Art, Action – Transformation

November 23, 2018 Poetry , POETRY / FICTION




Penn Kemp and Susan McCaslin




Corresponding by email, we asked one another what our respective poetic practices for activism entailed. We began with a dialogue discussing lines from Auden and continued with our own reflections on activism through poetry.



A Dialogue: Reflections on W.H. Auden’s “Poetry Makes Nothing Happen”



For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives      

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth


W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”



Penn: At a recent writer’s festival, I was asked to consider the following: “Does poetry make anything happen?” As an activist, it’s a dilemma. We are urged to speak out, to protest, to march for causes we believe in. This kind of action is what the world (those “raw towns”) recognizes as effective. How can poetry—words on a page that few might read—make a difference?


On the morning of the conference, I woke up thinking of Auden’s lines in his tribute to Yeats, quoted above. Yes, poetry makes nothing happen if it comes from the head, from concept or theory. We make up similes, clever conceits that distance us from the real. Life is like a river. Or we branch out; we set down roots. These tropes become such clichés that we forget their origin in a real perception of belonging. But if we set aside the idea of simile, of metaphor, we remember that we are river; we are tree. Wherever we are, we are place, house, home, land, community.


In that realization, the words of a poem come through the poet as oracular, vatic. Then the poet is a vehicle for true transformation and healing, making whole, holy. The poem speaks for the whole. The poem is a relationship with place, with the land. It is verb, a process of becoming one. We speak for the trees, the river, all those who cannot give voice in language. But they are giving voice all the time if we listen. Then comes respect, honouring, love. There can be no Other. There is no other.


Susan: I love your eloquent response to the question about that passage from Auden, but think his words have often been taken out of context. Yes, poetry is ineffectual if it comes from the head alone, from concepts and beliefs rather than emerging from our relationship with place. How aptly you put it: “The poem is a relationship with place, with the land. It is verb, a process of becoming one.”


Yet much depends on how one reads Auden’s use of the word “nothing,” which has for me a deeper connotation. If the passage is partly ironic, it could be read as: “poetry appears to make nothing happen.” Though I may be doing what Auden elsewhere in this poem calls “modify[ing] the words of a dead man…in the guts of the living,” I’ll take the liberty of reinterpreting his remark this way:


Poetry seems to make “nothing happen” because it doesn’t execute events or “make things happen” like a Prime Mover shaping the world from outside, but emerges from a vast “nothingness” or place of primal emergence that holds and is everything. Unbeknownst to us when dwelling in our closed egoic loops, poetry “survives/ In the valley of its making.” This is because it flows from a hidden wholeness or unity where poetic consciousness instinctually communes and in which poets sometimes have the privilege of bathing because of their receptivity. “Executives” of the narrowed self (and we all fall into that category much of the time) don’t want to “tamper” or even get involved in this great flow because unconsciously they realize it’s a place where the small self might need to surrender to something astonishingly vast.


Penn: What you refer to as “nothingness” is, I believe, what Buddhists would call “emptiness,” sunyata. Terminology can so easily trap us, but sunyata is that vastness you describe. Buddhism differentiates sharply between “nothingness” and “emptiness.” Here’s an apt description of the difference, reflecting your comment:


…emptiness is directly linked to Buddhist teachings on the lack of self… emptiness is differentiated from nothingness through being linked to the teaching of dependent arising… Insofar as things are empty of some substantial or essential nature, they arise interdependently, contingent upon other equally contingent phenomena. Other highly influential Mahayana teachings…take emptiness as the lack of any substantial difference between consciousnesses and their objects of apprehension. One particularly important set of Mahayana texts takes the ultimate as a primordially pure buddha-nature (tathagata-garbha) rather than sheer emptiness. Emptiness is significant in a very wide range of Buddhist literatures throughout the world.


Susan: You have reminded me, Penn, that the word sunyata, best translated as “emptiness,” has profound resonance in eastern and primarily Buddhist teachings, but the Spanish word “nada” or nothingness is sometimes paired with “emptiness,” in the apophatic mystical traditions of the west. For instance, John of the Cross speaks of a paradoxical dialectic between todo y nada, the all and the nothing. Dionysius the Areopagite in On The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology suggests that ultimate reality can be hinted at in words and images but not contained. Perhaps the two ways, eastern and western, of talking about a non-dual ground of being in and beyond being—nothingness, emptiness, everything, nothing—rests in a universal poetic paradox. Matter and spirit, the manifest and the unmanifest or ground of all manifestations are one process. Kundalini energies visible and invisible stream through everything. Poetry dances in the in-between, moving us beyond semantics, binaries, beliefs, doctrines, and concepts.


I have for decades read and written on the constantly evolving western contemplative Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, who at the end of his life dialogued with D.T. Suzuki, wrote Zen and the Birds of Appetite, and made a final journey to the east. There, shortly before his sudden death in 1968, he engaged in three important sessions with the current Dalai Lama. In his posthumously published The Asian Journals (New Directions, 1968), Merton records his astonishing transformative experience of standing before the giant statues of the Buddha at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. Here he adopts the Buddhist language of “emptiness” to express his awe: “The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya [the basis of reality from which all phenomena emanate] … everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.”


So, though Auden’s poem is an elegy for W.B. Yeats, written in 1940 in the context of Ireland’s political and social struggles and the rise of fascism in Europe, perhaps he is hinting that poetry can enter the timeless where poetic consciousness “survives” as an active field, a “way of happening.” At one level, he’s clearly saying poetry doesn’t often stand much chance of changing things politically. I have to wonder if the apparent “nothing” that poetry has the capacity to change is analogous to “dark matter” which seems to be nothing but has the capacity to be everything? Ultimate mystery can be shrugged off as “nothing” because it is hard to speak about, control, or pin down. Yet, whatever Auden may have meant, it seems to me that poetry holds the power to dance with language, sound, image to suggest what is both beyond and within words, linking us to what is. And from such a contemplatively charged base, inspired art can transform consciousness.


Penn: Love that dance on the threshold. Here and there, in “the cloud of unknowing,” Keats’ “negative capability,” which we can only suggest, as you say. Our conscious mind knows so little. When writing (or receiving!) a poem, we inhabit a liminal space, living the ambiguity in occupying both sides of the boundary between worlds.


Yes, the vast space before a poem emerges is all potential, where ego has no place. And that word, “potential,” derives from the Latin word potentia, meaning power. We know the same root in our word “potent.” Interesting, eh? For me, sound carries the possibility of a poem into language, into first words: the poem. My work as a poet is to step beyond ego into the hugeness of the whole and to be a vehicle for whatever wants to come through my voice. At the same conference, I heard Lee Maracle describe “words dancing on the skin,” as expressed in her language. And the words are uttered through the mouth, where our specific language shapes the sounds that emerge in the poem. Poets convey the river of words.


Susan: As your poem-animation series on River Revery (a collaboration with Mary McDonald) explores, poetry keeps flowing like a river “southward,” stepping beyond what Auden calls our insular “ranches of isolation” and “busy griefs.” It occurs to me that your flowing river continues to speak its reveries, to be the “mouth” of meaning and inspiration in all things. It is unstoppable. Poetry makes a rich “nothingness” happen, makes what seems like nothing active in time and place. It is the union of emptiness and fullness.


Penn: The mouth of a river is also a liminal place, where freshwater and salt conjoin. At this junction of shoreline, between high and low tide, lies the littoral, literally! The richness of life at such margins is unparalleled… and metaphors abound. I dreamed last night of standing at the wide mouth of the St. Lawrence, as water rushed around me, flowing both ways. When we are in the flow of poetry, the current of words takes us… I first wrote, “When we are the flow.” Yes!


Susan: Yes! So perhaps it’s appropriate to end our dialogue with Auden’s final stanzas from his famous elegy on how the flow of poetry leads to fountains of praise:


Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice….


In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.   



Penn: The free man, the free woman. May we learn to praise all that is. Honouring the other is the beginning of wisdom… and right action.



Susan and Penn then decided that they should each write a piece on her own poetic practice as activists; see below.





Art, Action – Transformation: The Han Shan Poetry Initiative


By Susan McCaslin



I’d like to share the story of how I came to experience a powerful union of art and activism in my own local community outside Fort Langley, BC through a union of art and grassroots ecological concern.


On Thanksgiving 2012 my husband and I visited a 25-acre mature rainforest just a few kilometres from our home outside of Fort Langley, BC. We had heard the Township of Langley was planning to sell it off to raise capital funds to build a recreation centre in a neighbouring community. As we strolled under the canopy of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and hemlock, the light filtered down on us through the branches. We stepped over maidenhair, sword, and liquorice ferns, then paused at the base of a giant black cottonwood, a tree said to be hundreds of years old. I knew that this was it. I’d fallen in love with a forest and become an activist. I would drop everything and do whatever it might take to help save this particular forest.


We soon discovered that this land had been public land for many decades. The westernmost parcel had been taken off the market because of a public outcry led by a local group of residents calling themselves WOLF (Watchers of Langley Forests). However, the easternmost forest where we were walking was slated to be sold immediately. These same conservationists appealed once again to the Township, and the mayor and councillors gave WOLF a two-month window in which to raise three million dollars to purchase the second parcel of land. Time would run out on December 17.


It takes a village to save a rainforest. But what might an artist do? I decided my contribution would be to organize “An Afternoon of Art and Activism” in the forest.


This event drew together local visual artists, poets, musicians, ecologists, photographers, a dancer, university students, high school students, and the general public of all ages. We set up tents under the widely-spaced trees and provided refreshments and information about the history and ecological value of the land. Poets read their tree poems, student played violins and guitars and sang, the dancer danced, and people paused to absorb the beauty of the forest. A local environmentalist from the Western Canada Wilderness Committee gave an inspiring speech and later made a short documentary of the day. Local newspaper reporters arrived and the event was covered in the local press.


Next, I recalled how as an undergraduate I had taken a course in ancient Chinese literature and studied the zesty poems of an old hermit monk named Han Shan, who is said to have lived on Cold Mountain during the Tang Dynasty around the 9th century. Legend has it that he scribbled poems on rocks and suspended them from trees. It seemed appropriate to me that a Chinese poet might inspire a new poetry initiative on the west coast of BC because Gary Snyder, an American poet popular in the late 1960s, saw Han Shan as a Pacific Rim figure. Poetry is timeless, and Han Shan was to become my forest mentor and muse.


I put out a call for tree poems on the websites of the various writers’ organizations to which I belong. Soon my calls were appearing on people’s blogs and websites all over the world. Over 150 poems poured in within a week and a half, and within two weeks the number surpassed 200. My husband and I, with the help of WOLF, sealed the poems in plastic paper protectors which we later cleaned and kept for future use, threaded them with colourful ribbon, and spent an afternoon festooning them on trees without harming a single branch. Poems continued pouring in from across British Columbia and other provinces in Canada, as well as from New Mexico, California, Florida, the UK, Australia, and Turkey.


The forest wanted to be democratic, embracing all types of artistry, accomplishments, and styles. Fluttering against the emerald drapery, poems pirouetted like white angels. Rain and frost seemed to us the forest’s way of reclaiming our human offerings. Or were the poems protecting the trees? We advertised the event in the local papers as the forest’s anthology, the forest’s art installation, where poets set their small gestures of creative expression beside the older and more primal creativity of nature. It seemed to me paradoxical that an apparently “soft” form like poetry could hold such fiercely tender power.


People came from all over to walk through the woods, pausing to read poems against a background of the sounds of the Northwestern Crow, Varied Thrush, and Downy Woodpecker. Soon articles on this project appeared in newspapers, magazines, and media outlets across Canada.


As a result of new scientific reports and unrelenting media attention, the mayor and council met in camera after the public meeting and announced a few days later that the forest had been given another reprieve until January 21. In late December, The Langley Advance declared what was then called the McLellan Forest issue the “story of the year.” The Han Shan Poetry Initiative continued to garner press and visitors though the holiday season, but on January 22, 2013 we decided it was time for the poems to come down. So the forest again spoke for itself without human signage.


On January 28, after another closed meeting, the mayor and council sent out a press release stating they had determined to take the parcels in the western part of the forest off the market while authorizing the sale of three lots to the east. We were relieved that this union of art and activism had resulted in rescuing 60% of the forest. But our elation was mixed with disappointment, since the portion of land the politicians wished to sell contained some of the most sensitive habitat for species-at-risk. What they presented as a rational compromise seemed to us a dividing of the baby.


The story was not over. As a result of all the media attention, a local farmer’s widow, Mrs. Ann Blaauw, stepped forward to purchase the land in its entirety as a legacy in honour of her late husband Thomas Blaauw. She and Tom had been farmers who loved the forest, and in their younger years used to picnic there. With the support of her family, Mrs. Blaauw purchased the entirety of the forest for over $2.5 million, then donated it to a nearby university to be maintained as a research forest and ecological preserve.


For me, the saving of this microcosm of a forest demonstrates the arts have an untapped potential for bringing about positive change. Perhaps this is because art can lead us to pause before beauty and alters how we perceive. It has the capacity to lift us past our short-term, self-serving ends. It appeals to a common recognition of beauty in biodiversity, transcending ideologies and polemic. Both authentic art and nature draw us into a realm of exchange not based merely on capital or profit, but on gift-gifting and receiving in another kind of economy, that of membership in a common household, that of the earth itself.


When I leapt into the fray of months of lobbying, writing, speaking at Township meetings, and arranging media contacts, there were times when I had to face what seemed the certainty that we would lose this forest. Without attachment to outcomes, an activist acts in the paradox of unknowing. Poetry, this collective “mouth,” this “way of happening,” this “larger conversation,” has the hidden capacity to change consciousness, and a change in consciousness can change the world, just as old Han Shan himself could have told us.


Though I was called dramatically from my quiet life as a writer to become an activist for a time, and may be called again, my primary vocation since early childhood has been to be a writer–a poet. Poems for me are forms of both contemplation and action. I don’t know where they come from and where they go, but I am simultaneously exhilarated and at peace when engaged in their making. In the act of receiving a poem, I am both contemplative and active. Yet returning to the silences, the quiet ground in nature is essential for me, since otherwise I burn out and the wellsprings of my participation in the larger whole can shut down. What I would call my faith is experiential. Somehow, miraculously, the poems keep coming. The process is never at my command, but it is my responsibility and my joy to remain open to it.


I’d like to end with a tree poem that wrote me during the period when I was most busy working on the Han Shan Initiative. I felt as if the trees were giving me poems just as they had called out to me to put my energies into organizing a campaign.


O Lovers’ Tree


I fell in love with a forest

and became an activist

but first there was you

one, no, two, two cedars twinned


around the heartwood of a tree husk

a realm—two torsos attuned


stretched limb to limb

two root systems’ wet entangling


two of you ascending

splitting, reuniting


like Plato’s round being

against the gods of progress


against those who would chainsaw

your wide-open hearts


And, yes, you pant toward union

under the sky canopy


bride-ing the soar of day

palm to palm like holy palmers’ kiss*


blessed jointure each to each

pressed each into the other’s ahhhh


So, silenced at your mossed knees

I surrender all


to the forest which makes

and remakes your lust and breath


your aching stately pavane



(*holy palmers’ kiss:  Juliet to Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, / And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” Palmers are pilgrims who go to a sacred site).


[Sections of this essay appeared in Susan McCaslin and J.S. Porter’s Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton’s Dance with the Feminine (Wood Lake, 2018)].





Art, Action – Transformation: An Initiative through Poetry


By Penn Kemp



“Art, Action – Transformation”, one poem at a time. One heart at a time. Having a poem included in the Han Shan initiative and then visiting the forest itself with Susan: what a joy! The entire project is an inspiration.


Given climate change catastrophe, such a creative initiative is one way poems can help motivate us to act. By the power of shared emotion, a poem can shift a mind wavering and worrying about a single person’s effectiveness in the world. A potent poem such as Auden’s elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, can effect personal transformation to heart-centred action. Intellectual pursuit has run its course in its devastation of the planet. A poem involves the whole being, and it is from the whole being that we must now act. We can’t be attached to outcome, however, even while engaging full on from our whole being. As I age, my activism is marked less by participating in protest marches and more by my poems themselves. Having been profoundly moved by tributes like Auden’s, I’m hoping that the poems will stand on their own when I’m not around.


My latest book, Fox Haunts, focuses on the importance of rewilding with a preface “On Adaptation and Allusion”. Whose haunts are these, anyway? The book is an investigation of the nature of adaptation. Fox has insinuated himself into our cultures over millennia, from ancient story to backyard den. How do we share our common habitat? How does Fox adapt to us and our environs? How do we adapt to the unknown, the unseen? Fox is both metaphor lurking behind conscious mind and a living creature reclaiming, rewilding our suburbs. Fox comes in from the cold through your cat door to raid your pantry. Fox is blood on the move and out for more. Fox is a peripheral flash of chimerical colour concretized out of the blue so fast that it blurs one fantastical figure to assume another miasmic figure of fox fire. May Fox Haunts encourage you to rewild your heart and your yard.


I’ve dedicated my forthcoming book, River Revery (Insomniac Press, 2019) to my grandchildren, in the hope that they and their generation maintain love of our dear earth, recognizing the need to find and enact solutions to imminent upheaval. My own contribution is personal, from a garden’s perspective. I’m interested in exploring the natural world as it impinges on urban realities. These poems illustrate the challenge of living in a setting which can overwhelm nature with mechanical stimuli. Outside my window in London, Ontario, jackhammers awaken the day, digging up a city road to reveal an underground stream. Medway Creek at the end of my street flows into the Thames, which swallows it whole and continues through the city and on, to debouche into Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean.


The poems in River Revery reflect the changes in this river, how industry and agriculture have sullied it, how it is being cleaned up. As a poet deeply involved with this particular place and cultural community, my ongoing concerns are best expressed in Ecopoetics, with its emphasis on ecology. Poetry is my defense against intrusive forces when political exigencies collide with the natural environment that so desperately needs protecting. A distillation of such experience, I hope, will lead to active solutions. Contemplation is not enough, nor is poetry. But it is a start, an influence (from Latin: flowing that affects human destiny). Such inspiration is one source for right action.


Water is a metaphor for change through its many states from liquid to steam, mist to ice, all streaming. Rivers are often used to represent boundaries; to “cross the river” is to undergo a transformation. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus remarked, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” The Thames waters my garden, real and imaginary, “with real toads in them”.


River Revery is enhanced by my collaboration with media artist extraordinaire Mary McDonald. Animations to several of the poems are up on Such collaboration expands the scope of text into a multimedia sensory experience that further engages our audience and encourages activism. You can add your own contribution on #RiverRevery2018. In celebrating natural beauty, we appreciate its significance; we learn to value and protect it before it is lost or destroyed.


In another recent book of poems, Local Heroes, I celebrate legendary cultural heroes from my local watershed in Southwestern Ontario. These poems evoke a specific city in its particular landscape and history. Local Heroes acknowledges the Indigenous peoples here in Souwesto, and the ongoing waves of settlers who have called the area home, as London grew from colonial outpost to vibrant cultural centre. Local Heroes spans time but remains in place.


London is my playground and home for active involvement in the community. When Poet Laureate, I worked on a number of projects for change including the ongoing “100,000 Poets for Change”. I participated in several Mayor’s State of the City addresses (to audiences of 1200 +), in London’s Culture Days and Creative City Network of Canada’s annual meeting. Celebrating poetry and the literary arts in a broad array of activities, I’ve written poems for many of these occasions. An ideas person, I helped shape the position of Laureate in its early days, dreaming up new ways to promote and extend the recognition of poetry and the arts in London. My Facebook group, “Support & Promote Arts & Cultures”, with over 6,000 members, is another way I continue to engage with a wider community.


After New Democrat party leader Jack Layton died, I edited an anthology, Jack Layton: Art in Action. One hundred and three writers contributed to this collection of anecdotes about Jack Layton’s involvement in Canadian arts and culture— how his spirit continues to influence activism in Canada today. His interest in the Canadian cultural landscape was an underlying presence throughout his career. Art in Action encourages readers to be proactive and, as Jack would say, “Never turn down an opportunity to serve!” We launched the book across Canada in 2013. Jack Layton: Art in Action commemorates Jack’s influence on Canadian arts and culture in encouraging readers to actively effect positive change.


Like Susan McCaslin, I have long celebrated trees and attempted through poetry to protect local woodlands. My efforts were less successful, however. Though protest poems were published as broadsheets and in The London Free Press, a particular woodlot on the outskirts of London is now a mall. Still, we keep writing.


This poem, “Celebrating Tree”, was commissioned by Reforest London:


Mother trees surround us, the very
few left over from original forest we
long paved over, old rotten stumps
that settlers burnt to clear their land…


Trees we have known are trees we
can meet by species. Once connected,
always familiar, old friends to greet
on any city street or in deep woods


if we can slow down long enough to
salute the Tree of Life in each. …


Trees know their season, their reason for
being. How each tree reaches out to be-
come World Tree. We have so much to
learn from not living on but with our place.


We who live in this Forest City must ensure
a name never replaces the reality of canopy.
Long may our trees flourish for we can only
prosper with our elder brothers, our mothers.



It was also published in the League of Canadian Poets’ anthology, Heartwood: Poems about Loving Trees, 2018, and in my own Barbaric Cultural Practice (Quattro Books). More topical poems are up in Tuck Magazine.


I’ll close with a poem published by Tuck Magazine in November 2018, originally written for The Vimy Foundation.


The Stand of Oak


Battle’s devastation cut down men and oaks,
leaving Vimy Ridge bare from 1916 till now.


But one veteran sent a few acorns to Canada
and raised a grove memento. Now these trees


will stand as metaphor for endurance, mingled
roots living on in lieu of the soldiers who fell.


Now our Canadian branches will be returning
home to be grafted on European oak saplings.


They’ll respond to wind in the crackling Fall.


These oaks will listen through trembling roots
to news that travels in the near neighbourwood:
subtle climate shiftings from drought to deluge.


The lobed leaves that open to embrace sun, to
soak in rain: they will know a longer time we
can only imagine, knowing history’s record.


This copse you plant now may not remember
a war a century past though it could realize its
own long span, lasting the whole millennium.


The oaks you plant on Vimy Ridge will not be
thinking of men today or ever: their work is in
attending to the rise from heartwood out to leaf.


These oaks may not thank you personally but
their presence is gratitude enough, is witness.


Thriving, they will return life to Vimy Ridge.



In the slow dream of trees may the men awake
who died here. May they be recalled by name
in their prime, rising as hope from desolation.




Susan and I both believe that poetry has the power to rise as hope from desolation in the true calling forth of names.





Mary McDonald photo

Penn Kemp

Penn Kemp is the author most recently of Fox Haunts (Aeolus House, 2018) and Local Heroes  (Insomniac Press, 2018). New eco-poems, including her multimedia collaboration with artist Mary McDonald on, will be published as River Revery (Insomniac Press, 2019). Quattro Books has published two other works, Barbaric Cultural Practice, and an anthology Penn edited, Jack Layton: Art in Action.


Susan McCaslin

Susan McCaslin is the author of fifteen volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Into the Open: Poems New and Selected (Inanna, 2017). She has recently collaborated with J.S. Porter on a volume of creative non-fiction, Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton’s Dance with the Feminine (Wood Lake, 2018). Susan can be found wandering along the Fraser River outside Fort Langley, BC in the presence of Douglas firs, hemlocks, and cedars.

Editor review


  1. Jennifer Wenn December 23, at 21:46

    Fascinating, deeply insightful exchange, especially for us writers.


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