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Poetry for the Masses: Transit Poems Spread to Rhode Island

by Michelle R. Smith
Tuesday Sep 12, 2017

A program that spreads poetry through the transit systems of U.S. cities is getting a new audience as it celebrates its 25th year.

For the first time, the "Poetry in Motion" program will reach bus riders across an entire state on Tuesday, when the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority begins running the first lines from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" on digital display panels inside buses.

"Ultimately, I'd like people to have a moment of surprise and delight and reflection," said Tina Cane, Rhode Island's poet laureate, who hatched the plan to bring the program to the state. "The public transport system is really the most democratic, egalitarian vehicle to disseminate anything. You see an ad over and over again, it sticks with you. I feel like the same mechanism can be true for poetry."

The Poetry Society of America began the program in New York City in 1992. Since then, it has been featured on and off in New York City subways and has spread in various forms to more than two dozen cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Boise, Idaho.

Alice Quinn, the society's executive director, recalled once watching a woman memorize Lorine Niedecker's poem "Wilderness" from Times Square to 96th Street in New York City.

"We have the most astounding response to these poems," Quinn said.

Each transit system approaches things differently. In Salt Lake City, for example, it ran on bus shelters. In January, it will launch on 100 buses in San Francisco, where five local artists will get 20 buses each to create art inspired by local poets, Quinn said.

In Rhode Island, Cane will choose one poem or excerpt to feature each month on the digital displays, which are mounted inside the bus and which cycle through with ads and public service announcements.

"I really warmed to this idea that lines of Walt Whitman would be circling with quit-smoking ads," Cane said, adding that she envisions "that wonderful found poetry moment in your day."

The Rhode Island program costs nothing to run when used only on the digital message boards, Cane said. She hopes to eventually find a donor to pay for print ads. September's display was designed for free by Lucinda Hitchcock, head of the graphic design department at the Rhode Island School of Design. Cane said she hopes to work with other designers for future poems.

The Poetry Society will celebrate the program's 25th anniversary during an event Oct. 25 at New York's Lincoln Center with poets including former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

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