Spoken word poet Tanya Neumeyer of Toronto, who is putting on a free performance at the Thompson Public Library on Saturday at 4:30 p.m., doesn’t have the sort of educational background one automatically associates with the craft in which she specializes.
“Once upon a time I did study geological environmental engineering so the first time I was in Sudbury and Elliot Lake and Timmins was for a mining tour so I think I’ve been fascinated with the north from that 10 or 15 years ago because southerners don’t get to see it and yet we really depend on what happens on faraway pieces of land,” said Neumeyer, who grew up in Bradford, Ontario – which she calls the carrot capital of Canada. “I kind of appreciate what mining towns do for the country.”
But it was while she was studying at Queen’s University in Kingston that she was first turned on to spoken word poetry.
“I came to Toronto from Kingston and someone told me, ‘Hey, there’s this thing that you’ll really like,’ and the someone who told me was a friend I’d made who was at the Kingston Library promoting poetry for National Poetry Month so when I get to do shows throughout April and workshops at different places I like to usually remember that in some ways I got a spark about poetry being more than something dead in books from somebody promoting poetry in a library, going out of their way to say, ‘Hey, poetry’s alive and well,’” Neumeyer says.
Her visit to Thompson, which comes on the heels of shows in Saskatoon May 7 and in Vancouver May 8, is the result of a local connection.
“I’ve been hearing about Thompson for years and years from two of my friends, Paul and Natasha, who are teachers there and I’ve even had the opportunity to Skype in to Natasha’s class to meet some of her students and answer their questions so I’m looking forward to meeting some people and seeing my friends in person,” she says, as well as taking in some local events. “I guess I’m going to the after party, somebody’s engagement or stag and doe. I think I also arrive just in time to catch a glimpse of the prom so I feel like I’ll get a little glimpse into Thompson life.”
Having her perform was a pleasant surprise for the staff at the Thompson Public Library.
“She arranged the trip 100 per cent on her own,” said library assistant Amanda Sanders. “We’re just the place. She contacted us about a month-and-a-half ago and asked if we would be interested.”
Thompson doesn’t host many authors because it isn’t a regular stop for most of them.
“We have to bring them in ourselves and it’s very taxing on the budget,” Sanders says. “Flin Flon and The Pas libraries get people all the time because it’s a lot easier to get to them. If somebody’s in Saskatoon, they’ll hop over to Flin Flon or if they’re in Winnipeg, they’ll hop up to The Pas or vice versa but we don’t get those. Unless they’re going to Churchill, they’re not stopping in Thompson.”
One of the joys of performing spoken word poetry and introducing others to it through workshops is getting to know a bit about the places she performs, Neumeyer says.
“In Regina I was doing workshops in schools and they were north of Dewdney [Avenue] which is a very important street, so they really took to the Toronto Raptors’ ‘We the North’ because it really distinguished them from other parts of Regina, the more downtown,” Neumeyer says. “It was that kind of old-fashioned folks had been painted as the wrong side of the tracks but they reclaimed that. I like that I get to know places through people when I get to hear their poetry that they write. I had someone say that they really loved everything but the kitchen sink in Sudbury and I had no idea what they were talking about and later someone clarified, ‘Oh, you don’t know, the pizza place that we order from, that’s one of the kinds of pizzas.’ In big and small ways, I learn about what people value and what they see and take in from where they are.”
Neumeyer first saw spoken word poetry performed at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word a little more than a decade ago.
“I saw top poets from across the country performing and it was just amazing what they did on stage with their body, their voice, their stories, their heart,” she remembers. “I wanted to give it a try and it all flowed from there because I was pulled into a community of amazing and inspiring people and I still get to be a part of that community to this day.”
While spoken word poetry might not be familiar to everybody, it is part of a long tradition of oral history and performance that is common to people around the world.
“It’s managed to break through that barrier because when you see another human being using their body and their voice and often having a memorized poem, you remove that barrier from something that could be read to something that’s performed, that’s alive,” said Neumeyer. “When you can see someone breaking a sweat and raising their voice and using their whole body, it’s really an embodied art form and I’ve been inspired by it and in certain cases also – my most recent book is called what breaks me open – I’ve been literally kind of struck by what I’ve seen like it’s changed me. I feel like I’m part of some tradition.”
Neumeyer’s May 13 performance is free to attend and will feature an opening act familiar to many people in Thompson - Poetry in Motion.
“I’m really honoured,” Neumeyer says. “I’m inspired by their work. It’ll be great to have a local taste and spoken word often functions as a call and response so I’m sure that I’ll be inspired by what I hear and that will mean that we’ll, in a way, make music together through the poetry.”