Howling at the pandemical moon

One of the many responses to the pandemic around the world this year has been a burst of creative and literary works.  This Saturday night at Cloud in Phnom Penh an event organised by the Siem Reap based HOWL Cambodia will celebrate this wave, launching a book, Face Masks & Hand Gels: A year of living COVIDly, a collection put together by Dr Howl himself, along with spoken word contributions from local writers and readers.  The Howl Word Jam is a spoken word format that brings together lovers of words, as creators and also appreciators of poetry and prose.   Dr HowlWayne McCallum – was good enough to answer some of Kumnooh’s questions. 

What was the genesis and inspiration of the HOWL concept?

One of the experiences I enjoyed during my involvement in the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival was discussions and events with fellow writers, publishers and poets. Having moved to Siem Reap in 2017 I had the idea—instead of repeating the festival experience — of using the flexibility of the ‘pop-up’ approach to curate regular ‘word’ events. These could entail anything from a talk with a visiting writer, a poetry workshop, a book launch or an open mic event. In fact anything where the ‘word’ was king (or queen).  

To me, HOWL seemed the perfect name choice and motif for the platform. Not only is it a call that carries from one to another, as words do, but it is also the title of the most famous poem by the influential beat writer, Alan Ginsberg. As inspiration it seemed well chosen, for the words and imaginary Ginsberg evoked in Howl opened up possibilities to how we write, speak — and with the story of the poem’s printing — how we publish. These are all values that I would like HOWL to nurture. Interestingly Ginsberg visited Siem Reap in 1963, his time there inspiring the long-form poem Ankor Wat (sic), a work whose meandering verse suggested that he partook in some local herb before his temple excursions.

Will this be the first HOWL event outside Siem Reap? Are more planned?

I know there has been a HOWL event in Kampot and I was approached about one being organised in Los Angeles, although I do not know if that went ahead. From my perspective, however, anyone can hold a HOWL event. This is the key — I do not see the concept as being owned by me — it’s like the call itself, one wolf howls and then another responses in its own way, the sound, like words, carrying on across terra firma and beyond.

Our next scheduled event after Phnom Penh will be a HOWL Word Jam in Siem Reap in February 2021. Other things tend to ‘pop-up’, which is what the platform is all about.

Siem Reap has obviously been hit harder than most areas in Cambodia during the year of living covidly due to the shutdown of international tourism. At the same time around the world the varied experiences of people during the pandemic has created a need for people to express themselves. Is it fair to say that the collation of Face Masks & Hand Gels is a response to these two intersecting pressures?

In the early days of the pandemic in Siem Reap HOWL chose to dedicate a page of its website to poetic and narrative expressions of the new circumstances. The idea was to give people an opportunity to express their feelings and an outlet for sharing them. With these goals I think it was successful, with different contributors getting back to me to say how cathartic they found the process of putting their feelings into words.

I should point out that contributions to the anthology came from beyond Cambodia – from Japan, Panama and France, as well as my native home, New Zealand.

It is indeed a varied collection, representing established writers as well as inspired amateurs – was it difficult to make the choices about what to include?

I took an ‘analytical’ approach, Google Analytics actually, and looked at what pieces had received the most hits and reading time. I also took a more human approach and included what I enjoyed reading. I also wanted to encourage diversity and delight, so this ensured some additional pieces were included. In the end it was not too difficult to hit on the final writings for submission.

Can you explain the significance of the cover design?

The cover is one for HOWL aficionados, as it is based on the original cover face for the City Lights publication of Ginsberg’s poem.

How will the HOWL Word Jam in Phnom Penh proceed? Is it too late for interested writers and readers to sign up to take part?

The PP event will feature a combination of ‘old souls’ — that is known readers such as Kosal Khiev, Jose Antonio Pineda and Scott Bywater — as well as ‘new voices’; by this I mean newbies to the reading world, who will have the opportunity to perform during the open mic portion of the evening. Typically a Word Jam features three or more sessions, with time between to visit the bar and talk to friends.

We will also dedicate a portion of the evening to readings from the anthology, from the original writers.

People can sign up on the night to read and we are open to all forms of the word, from poetry, fiction or non-, as well as original or non-original pieces. They main caveat is that a piece should be no longer than 5 minutes in length. Meanwhile, to encourage ‘new voices’, we will have a prize for ‘Best New Voice’ and ‘Best Khmer Voice’ on the night. Keep on howling . . .

Howl Word Jam and book launch at Cloud, St 9, Phnom Penh, from 7 pm.
Note: Copies of Face Masks & Hand Gels will be available for purchase on the night for the special price of $5.

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