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Some Thoughts on Pop-Up Poetry and the Role of Art.

                           Professor Richard Harrison, Mount Royal University
Department of English, Languages and Cultures

Pop-Up Poetry at the Converge 2017 conference in Ottawa was a hit. A big hit. More than once we – Micheline Maylor, derek beaulieau, and me from Mount Royal, and Steve Giasson from Université du Québec à Montréal – were told that the pop-up poem was one of the conference’s  highlights, and this was a conference visited by both the Prime Minister and the Governor General. You could see it was true in the faces of the people reading a page that had been blank six minutes before and now had a poem based on a word they had given us and sometimes the life story they offered along with it. 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 size of the room and all the people in it, and 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. Originally, the Pop-Up Poets were to be available during the lunch hours and the breaks between conference sessions. But those breaks were only about fifteen minutes long, and the areas in front of our tables were full of people by the score all wanting poems. Some came over because their friends had already gotten poems and 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 because of 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 the 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 sound-track to simpler times, and work warmly remembered because it’s long since done.

So we all took requests, writing down words and jotting a few points of story so we’d know where to go with them. This is one of the things 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. And once everyone had given their words and gone back to their conference rooms to talk about reconciliation and empowerment and inclusivity – the 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 at the conference, and the university officials and professors, the representatives from industry and Parliament; they were the staff of Universities Canada, and the workers at the Rideau Centre itself.

I only started to keep a list about an hour in on the second day, so here are the words I kept track of (with a couple I remember): 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, Flaneur, Panda, Sound, Customer Service, Pizza, Love’s Road (which is 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 the name of the conference itself, “Converge 2017.” That’s roughly half of what I did, 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 then retweeted by York’s own president. “Converge 2017” ended up being read out loud from the stage 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.

But the question that the poets started to talk about amongst ourselves about as Pop-Up became more of a part of the conference experience was, What did what was happening say about poetry? About art? Particularly about art made right in the middle of a high-powered and hopeful think tank on the future of the nation itself?  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 I think is worth discussing based on the conversation I had with Micheline, derek, and Steve. Consider the following words, then, as those of a reporter who took part in the story they came back to tell you.

In all of the pop-up poetry sessions we’ve done, there are requests for words like Daughter, or Family, or the names of people close to the person asking for a poem. This makes sense the moment you see it: poetry offers a concentrated expression of long and deeply held feelings, and Pop-Up is a chance to have them said once more: take it. 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. Of course everyone at the centre of these poems is loved and beautiful in the eyes of their beholders, but 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 questions first, find the images, and type later.

Some people give us what we can work with pretty much from the word itself – words for concrete things like Snowboard or Penci, or words rich with cultural (pop and otherwise) connotations – Star Wars (also derek, who wrote a love poem to a Wookie), or Gandalf, or Bilbo (which was someone’s nickname in school). Give us those, and away we go.

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

Such a search for the word-for-a-thing behind the word-for-an-abstract-idea happens every time. But here it happened a lot. People would come out of their conference sessions with their minds full of Accessibility and Reconciliation, Empowerment and Engagement. And those they turned with and gave them to us. And we’d write no poems for them about those words, but poems about the people, or places, or objects, that came to mind when we pressed them. And sometimes that took a while, so many were the layers of abstract ideas piled on one another, so many the relations between concepts being the result of the presentations and discussions. That’s what the conference was for: to gather to think big, talk the picture of the nation in national 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 be lost in talk of resources. How to get them back? Because we need to: abstract ideas write out their meaning in material consequences

I think now that poetry is at least part of the answer – and the explanation for how much poetry was asked for. Poems might inspire abstract thought, and they might have back stories in the poet’s philosophy or political commitment, but they’re not poems because of either thing. They are poems because they do something different. They are poems because they ask of everything we think of to be written about, “What do you really mean?” And the answer to the “really” isn’t about what other ideas stand in relation to the one in question as defining terms, but what in reality, in experience, does this word bring us to look at, to touch, to see, to act upon, to heal or harm. Poetry is also about the consequences of abstraction; abstract terms defined in terms of other words are defined timelessly. They are the mind’s reflection on its own work. The poem is about 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 speakers, it’s so because, perhaps, all poetry is about the relationship between words we use for our own ideas and words we use for the things outside our minds. So our thinking was that the people who brought such words to us were seeking an experience in words to words they had spent so much time thinking about.

One of the big questions about the arts is, What are they for? What use are they? Indeed, people go to conferences to discuss exactly this, and there’s always something of the Defence of Art in all of them. No one asks what something is for when it’s a something they need and they know it. But this past two days, we were in a community where art itself played an active 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 like the one we were just at. This thought is new. Pop-Up poetry, a form of poetry that makes the poem on the page a kind of performance in itself, is new. But when I think of how lightly people stepped as they walked from the table, 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.


Feb. 13, 2017