(This is one of an occasional series of interviews focusing on websites that feature poetry read out loud. Today we’re talking to Katherine Leyton, founder of the online audio-video poetry journal, How Pedestrian.)
What made you start How Pedestrian?
I had been frustrated for years by the common misperception that poetry is boring, pretentious and/or simply beyond the average person’s understanding. My relationship with poetry has always been defined by pleasure – pure, spontaneous, unrestrained pleasure – and it has the potential to give each and every individual this. As I say over and over again in the project’s manifesto, I believe poetry should first and foremost interact with the reader on a gut level. No formal education required. I wanted more people to realize this, and I wanted, somewhat selfishly perhaps, to demand a wider audience for poetry.
Why did you settle on the current format?
The visual element of the project, of course, was the main idea. I wanted to bring poetry to people in pubs and streets and taxis around Toronto, capture it on video and post it online. However, the visual aspect of a poem itself is also very important, and I think to fully absorb a poem you need to actually read it; this is why I decided to post the work next to the video. I really wanted the viewer be able to read along.
I also thought it was essential to provide a biography of the poet, not only out of respect for him or her, but also because I believe it gives the viewer important context and, hopefully, inspires them to explore the poem or poet further.
What has the response been like?
The response has been wonderful! The enthusiasm with which pedestrians agree to read for me is astonishing. I would say that out of every ten people I ask to read a poem, nine say yes. When I started, I never expected a 90% response rate, which speaks of my own misperceptions about the way the Canadian public views poetry. People are willing and curious, they just might not be inspired to seek it out on their own – they need a push. Many of my readers want to discuss the poem or poet with me after they read, and almost all are fascinated by the project. Of course, certain contexts and/or groups of people are not as easy; the day I filmed the video for Haiku and High Finance week in the financial district, for example, I probably only had about a 40 percent success rate. Everyone was simply too busy. Nevertheless, getting hurried business types to read poetry during lunch hour was an immensely rewarding experience.
What are your main challenges?
Honestly—money and time. Working a full-time job and running this is exhausting, and the quality of the project suffers for it. Between selecting poetry, choosing a location, filming, researching and writing biographies, editing video, moderating comments, corresponding with contributors and doing promotion, I simply can’t do everything as well as I would like to. I have a number of incredible occasional volunteers, but no one that contributes in a regular, scheduled way. I also need better equipment – an external microphone, for example, and a camcorder light for shooting at night, but I literally just don’t have the extra cash to invest in such items.
What’s fun about it?
Almost everything, but above all else, the process of actually going out and filming people reading. This aspect is by far the most rewarding; I am continuously exploring wonderful new places and activities around Toronto for the project, while simultaneously meeting incredible people along the way. Among many others, I’ve had a priest, a Caribana queen and a man with a parrot on his shoulder read for the site, all in amazing locations. I often have those ‘aha’ moments while I’m out filming where I realize how much I love this city, and the people in it, and how grateful I am to be running a project that constantly reminds me of this.
Describe the hardware and software you use.
Is there a next level to which you hope to take ‘How Pedestrian’?
Although I never want to lose the rough charm of the current HP videos, I do hope to eventually improve their quality, both through the use of a better camera and by bettering my video editing skills. I’m also planning to purchase an external microphone so that sound quality improves. Most importantly, I’d like to expand the number of contributors we have filming videos of pedestrians reading in various locations around the world. We’ve already had videos from India, Italy, Scotland, and the US, and I’d love to continue reaching more places and more people. In sum, How Pedestrian wants to take over the world.
What tips do you have for anyone reading a poem for an audience?
Do what feels right for you. The poem is yours now, even if you didn’t write it. Beyond that, just read loud and slow. Remembering to breathe is important.
What are your thoughts in general on the current state of the art of reading poetry aloud for an audience, in Canada and/or elsewhere?
I would say I generally find traditional poetry readings boring. In my opinion, the majority of your run-of-the-mill readings simply don’t add any value to the actual work, and I think that’s a key thing to consider when it comes to reading aloud for an audience. You need to add an extra element.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t feel qualified to make a general statment on the art of reading poetry alound in Toronto – I haven’t explored the scene enough. The Toronto Poetry Slam at the Drake Underground is an incredible event, and demonstrates just how dynamic and exciting poetry can be, but it’s a very specific type of poetry – it’s Spoken Word. I think there are a lot more ways we could make traditional poetry readings more entertaining. When I was studying in Edinburgh a few years ago, for example, there was a fantastic monthly poetry event called The Golden Hour; it involved musicians, poets, short story writers and artists all performing in one night. The atmosphere was always lively and light-hearted and fueled by wine. The audience didn’t take themselves seriously, and neither did the performers. Indeed, the audience performed as much as the performers did. I think Canada needs more of these – unrestrained, unscripted, anything-goes poetry events.
Katherine Leyton gets paid to write about porn & lust every weekday from 10 to 6. At night, she writes poetry. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in The Malahat Review, The Feathertale Review and Room. She is also the founder of How Pedestrian.