the trees can be lost in the view of the forest, so the forest can be lost in the landscape, and the landscape can be lost in talk of resources. We must get back to the trees because abstract ideas write out their meanings in material consequences. But how to get back there?

Richard types up a poem. Photo by Steve Giasson.

I think now that poetry is part of the answer. A lack of trees – of concrete things, of people –explains how much poetry was asked for at the conference. Poems might inspire abstract thought, and they might have backstories in the poet’s philosophy or politics, but what makes them poems is that they ask of every subject, “What are you really talking about?” And the answer isn’t more ideas but what, in reality and experience, does this word make us look at, touch, see, act upon, heal or harm?

Poetry is also about the consequences of abstraction: abstract terms are defined timelessly. They are the mind’s reflection on its own work. The poem is what you mean set down in terms of time and space: the body. If the pop-up poem is a poem about the relationship between the poet and the speaker, it is so perhaps because all poetry is about the relationship between the words we use for our own ideas and the words we use for the things outside our minds. So we hypothesized that the people who brought abstract words to us were looking for the experience of seeing what they had had spent so much time thinking about reflected to them in concrete, sensuous and emotional ways.

One of the big questions asked of the arts is, “What are they for?” Indeed, people go to conferences to discuss exactly this, and there’s always something of the Defence of Art in all of the answers. No one asks what use something is when it’s a something they know they need. But over two days in Ottawa, we were in a community where art played an active and useful role – not talk about the arts, but art itself. I have no evidence for this in the way I’d need evidence to make a presentation at a conference. This thought is new to me. Pop-Up Poetry, a form that makes the poem on the page a kind of performance, is new to me. But when I think of how lightly people stepped as they walked from our tables, poem in hand that they had a hand in making, when I think of how often the themes discussed in intellectual rooms came out to where the food was, and people wanted to follow us from “Empowerment” to “My Daughter,” or “Dignity” to “My Same-Sex Husband,” or “Gratitude” to “My Mom: a refugee parent who worked the till at the corner store to get me to university,” I think we’re on to something. Something big.

Richard Harrison teaches composition, creative writing and poetry, comics and graphic novels at Mount Royal University. He is a multiple-award-winning poet, essayist and editor. His six books of poetry include Hero of the Play, launched at the Hockey Hall of Fame, and On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in Flood, released in 2016.

Richard Harrison
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  1. Jan Buley / April 1, 2017 at 13:39

    How wonderful to read about mucking about with words–at a conference. Using words to show the paintings in our mind with a real live person tap tap tapping on a typewriter–that’s about taking off masks and building relationships! Hurray!
    Jan Buley, Memorial University Faculty of Ed