The Dead Poets Reading Series offers an alternative to your traditional in-person poetry reading

This bi-monthly online event has received attention from across the globe, with poets from all over in attendance.

Couresty of The Dead Poets Reading Series

by Isabella Wang, Mahtab Kundan, and Claudya Leclerc

If you look anywhere on the news, very likely, the top stories these days are about COVID-19 — how the government and World Health Organization are both working to raise effective methods of overseeing the pandemic. However, the students of World Literature 105 — Isabella Wang, Mahtab Kundan, and Claudya Leclerc — are taking an alternative approach by addressing the worldwide community of writers, poets, literary teachers and professors, and in turn, fostering a sense of community through the online Dead Poets Reading Series. 

The Dead Poets Reading Series is a bi-monthly reading series in partnership with the Vancouver Public Library, where at each event, four local poets are invited to read and speak about the works of a dead poet. Sharron Proulx-Turner, Wallace Stevens, Maya Angelou, and Rainer Maria Rilke are just some of the dead poets that have appeared in the past. 

Unfortunately, due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak, the reading event for March had to be cancelled in order to protect the safety and well-being of the series’s readers, organizers, and audience members. This event was not the only one to suffer. Across Canada, book launches and literary festivals, including two of Vancouver’s largest annual festivals, The Growing Room Literary Festival and Verses Fest, were all cancelled. These circumstances resulted in huge economic repercussions for the community of non-profit literary organizations and artists alike. It has also created a void where writers are numb by the feeling of not being able to socialize or contribute to the normally vibrant environs of literary production and community building.

All in-person gatherings seem to have been postponed indefinitely, but that doesn’t mean that poetry cannot continue. In order to bridge the community and bring the Dead Poets Reading Series to an audience at home, Isabella (who is one of the coordinators of the series) started reaching out to writers over social media, asking them if they would be interested in recording a video of themselves sharing the works of a dead poet. In under three days, she received over 100 responses, from poets not just across Canada, but internationally. Together with Mahtab and Claudya, they are working to bring a multilingual dimension to the series as well. 

Traditionally, the Dead Poets Reading Series has always encouraged bilingual or multilingual readings. For instance, in the summer of 2019 poet Benjamin Hertwig read the works of Rilke in both German and the English translation. In many more instances, poets have shared the works of a dead poet in translation, where the original source text is not in English, but in Japanese, Korea, Mandarin, and more. 

Nevertheless, being a local reading series means that they are limited in terms of their audience members and readers. To be present at the VPL event, after all, one has to be situated in Vancouver. The online series, in turn, has allowed for the collapsing of geographical borders and limitations. To this extent, the virtual realm of internet sharing has opened up the series and its capacity to reach audiences and readers in an ever-widening horizon. 

A poet residing elsewhere in Canada, no longer has to make the expedition to Vancouver in order to take part in the series. Likewise, when poet, writer, and translator, Sandile Ngidi, sent over a video of himself reading the works of Benedict Wallet Vilakazi in Zulu, on WhatsApp from South Africa, it seemed as if social distancing and technology had brought a small gathering of the world’s poets closer than ever before. 

For the World Literature students, it is inspiring to see folks engaging with the idea of multilingualism, and embracing their own diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds in the process of finding creative ways to give an online, literary reading. Many poets who are proficient in more than one language, asked if they could read a poem in Farsi or Mandarin, and to share their own translations of that poem. As well, there have been poets from Brazil and Syria, who wanted to share a poem but did not feel comfortable reading poetry in English, but loved poetry in Portugese, Russian, or Arabic, etc. They were encouraged to share a reading that is purely in their mother tongues. 

Additionally on the channel, there has been a reading by Iranian-born, Toronto-based poet, Khashayar Mohammadi, who read his original translation of Ahmad Shamlu’s “The Crimson Bloom Of A Shirt” from Farsi into English. The World Literature students, in turn, provided Farsi subtitles so that speakers of both Farsi and English can appreciate the ingenuity of Mohammadi’s translations, in concert to the beauty of the original source text. Other readings, such as Toronto poet, Jack Osadebamwen’s upcoming reading Francesco Petrarca & Dante Alighieri in Italian, are bilingual, with the reader code switching between their paratext–introduction to the reading–and the actual reading of the poem in another language itself. Meanwhile, Nanjing-born poet, Emily Lu, read a montage Li Qingzhao’s “die lian hua” in both Mandarin and her original translation, as well as two English translations of Julio Cortázar’s poetry, with their source text in Spanish. 

In an attempt to make the videos as accessible and clear as possible to both language learners, native language speakers, as well as viewers with hearing impairments Isabella, Mahtab, and Claudya are working to provide subtitles in the appropriate language, where suitable. For instance, anyone can follow along to the Italian subtitles of Osadebamwen’s reading, while an English translation will only be provided for one of Petrarca’s sonnets. Likewise, there will be Mandarin subtitles to go with Lu’s reading in Mandarin, followed by the English, while a contrapuntal streaming of both Spanish and English will be available, with line breaks, for Cortázar’s poems. Finally, as speakers of Punjabi and French respectively, Mahtab and Claudya will both contribute a bilingual reading of a poet in their mother tongues.

This initiative was in part, led by professors, Dr. Melek Ortabasi and Joel Heng-Hartse from World Literature 105, a course taught on translations. The class encourages students to explore their identity through the languages they speak, and in turn, has shifted the students’ perspectives, strengthened their views on language mixing, and pushed their creativity when thinking about world languages. 

For many students, such as Claudya herself, their views and perspectives on the usage of language was very limited. As she writes, “I grew up as a bilingual young woman, always enjoying language mixing whilst talking with my other bilingual friends and family but I never knew it was acceptable to do so. Whenever I would try an audacious creative essay and attempted to include language mixing, my feedback would be deconstructive. It came to a point where I felt that it was wrong to mix languages, that it lessened my right to be a native speaker and for that I felt as if the system’s views portrayed me as a stranger from my own native tongue… I challenge the educators to change their narrative, to think about the intersectionality of language and finally, to reflect on how they treat plural-ingual speakers in their classrooms. As one may be tricked into underestimating their intelligence, adaptability and skill.” 

Mahtab shares a similar perspective, struck by the fact that language mixing was being made acceptable in a university setting. Being able to communicate in all three languages, English, French, and Punjabi, she grew up mixing English and Punjabi when she spoke to family, and English and French to her friends; yet, as she says, “it was ingrained in me to never do this in the “outside world”.’

Thus, upon being asked to conduct a community project — one that activates a mode of translations to a community setting, the students of World Literature 105 were able to apply what they have learned in class to a timely event. As Isabella adds, “For five semesters, World Literature has taught me enough about the way that language structures peoples and the world’s power dynamics to make me want to reach beyond just a purely English-speaking setting. I wanted to create something that  responds to the community at a time of need, and in a way that represents the plurality of languages and the cross-cultural perspectives that we have in our community right here. I didn’t have to look for it. It’s the people who made this happen.” 

Within a week, the series has attracted the attention of prominent news media outlets, such as  the Vancouver Sun, The Tyee, and The North to Northwest with the CBC. The series features one new video reading a day, and with over 50 video submissions and more coming in, the spots are filled to the end of April. Who knows? By then, World Literature 105 will have concluded, but the students are hopeful that at this rate, the poetry might just outlast the virus.

Readings take place from 3 – 5 p.m. on the second Sunday of every odd-numbered month (i.e. January, March, May, etc.), and are run out of the Vancouver Library’s Central Branch (Alice McKay Room) in Downtown, Vancouver.