NPM22 Blog: An Ecology of Intimacy: Through the Lens of Poetry by Penn Kemp

From Intimacy to Intimate, sans Intimidation. When asked to write a piece for National Poetry Month on Intimacy, who’s intimidated? Not me. I’ll just skip that ‘id’ and intimate softly what my heart wants…Yes, the heart wants intimacy, and who’s getting any, who’s getting too much in the last two years of involuntary isolation?

My thoughts ran in several directions toward an exploration of intimacy that was both internal and external. An external examination of the theme was easiest. I’d read about intimacy coordinators who counsel actors in sex scenes. As a formerly shy introvert, I’d learnt to perform my poems with ease. So perhaps I could offer suggestions for poets in how to achieve a delight in performance: why suffer stage fright when presenting your poetry can be fun? I could offer a slight push toward joy in performance. How to put your work out there? How do you feel when you really communicate your poems to others? A performance coach for poets.

Intimacy on a personal life was trickier. The theme touched an all too raw nerve. What to reveal? Okay, be brave. Go for it. Here goes. My beloved husband, Gavin Stairs, died last Fall unexpectedly, so of necessity I’ve been pondering intimacy and its loss.

What consoles, what is solace?

Only the long view, wider than
self. Only your voice alive
at the back of my head. Only
presence, yours, with a tower
of gurus rising above you.

How can I be other than grateful,
when you so generously left in
timing that confounds me?

No, not lonely, with you still

here, memories of decades to
keep me company, hovering a-
round back of mind, at nape
of neck.

Although you are now dead and
your ashes rest in the hall outside
our bedroom door, you are closer
to me now than you’ve ever been.

Because you live inside my head.
Sometimes I hear you speaking.
More often you nod approval or
shake your head to comment, no.

Do you live in my occipital lobe?
I don’t know the brain’s mechanism
well enough to tell. You live on in
replay, in dream,

Of course you’re apart from me, in
some dimension I cannot
fathom until I too am gone—
more a part of me than ever
you could be in flesh.

Grieving, gift bereft. Leaving
left. Well enough
alone, an intimate


A poem begins in the deep intimacy of pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. A wo/manual act. Eighteen months hunkered down in cosy comfort, sometimes too close companionship, and six months since my husband’s death, six months figuring out the mobius strip of grief, bureaucracy spiralling back on itself. What is intimacy in a relationship, even or especially after death? Communication falters but does not stop in the space of silence. I listen to the quiet between the lines. I wait for the word to drop into a poem. One word, then the next, and the pause between.

How deep is intimacy involved in self-expression? Is there a limit to the subjectivity of expressing feelings and experience in poetry? When does self-expression become narcissistic, given the difficulties in the world we inhabit? What would be worthwhile to communicate?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines intimacy as the “inmost thoughts or feelings; proceeding from, concerning, or affecting one’s inmost self: closely personal.” The word intimacy is derived from the Latin word “intimus,” which means ‘inner’ or ‘innermost’, refering to a person’s innermost qualities. According to Google, there are four types of intimacy to focus on fostering to create a more holistic connection: “Types Of Intimacy That Exist (Besides Sex)”. These intimacies are: Emotional, Intellectual, Experiential, and Spiritual.

The greatest intimacy is with oneself, alone, and finding the freedom in full expression, on one’s own. For me, this new solitude is literal in the isolation, aloneness that the poem requires

And yet, how utterly moving to be with dear Ellen Jaffe, LCP member, as she received poems read to her, both by and for her in a Zoom. Poets from Israel, Toronto and Vancouver gathered to greet her as she lay in hospice. What could be more intimate?

Homage for Ellen S. Jaffe, Poet

Ellen, dying in hospice, listens in on
Zoom as Voices Israel read her poems.

How wonderful to be read to at last,
at the last, her own poems reflected

in words uttered. Ellen, grey, lying on
pillows, blows us kisses from her bed.

Responding to writers who’ve written,
she riffs on Emily Dickinson’s “letter
to the world That never wrote to me”.

How utterly moving to share this sacred
passage, live to the end and in real time.

Love to her in that seventh heaven where
poets gather, and here, now in last days.

May we too respond to “The simple news
that Nature told, With tender majesty.

Her message is committed To hands
I cannot see; For love of her, sweet
countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!”

My reading of this homage for Ellen’s funeral is up here.  She died on March 16, 2022, a day after her 77th birthday on the Ides.


Die Verse

Our beloved dead are more intimate
now than ever they could be in flesh.

Only poetry can convey their message,
intimations of immortality, sly slips

we grasp as truth, not knowing for sure
what is real, what is fantasy and false,
what lies somewhere in between as true.

Only poems can transcribe, translate into
lines of verse as mysterium tremendum
reality felt embodied. For me. For you.


How does a poem like the ones above, at its roots so personal, become universal? How can poetry, this most private art, interact in the public domain, once published? An introvert is comfortable sharing because she is writing to herself, speaking to that part of the listener who is attuned and responds. Recognizing the other, the reader out there, the poem calls out, “— hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,— mon frère!’”

Tutoyer. I’m writing to you, toi, the reader whom I love even if I don’t know you. The poem is always addressing the lover, the listener, whoever can hear. The poem itself emerges from the depth of heart/ soul/being. Once it has found its community, as a piece published or performed, the poem begins to intimate. Not intimidate, (what a difference that ‘id’ makes!)

The language signifies the shift. The poem suggests; it intimates. When we switch from intimate as adjective to the verb or present participle, intimating, we switch from the poem as written to the performance of that poem. In delivering her piece aloud, the poet embodies the poem. The performing introvert is no oxymoron. She considers the audience to be a plurality of intimates, so that she is addressing the respective soul in each person, separately and together.

Would that English had an equivalent for the Spanish word for the expanded you: “vosotros”. With Spanish, you have two choices of saying “you all”. You can use “vosotros” or you can choose, more formally, “ustedes”. “Vosotros” is the personal plural form of tú. “Ustedes” is the plural form of “usted.” Such fine distinctions would be useful as the poet addresses different audiences.


An Ecology of Intimacy: at the intersection of poetry and performance. A third discussion involves the role of media, poetry and intimacy. As pandemic restrictions lift, we emerge, blinking like moles in spring sun, expectant, whether hopeful or cautious. Our tentacles inch out to community, to the suffering and strife beyond the hearth and intruding on the heart. The televised terror, two-dimensional on the screen, takes on new aspects, homing in. Tentatively, we negotiate new rules of communication, new challenges in the face of all that is happening in the world, all that encroaches.


With every new technology, is intimacy compromised? It is certainly different. In pandemic isolation, we lost touch, physically and literally, with the real presence of people. Touch and non-verbal signals that indicate intimacy are necessarily limited on participatory media, the media that so lacks nuance, despite the gratification of immediacy. Relationships through Messenger can easily skip cues or switch codes in confusion and misunderstandings. And yet the isolation we have habituated to means that many of us now correspond more often online: we keep up with Facebook friends, Instagrammers, Tweeters. Poets and poetry spring up everywhere. We are LinkedIn, despite the limitations of social technologies. The effects are ambiguous, sometimes displaying a generational shift: my granddaughter regards a telephone call as aggressive: that demanding ring interrupts her personal space. Poems abound in my Twitter feed: often they respond to my need at the time, as synchronicity. The ‘page’ still rules as words on the screen: the poem lives in the widespread community of poets in a new intimacy.


Check out more of Penn’s reflections on poetry, intimacy, and the war in Ukraine: A Gathering of Poets in Response to Peril

Poet, performer and playwright Penn Kemp has been celebrated as a trailblazer since her first publication of poetry by Coach House (1972). She has participated in Canadian cultural life for over 50 years, writing, editing, and publishing poetry and plays as well as giving poetry workshops world-wide. She has published 30 books of poetry, prose and drama, and multimedia galore, much of which is devoted to ecopoetry. Recent collections are A NEAR MEMOIR: NEW POEMS (Beliveau Books, Stratford) and P.S., a chapbook of poetry. Out now is POEMS IN RESPONSE TO PERIL: an anthology for Ukraine. See, and