We’re sitting on a London underground train, either the Circle or the District line, heading east toward the city from Westminster. My wife nudges me, motioning toward the ads that line both sides of each car’s ceiling. There amidst the notices for plays, perfume, music and whatever else the commercial marketing empire that is Western culture has to offer, is something completely unexpected.
Since 1986, London Transport has sponsored “Poems on the Underground, ” the brainstorm of an American writer, Judith Chernaik, back in 1986. It’s been going strong ever since. (You can even buy posters of the ads from the Museum of Transport Shop.) This year is a special focus on the poetry of William Butler Yeats for the 150th anniversary of his birth. A collection of the poems is published each year; the latest one was just published last month but takes about six weeks for delivery.
Somehow, the idea hopped the Atlantic. Poetry has shown up in public spaces in a number of American cities, and one of the best known is Seattle’s “Poetry on Buses, ” which this year launched a road show with three different stops. The first was held April 25 at the Covington Library; next up is the Bellevue Library tomorrow (May 9) and May 23 at the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center.
Sponsored by 4Culture, the cultural services agency for King County, and King County Metro Transit, the Poetry on Buses program has been putting poetry on public transportation since 1992. Originally, the program placed poems on placards above bus seats; that continues today along with workshops, poems in five languages, and now the road show.
A poetry road show with buses for a program involving poetry on buses makes sense, no?
The poems, by both professional and amateur poets, are selected by the Roberto Ascalon, the program’s “poet planner, ” and a team of community liaisons. All poems selected are written by people living in the Seattle area. Ascalon also selected the theme, “Writing Home, ” which can also sound like “Riding Home” and thus doubles to help promote bus transportation.
Here’s one of the poems selected for last December. The poet, Adrian Alarilla, used the prose poem form:
To a Map of Manila
I trace my fingers along your highways like veins on the back of my hand. Someone else
is now walking your streets, but to say our roads will cross once more would be lying.
Yet, during my travels through foreign passages, I still look for a detour
taking me back
(You can also listen to him recite it at the Poetry on Buses web site.)
The current program kicked off last November and runs for a year. All of the poems selected are short, to accommodate the size limitations for the bus placards. The committee selects 125 poems for the bus placards, but the online site for the program also has a poem a day, many with video, audio and photographs. In addition to English, the poems also reflect four large demographic communities in the Seattle area – Somali, Vietnamese, Russian and Spanish.
King County TV posted this promotional video:
The three road shows include poetry readings, workshops, and music. Like we used to say in the 1960s, this isn’t an event; this is a happening.
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