Poetry on Buses, rebooted to reflect diverse ridership

Ethiopian American youth poet Obsa Seid reads at the Poetry on Buses launch Monday night at the Moore Theatre. (Photo by Timothy Aguero)
Ethiopian American youth poet Obsa Seid reads at the Poetry on Buses launch Monday night at the Moore Theatre. (Photo by Timothy Aguero)

This past June, Poet William Logan wrote in the New York Times that “the way we live now is not poetic.”

Futile, dull, and saturated with prose and television, he describes a world where poetry is an obscure art and non-lucrative career path, to be enjoyed only by the few who will truly appreciate it.

“Poetry will never have the audience of ‘Game of Thrones’ — that is what television can do,” he writes. “Poetry is what language alone can do.”

Apparently, it is also what public transportation can do (which in Seattle, is nothing short of a miracle).

This week, King County seemed to disprove Logan’s theory, as nearly 850 people packed the stands of the Moore Theatre on a Monday night in November, to celebrate the launch of Poetry on Buses. From Vietnamese grandmothers to middle aged white guys in suits and ties, this was the poetry of the masses.

Nearly 850 people packed into the free, all ages event to celebrate the launch of Poetry on Buses. (Photo by Timothy Aguero)

After a seven-year hiatus, the 2014-2015 Poetry on Buses collection, playfully titled ‘Writing Home’, is perhaps the most ambitious iteration yet. Armed with a “poet planner” (yes, that’s the job title), liaisons from Russian, Somali, Vietnamese, and Latino communities, translators, a professional photographer, sound engineers, designers, and live music, ‘Writing Home’  captured the collective voice of our city.

Like 365 very meaningful tweets, poems were limited to 50 words or less, each finding a way to draw on different experiences of home — from a Fourth of July party in Skyway to a sugarcane field in Quesería, Mexico.

Of the nearly 630 submissions, the website will feature a poem a day for an entire year until November 9, 2015. A selection of those will be printed on Metro RapidRide buses and stations, including four ‘poetry buses’ dedicated entirely to the project. Featured poems (including mine!) will include audio and interviews, rotating weekly on the website.

The idea for this year’s theme drew from the practice of riding the bus, taking people from all corners of King County back home.

The website states:

The bus is a unique public space — rich with stories, character and poignant vignettes. It’s a space where, for a short while, all of us are going in the same direction.”

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A guest at Monday’s launch party gets a first look at one of the four ‘poetry buses’, featuring all placards of poems from the project. (Photo by Timothy Aguero)

At the Moore Theatre on Monday, the crowd laughed, cried, whistled for friends and family, and cheered ‘we love you Carlos!’ as the youngest poet cowered behind the podium, terrified. Young people from Youth Speaks Seattle shouted poems from the rafters, and the soulful music of Love City Love improvised behind poets as they read from the stage.

Writers gushed about grandmother’s pies and onions browning on the stove, but like all good poets, they weren’t afraid to talk about other things — annoying little brothers, loss, despair, and rain.

Monsoon Memories
Through my ancestral house’s jalousie panes,
I witnessed the seductress supreme;
A drenched monsoon siren
with black and blue hues,
who descended in June
and vanished in August.

But now from this high-rise,
All I see is a graying lady.
Mumbling almost every day
in a foreign and pacific tongue.

– Shahani Sainulabdeen,
Bellevue / Kerala, India


“Honestly, I would not call myself a poet,” insists Anh Phan, who served as a community liaison for Poetry on Buses, but also wrote a poem for the project. Phan’s role was to reach out to the Vietnamese community, helping to translate submissions and coordinate workshops with Poet Planner Roberto Ascalon.

At the workshops, Ascalon and community liaisons would begin by exploring images, sights, and sounds that reminded people of home. Phan remembered riding two hours by bicycle to her grandmother’s house in Biên Hòa, Vietnam with her entire family, her brother standing on the back pegs.

“Once you put it into words, you have a poem,” she said.

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Community liaison and poet Anh Phan translated a poem by Yen Lam, age 67 of Renton, which she sang in Vietnamese. (Photo by Timothy Aguero)

For Mercedes Garcia, a DJ for Spanish-language show Radio Variedades, being asked the simple question ‘what is your home?’ in a workshop with Ascalon brought on the inspiration for a poem.

“The first thing that came to mind was not my house in SeaTac, but my little house in Mexico. You know, mi casa.”

Mi Casa de Cañas
Desde lejos vine y traía
sol y cielo jóven,
recuerdos de caña que crecía
en tierra que germina.
Verde de cañas adorado
olores de azúcar y mieles
con campos de fruta sembrados,
y la sonrisa noble de mi gente
geografía mental que se limita,
porque cabe en mi alma.

My Sugar Cane House
From afar I came and brought
sun a young sky,
memories of sugarcane growing
on fertile soil
lovely green sugar canes
fruit orchards filled with
sweet fragrant air, sugar and honey
the noble smile of my people
geographical memory limited
it all fits within my soul.

-Mercedes García, 43
SeaTac / Quesería, México

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The musicians of Love City Love invited a buzzing audience to take the stage to conclude the evening at the Moore Theatre. (Photo by Timothy Aguero)

The Writing Home collection stood out from past versions of Poetry on Buses for it’s commitment to diversity. Though past projects from 1992 through 2007 had accepted poems in other languages, participation was “spotty” according to Ascalon.

This time around, the languages of focus — Somali, Russian, Vietnamese, and Spanish, were based on the most common language needs in King County, and tied in to Metro’s plan to increase accessibility to communities with limited English proficiency.

A project that combines home and riding the bus that didn’t include a host of languages, cultures, and ethnicities, would have been a sham. Tamar-Benzikry Stern, Public Art Project Manager for King County Partners at 4Culture, says she realized this going into the project.

“Over the past few years especially, we’ve been doing a fair amount of soul searching — thinking about who we are reaching in King County, and who else we need to engage,” she wrote in an e-mail following Monday’s event.

She saw the value of bringing on people who understood how poetry interacted with community, and engaging people on the ground to bring different poetic traditions to the forefront.

“They are providing a space that didn’t exist before,” said Maria de Lourdes Victoria, a novelist whose poem, ‘Somos todos y somos uno’ was accepted, and read onstage Monday night in both English and Spanish.

If there was ever a time to set aside the notion that poetry is a thing of the past, an under-appreciated art form for the Robert Frosts and Rumis of the world, it is now. Tomorrow when you wake up, don’t check your facebook — check out the new poem posted on poetryonbuses.org.

Then grab your coffee, and get on the bus.

The author with a fellow poet Victor Fuentes, outside the Moore Theatre. (Photo by Timothy Aguero)
The author with a fellow poet Victor Fuentes, outside the Moore Theatre. (Photo by Timothy Aguero)