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Wednesday, January 25,2012

Takin' it to the streets

Poetry in Motion program rolls out on CATA buses

by Bill Castanier

“There is nothing tinier than the poetry world” — New York Times poetry critic David Orr, writing in the April 2011 issue of Poetry Magazine.

That may be the case, but Lansing’s world of poetry is about to get bigger and more accessible, as Lansing becomes the first Michigan city to join the national  Poetry in Motion effort, which displays placards with poetry in buses and subways.

Capital Area Transportation Authority buses traversing mostly along campus routes and down Michigan Avenue will host a moveable feast of poetry, with each bus showcasing interior placards with lines of poetry from 13 poets, including Michigan State University Professors Anita Skeen and Diane Wakoski. The poets also include regionally and nationally recognized poets, such as Octavio Paz, Lucille Clifton and Ezra Pound.

In addition to the poetry, the placards are illustrated with original works of art created by five students from an MSU advertising class.

Poetry in Motion kicks off today with a reception on a CATA bus that is scheduled to depart from MSU’s Snyder-Phillips Hall at 10 a.m. on a trip to downtown Lansing. Stops are planned at Everybody Reads Books and Things, the Capital Area District Library, the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing and the Michigan Humanities Council, which provided a grant of $250 to underwrite the program.

Poetry in Motion was started on the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York in 1992, and has expanded to scores of cities nationwide, including Chicago, Little Rock, Dallas and Denver.

A little over a year ago, Stephanie Glazier, assistant director of the MSU Residential Center for Arts and Humanities Poetry Center, discovered Portland’s Poetry in Motion program during a trip to Oregon. 

“I fell in love with their program,” Glazier said. “It’s a great, simple way to get poetry in the public eye. As a CATA rider myself, I wanted to coordinate a program in the Lansing area.”

Glazier said that the U.S. doesn’t have the same reverence for poetry as other cultures do. “This is one way to put poetry in places you otherwise wouldn’t expect it,” Glazier said. “I felt like Michigan needed a win.”

She said research shows that when you read poetry, “the brain is literally delighted.”

Glazier said the project is a great example of the kind of collaboration that can happen around the arts. “I’m thrilled that CATA was eager to be a part of the program, and a lot of different kinds of talent came together to make it possible.”

CATA CEO/Executive Director Sandy Dragoo agreed to share specially selected excerpts of poems with riders as way of “celebrating and thanking them for the moments of their day that they share with us. We take pride in doing our part to raise Greater Lansing’s cultural awareness in this somewhat unexpected way.”

Glazier said the displayed poems she selected were chosen to represent “a large cross-section of diversity in voices, geography and styles of poetry.” Glazier took recommendations from other poets, then secured the necessary permissions to use the work. She said she expects some clamor from poets who want to be included next year.

There’s also hope that the poetry will make riders smile a little; Glazier thinks the lines from Bob Hicok’s “A Primer” might accomplish that task.

Hicok, who grew up in Grand Ledge, wrote the poem (which first appeared in The New Yorker) as a salute to his home state.

“We are a people who by February

want to kill the sky for being so gray

and angry at us. “What did we do?”

is the state motto. There’s a day in May

when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics

is everywhere, and daffodils are asked

by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes

with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.”

Glazier said the poetry is illustrated with a scene of a man proposing to a woman emerging from a daffodil.

She said the bus poetry explores all forms of human emotion, from love to fear and from hope to the wonder of nature.

Each of the poetry placards contains a scannable Quick Response code that leads to the MSU Center for Poetry homepage.

The MSU Poetry Center is celebrating its fifth year, and Glazier said Poetry in Motion “is a great way to let the public know the Poetry Center is here, and we want community feedback. I sense there is a resurgence of poetry in this country.” 

She points to poet Elizabeth Alexander reading in front of millions at President Obama’s inauguration and former Michiganian Philip Levine being named the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Michigan does not have a formal Poet Laureate, although at different times Hillsdale poet Will Carleton, Detroit Free Press poet Edgar Guest and Detroit’s Paradise Valley poet Robert Hayden have held that title.

A selection from Guest’s poetry was recently featured in Chrysler’s ad campaign, “Imported from Detroit.” Hayden was the nation’s first black poet laureate, and Carleton, a late 19th-century phenomenon, was noted for his poem, “Over the Hill to the Poor House.”

On a wintery Michigan day, CATA bus riders might identify with the lines from Diane Wakoski’s poem “Sun”: 

“A bird made out of keys,

flying to unlock the sun, let out the heat.”

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