Indigenous writer and U of T professor featured in ‘Dial-a-Poem’ project

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is seen in this undated photograph alongside with the cover of her latest collection.

An Indigenous author and University of Toronto assistant professor is being featured in a pandemic-era edition of “Dial-a-Poem,” a project that encourages individuals to call in weekly and listen to writers perform some of their work.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, an Anishinaabe writer and founder of Kegedonce Press, said that she was aware of Dial-a-Poem from the 1980s, when it was first launched in Montreal by poet Fortner Anderson. But she said she hadn’t heard much about it since.

“I received an email from the organizer of it in Montreal, asking if I'd be interested in participating,” she said. “As soon as I heard about it. I was like wow, that is amazing and really cool. I want to be part of that.”

This week, people who dial 514-558-8649 will be able to hear one of two English poems by Akiwenzie-Damm—“Funny Business (How Nanabush romanced the stone)” or “Reconciling the Books.”

Speaking with CTV News Toronto, Akiwenzie-Damm said that both of her poems are from a newer collection and she wanted to give them a trial run through Dial-A-Poem. At the same time, she also thought about how they would translate in audio form, adding that listening to a poem on the phone is “very intense” and “personal.”

“We’re used to having private conversations (on the phone) and so it feels intimate in a way that it wouldn’t in a cafe or in a university auditorium or wherever else you might hear poetry or spoken word.”

“Funny Business” is a slightly humourous tale chosen because Akiwenzie-Damm finds it a fun read and “Reconciling the Books” is a passionate reading meant to enlist empathy and understanding for truth and reconciliation.

My poem
“Reconciling the Books”
is now available on
Dial-a-Poem.
514-558-8649
(Listen for free.)

— KateriAkiwenzie-Damm (@KateriAkiwenzie) October 16, 2021

While Dial-A-Poem was launched in Montreal in the late 1980s, the program has been around since the 1960s. Since then, similar projects have popped up in waves across North America and Europe.

The most recent Montreal edition was re-launched in December 2020 amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic by ARCMLT, a non-profit organization called ARCMLT dedicated to preserving local Montreal culture.

The organization had also spent the last couple years digitizing and archiving poems from the 1980s Dial-a-Poem project. Those poems are also available on this year’s phone line.

Akiwenzie-Damm said that she is honoured to take part in this year’s project and hopes that it makes poetry more accessible.

“People are finding, and have been for many years, all different kinds of ways to express themselves through poetry. I'm really supportive of that. I think making poetry accessible to a wider audience is so important. I think we need that in our lives. I don't think there's ever a time when we don't,” she said.

“We need all of those various ways of communicating with each other and bringing beauty and new ways of seeing things to each other. I think poetry can do that and I think things like Dial-a-Poem provide a great venue for all much wider range of people to enjoy poetry.”

Akiwenzie-Damm’s latest work—(Re)Generation: The Poetry of Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm—was published in August 2021. She is also working on a new collection that she says captures what she has been thinking about over the last year and a half throughout the pandemic.

“They're not necessarily at all directly pandemic related. It just gave me food for thought and I think in a lot of ways we were all experiencing such heightened feelings and experiences,” she said. “I also started working at U of T as an English professor teaching creative writing, Indigenous (literature) and oral traditions, and so I had a lot to think about in terms of being, you know, Indigenous faculty at a campus that has hardly any Indigenous people.”

“I needed an outlet to really think through and for me, poetry often serves that purpose for me. It gives me a way of working through things and trying to see things in different ways.”