On Thursday, November 5th, the Electric City Culture Council (EC3), in partnership with the Peterborough Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) and Leslie Menagh of Madderhouse Textile Studios, announced that local poet Justin Million is the 2020 Downtown Artist in Residence.
Million’s residency will see him creating new work and performing and hosting workshops and studio hours out of Madderhouse Textile Studios at 383 Water Street from mid-November until the end of December.
Million ought to be an intimidating person to encounter. He’s a powerhouse intellectual with graduate credentials from Carleton University and an impressive 20 publications of his poetry — so far. That said, in addition to teaching creative writing workshops, the local poet could also teach courses on humility.
As an artist and as a human being, Million is unreservedly genuine. His work, paradoxically simple and complex — serious and satirical — and reminiscent at times of cult-poet Charles Bukowski, offers his readers and audiences a level of accessibility that can only be described as generosity.
Since returning to home to Peterborough in 2015, Million has become a force in the local arts-scene, founding two widely successful event series: the Show and Tell Poetry Series and KEYBOARDS!.
Recently, he’s also curated part of EC3’s Artsweek Shift: Downtown, bringing spoken word, poetry readings, and “Menacing Beauty: the John Climenhage Storefront Project” to various locations downtown Peterborough.
“Show and Tell Poetry Series started in 2015 at Curated, Melinda Richter’s oddity shop in the Charlotte Mews,” Million recalls, “I had just moved back to Peterborough and I didn’t know anyone. I ended up going to a reading there and said I was interested in starting a poetry reading series and Melinda — without knowing me at all — suggested that I do it at Curated.”
“So I started doing Show and Tell Poetry Series and I met a lot of really great people there, including my lovely partner Elisha Rubacha, and then from there we moved to The Garnet, which became our long-time home base, and that’s where I started KEYBOARDS!”
KEYBOARDS! — a live typewriter show — offered audiences a unique experience. Million would encourage audiences to talk among themselves while he harvested snippets of their conversations to craft his improvisational typewritten poems live on stage. The poet would ring a bell, read the unedited work aloud, and place the only existing copy of the found-poetry on a stool for audience members to purchase by donation.
“People were shocked to be included in a genre that they consider to be high art,” explains Million of the iconic KEYBOARDS! happenings. “Most people who don’t avidly read poetry always say that they don’t understand it, but they also think that poetry is important.”
“I think that’s due to how we’re taught poetry,” he muses. “We’re taught that there’s some secret in a poem, and if you can’t decipher the secret of this 100-year-old poem then you’re an idiot. Which is ridiculous because most of my favourite poems are so accessible that — literally — if you can read, then you can understand the poem.”
This year was on track to be a banner one for Million, with the release of his highly anticipated first trade book slated for March 21st. However, as is the case for many of us, our year of the virus threw a proverbial wrench in his plans.
“This was my first trade book, perfect-bound by a real publisher — a life goal accomplished,” recalls Million, who was due to launch the book at Ottawa’s international poetry festival, Versefest, which Million helped to found 10 years ago.
“They were going to give me the treatment like I’ve never had. They were going to put me up in a hotel and give me a festival pass, an open bar pass, and a per diem — poets don’t get that kind of treatment!”
“There was so much wrapped up in this book being launched and then it didn’t happen, which was particularly crushing,” Million adds. “But compared to what’s happening to other people all over the world, it was nothing. I mean, people are dying.”
Million’s grace in the face of loss gives poetic justice to his recent appointment as Peterborough’s 2020 Downtown Artist in Residence.
The program will provide Million with mentorship, a stipend, some production expenses and studio space, along with support for public engagement and audience participation in the downtown, allowing the poet to concentrate on his art practice.
To execute the program quickly and efficiently, EC3 made the residency eligible only to artists who had been previously been nominated for, but had not won, a Peterborough Arts Award — an annual initiative launched by EC3 in 2018 and championed by Bill Lockington of LLF Lawyers where $2,000 awards are presented to six individuals who have shown outstanding achievement in the arts.
For the inaugural awards, Million was nominated as outstanding emerging artist and, the following year, as outstanding mid-career artist.
“I like to refer to myself as the Susan Lucci of the Peterborough Arts Awards,” Million laughs. “I’ve been nominated twice and haven’t won — I think Drew Hayden Taylor and I are the only two that have been nominated twice and are yet to win, so I’m in pretty decent company there.”
With the 2020 edition of the Peterborough Arts Awards postponed due to the pandemic, Million considers his designation as 2020 Downtown Artist in Residence an appropriate substitute.
“This residency is basically an arts award,” he continues. “It made the application process that much more streamlined because EC3 didn’t have to vet all of the artists, because they’ve already been vetted for the arts award. In that sense they could launch the program and get things started that much faster.”
“The thing I’m looking forward to the most is the studio space — I’ve never had a studio. Ever. I’ll be able to walk into that room, close the door, and be as creative as I want to. I’ll get the chance to explore.”
“I’m also really looking forward to being able to up my game, so to speak, in terms of experimenting more with projections. I think there’s a lot of possibility to do that kind of bigger-ticket projection work at night in Peterborough so that larger audiences can see it.”
The 2020 Downtown Artist in Residence program will also benefit the Peterborough community writ large.
“Community is made manifest in a live event,” explains Million. “You can feel what community means in the odd comfort of a shared experience.”
“It’s the same thing as when you’re watching a hockey game — I’m a big hockey fan. A typical playoff Hockey Night in Canada begins with a Joel Plaskett song and then Ron MacLean reads a Walt Whitman poem — that’s not a coincidence — art creates a narrative that elevates life experiences.”
“By supporting people in your community that are making art, you’re essentially elevating your own story. You are becoming part of it and you’re allowing that narrative to continue, which only makes your community bigger and better — it’s celebrating yourself in a way that is not born of hubris or misplaced pride.”
Poetry — indeed all the arts — can be an effective means not only for community-building and narrative-shaping, but also for better conceptualizing the challenges we face; thus, it can also play a role in helping us cope with such challenges.
“Poetry is concision-based, so you can take a gigantic idea and take a corner of it and write that corner out to the point where it actually speaks to the whole,” explains Million.
Through the voice of poets, the “makers” as the Greek origin of the word indicates, we hear our own voices. Peterborough is blessed to have Justin Million as the 2020 Downtown Artist in Residence — to have the opportunity to embrace his poetic voice and to hear our own voices in it.
To buy a copy of Justin Million’s first trade book, Ejecta: The Uncollected KEYBOARDS! Poems, visit the Apt 9 Press shop on Etsy.