Pop-Up Poetry rises downtown

Micheline Maylor - Pop-Up Poetry
Micheline Maylor reads from her poem I am downtown during the Mount Royal Pop-Up Poetry event Aug. 9. ~ Photo by Christine Riches

It was fast, visual and fascinating - a must-see artistic display of the creative mind.

Drawn by the recognizable sound of typewriters and the unexpected spectacle of poets writing out loud, on Aug. 9 more than 100 people were treated to a personal poem on a topic of their choosing in downtown Calgary. The event, dubbed "Pop-Up Poetry," rose up with a specific mandate of bringing poetry back to the people.

Because that's what poets actually do. Write for people.

A far cry from the stereotype of the tortured bard, your average Calgary poet - and this city has a number of them - is actually approachable, likable and even funny. The City of Calgary's Poet Laureate and Mount Royal instructor, Micheline Maylor, along with a trio of her talented colleagues, churned out dozens of poems each using words tossed at them from interested passersby. Fellow Mount Royal instructors and well-known local poets Richard Harrison and derek beaulieu (Calgary's 2014-2016 Poet Laureate), as well as storyteller Cassy Welburn, joined in the lunch-hour fun.

There were poems about coffee, fajitas and shoe leather. Loved ones were a popular muse. Dogs, too. And love, summer and the ocean also made up a few of the topics.

derek beaulieu - Pop-Up Poetry event
derek beaulieu reads one of his creations to its lucky recipient. ~ Photo by Christina Riches

"Each of these spontaneous poems offered a tiny window into the minds of Calgarians," said Maylor.

"Some of the requests were deeply personal. Others were kooky.

"In every case, it was a tremendous honour to tell stories through this medium and to share this art form with the downtown community."

The event was intended to humanize the written word by putting writers directly in front of the folks reading their words. Participants watching the creative process in action said it made writing seem more simple, spontaneous and fun, and not the exclusive, stuffy and complicated ritual it can often appear to be.

"In a lot of ways poetry in particular is seen as some kind of obscure art that's not part of our day-to-day," said beaulieu, who provided the typewriters for the event.

"The idea of reaching out to the public to make poetry more integrated makes it something normal, something real and something that's part of our community."

beaulieu teaches creative writing using typewriters as a way to get student to start thinking about just putting words on a page first, and then seeing what happens.

"What's nice about it [the Pop-Up] is that even if people don't connect directly with the idea of poetry, these old typewriters are actually really seductive. They're beautiful, they make a great resonant sound that everybody recognizes, and they draw a crowd. They start making writing something that they've done, something that they recognize and remember."

Alec Whitford Pop-Up Poetry
Alec Whitford shows off his poem, Shoes, which was written by Micheline Maylor. ~ Photo by Michelle Bodnar

Helen Moore-Parkhouse, director of Communications and Engagement at Calgary Arts Development - steward of the Poet Laureate program - said, "We love these events that bring arts to the street. The one-on-one connection is really great. It shows that poetry is not this quiet, exclusive thing that you do off in a garret."

Moore-Parkhouse had a poem penned using the word "remington," which is actually the name of her dog, and said that the results were remarkable in that they ended up describing her furry friend really well -without the poet knowing anything about him.

When asked about the City's newest Poet Laureate and the Pop-Up Poetry event, Mayor Naheed Nenshi expressed fond feelings for all things poesy.

"Poetry plays an important role in our society by revealing to us our community humanity," Nenshi said.

"Micheline Maylor is an exceptional poet and educator in Calgary, and I am thrilled that she is our Poet Laureate."

It wasn't only the mayor and recipients of the poems who enjoyed the literary experiment. The poets also had a blast taking their talents to the street.

Often poets and writers can fall into the trap of taking themselves too seriously, said Welburn, and the speed at which they were asked to tap out their works took that trepidation away.

"It opened up that unconscious connection, and you can sort of instantly channel something meaningful without thinking too much about it," she said.

"This is a great way to touch on the commonality that we all have."

And, as coincidence would have it, the person responsible for the implementation of the Poet Laureate program, DJ Kelly, happened by the pop-up booth during his lunch break. Five years ago, Kelly heard about the initiative being brought forward by a city councillor, an idea that was panned in the media as a waste of money. So he thought the solution might be to take cash out of the equation entirely.

He wrote a proposal outlining a two-year cycle for the position and fundraised $45,000 for the program. He found further support with Calgary Arts Development and the interest of two city councilors who put forth a notice of motion, and to date the Poet Laureate enterprise has used absolutely zero public resources.

Kelly, who got a poem from Maylor titled Digital, said the Pop-Up Poetry event was a great example of what the Poet Laureate can accomplish in their role.

"What a fantastic way to introduce the arts into the city of Calgary environment," he said. "It's a little poetry factory here!"

Some Mount Royal alumni were in the crowd as well, including Alec Whitford, a teacher and writer working on his first book of poems. Whitford chose the word "shoes" for his poem, and said that the event was great for reaching a section of society that is sometimes hard for poetry to penetrate.

"This is amazing," he said.

"I go to lots of poetry readings and you tend to see the same people there, and most of them are poets. I see a lot of people here who I've never seen before and who are just loving it. This is a great thing for poetry in the city."

Using regular words on paper, the four scribes created dozens of intimate and personal moments that are now forever recorded. Poetry includes everyone, as without people, there would be no poetry, and nothing to describe.

Aug. 10, 2016 - Michelle Bodnar and Bryan Weismiller