Poems posted inside C-Tran buses in the Vancouver, Wash., area can inspire soulful, reflective moments for ordinary folks. But first, they need to look up.
VANCOUVER, Wash. — On a yucky, mucky Monday in December — a Clark County moment about as prosaic as they come — public-transit riders were invited to travel to completely different worlds.
Like this one, a poem titled “We could fly,” by Vancouver poet Diane M. Cammer, which was posted up near the ceiling of the outbound No. 4:
yet we stand, feet bound to ground
arms spread wide, wings in
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another world, another time
waiting for wind, an updraft
when all that’s required
is a single bold step into the unknown.
“I think of freedom. With all the stress and strife today, that’s the first thing I think of,” said Wayne Batter of Portland, who had transferred from the TriMet system to C-Tran to get to the Veterans Affairs campus — and who had looked up to ponder Cammer’s airy little portrait of possibility.
“Not that I know anything about poetry,” Batter added. “But that’s the nice thing, there’s no wrong interpretation — right?”
Exactly, said Ridgefield poet Erin Iwata, who was riding that day just to see who might be appreciating the poems that went up on bus interiors earlier in the month.
Cammer’s words meant even more to rider Glenn Cloud, who said he was enjoying his first few hours of freedom after enduring a stretch at the Clark County Jail.
“ ‘Step into the unknown,’ I like that. It just makes you think. It gets you out of your own little world. I’m really glad to get out of mine,” Cloud said with a laugh.
Last year, there were 6.5 million rides on C-Tran, so poems posted in buses could conceivably inspire that many soulful moments of discovery, said Karen Madsen of nonprofit Arts of Clark County, which worked with the transit agency and with Christopher Luna, Clark County’s poet laureate, to start this “Poetry Moves” program.
Luna and his partner, Toni Partington, put out a call for local poetry submissions and selected 10 brief verses that seemed right as bite-sized reading assignments.
A gift to ordinary folks
The city of Vancouver provided a $2,500 grant to print several hundred poem cards, and C-Tran agreed to donate ad space inside buses. In mid-December, according to Ronda Peck, marketing and outreach director for C-Tran, two poems apiece were posted in each of C-Tran’s 166 buses.
Next summer, after Luna has guest-taught poetry at a number of local schools, a second round of “Poetry Moves” poems — all by students — will replace the first.
“We’ve covered our entire fleet of buses with poetry, two poems per bus,” said Peck. “No pun intended, it’s a vehicle to get arts and culture in front of the masses.”
One of the poems is a fragment by Luna about riding the bus — and about the generally not-so-affluent folks who routinely take public transit, he said.
“It’s almost like the people on buses are the people that society just wants to forget about,” he said. “The pregnant teenage moms, the people going back and forth to court. In this public way we just want to give them something to brighten their day.”
“The people who ride buses are very diverse,” Madsen said. “The fact is, these poems are going out like a gift to all of the county.”
Rider Francisco Ortiz said he gets sick of looking at ads on buses. “It’s nice,” he said of the posted poetry. “It’s not just about business. They should do more of it.”
What do most people do with their downtime these days? They lower their gaze and play with gadgets — checking their texts, browsing around Facebook.
“Get on a bus and the first thing you want to do is pull out your screen,” Madsen acknowledged. But she remembers a very different experience while riding mass transit in big cities.
“Having lived in New York, I know how important it was to me that when I got on the subway I got to read poems,” she said. Regularly taking transit from Vancouver down to Portland State University had her hungry for those same magical moments of poetry in motion, she said.
A bus ride is the perfect moment for a brief escape to someplace meaningful, Madsen said.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to take that little time to be a little more reflective?” she thought. “It’s a different way of approaching emotions and a different way of seeing the world.”
“I love the idea of exposing people to poetry in a place where they never expected to see it,” she added.
But only if they look up.