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
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’d transferred from the TriMet system to C-Tran to get to the Veterans Affairs campus on Fourth Plain Boulevard — and who 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 C-Tran that Monday just to see who might be appreciating the poems that went up on bus interiors earlier this month.
A LOCAL POETErin Iwata, 33, said she's kept a journal all her life but only came to poetry after some painful experiences forced it out of her a couple of years ago. Since then, she's discovered a vibrant local poetry scene, she said. She's a huge fan of Christopher Luna, the poetry community he's helped create in Vancouver and his Ghost Town Poetry reading series, which is held on the second Thursday of every month at the Angst Gallery and Niche Wine Bar, 1015 Main St. Visit http://printedmattervancouver.com to learn more about Ghost Town. Iwata's submission to "Poetry Moves" became her first publication; since then, she said, she's already scored a couple more. "Excerpt from 'Ours' " by Erin Iwata: I have to believe that something of seventeen still lingers though she pains me with her adolescent optimism I return, hoping she wasn't wrong that there is beauty in the stacked stones along the path that there is a path indeed mountains to be scaled and conquered that the world is still ours
Cammer’s words meant even more to (poetically named) 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.
After Cloud and Batter stepped off the bus, Iwata said in quiet amazement: “Another human connection. Some writer wrote those words, and he reads those words and he doesn’t feel so alone. It’s a little bond between people who’ve never even met.”
“We’ve covered our entire fleet of buses with poetry, two poems per bus,” said Ronda Peck, the marketing and outreach director for C-Tran. “No pun intended, it’s a vehicle to get arts and culture in front of the masses.”
“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-on-wheels, said Karen Madsen of nonprofit Arts of Clark County, which worked with the transit agency and with Christopher Luna, Clark County 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. The city of Vancouver provided a grant of $2,500 to cover the cost of printing several hundred poem cards, and C-Tran agreed to donate interior advertising space that’s usually rented out. In mid-December, according to Peck, 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.
One of the poems now posted in a C-Tran bus is a fragment by Luna about riding a C-Tran 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,” said Madsen. “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 advertisements 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 interstitial downtime these days? They lower their gaze and play with gadgets — checking their texts, browsing around Facebook, reading the headlines or getting mindless with “Candy Crush.”
“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.
“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. It’s a way of celebrating the human spirit. That’s why poetry has been so essential to human culture.”
But maybe it’s becoming the forgotten art form these days, she agreed. Reading poetry takes time, an active imagination and a willingness to explore novel ideas and feelings through language that tends to get strange, she said. “It’s not passive at all, it’s very active,” she said.
A bus ride is the perfect moment for a brief escape to someplace meaningful, Madsen said. “I love the idea of exposing people to poetry in a place where they never expected to see it,” she said.
But only if they look up, Iwata noted. People bending over to peer at little screens aren’t going to notice poetry overhead — nor, she added, much of anything else about the world around them.
“There’s an art to paying attention,” Iwata said.