I am becoming more and more fascinated with contemporary poetry in public spaces. Whether through poetry installations, pop-up poets, guerilla poetry or the creation of poetry cities, I am ever delighted to hear of people’s creative and sometimes rather subversive methods of getting the written poetic word in front of an unsuspecting audience. But it seems that I’m not the only one taking an interest in the public face of poetry.
Earlier this year, in fact, there was an interdisciplinary research project undertaken, funded by the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation. It was entitled ‘Contemporary Poetry in the Public Space: Intervention, Transfer and Performativity’ and focused on the ways in which poetry publicly interacts with and constitutes subjectivities, mediality and space across Europe and the Americas. It aimed to come up with some kind of unifying framework.
But perhaps there doesn’t need to be a framework. Perhaps the beauty of written poetry in public spaces is its freedom, its often-temporary nature, its spontaneity and its lack of restraint. And one of the most interesting facets of the form to me is the impact that these poetic statements have upon the reader, on the poets themselves and on general public feeling. I wonder whether these poems really do what they aspire to?
Let me just be clear here that I’m not talking about poetry readings or open mic sessions. Instead, I’m talking about the poems you might find engraved in the pavement, hanging from someone’s bedroom window, nestling amongst the daffodils at the park or painted onto the side of a building.
Poems on the underground
In the UK, ‘Poems on the Underground’ is a great example of the way in which poetry can be found in public spaces, in a completely legal way. Launched in 1986, the project aimed to bring poetry to a wider audience by displaying displaying poems on billboards across the London Underground train network, and is still going today. The project has been so popular that it’s inspired similar ventures in Paris, Barcelona, St Petersburg, Warsaw, Shanghai, Sāo Paulo, New York and Toronto.
Poetry in public spaces across the globe
In other parts of the world, poetry is also a public phenomenon. In Iceland, public benches have barcodes so that you can sit and listen to a story or a poem on your smartphone as you sit. In Iowa City, you can find poems by writers of all ages in buses, kiosks, recreation buildings and other public facilities. ‘Poetry in Public India’ is a new project that aims to make women’s poetry freely accessible to the masses, at unconventional public and cultural spaces, in urban India, through the medium of poster art. And of course there are countless examples of poetry to make a political statement, to raise awareness of an issue or to challenge the status quo. For all these reasons and more, it seems that there is still, perhaps even more than ever, a need for poetry in public spaces.
‘Poetry is like a bird – it ignores all frontiers.’
– Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Sharing many similarities with art installations (and a few similarities with graffiti, it must be admitted), publishing poetry in public spaces can make quite a statement, bringing itself to the forefront of human consciousness, and allowing its readers to be inspired, taught, healed, transformed and cheered not only by its content but by its very being. The fact that it contrasts so starkly with the standard billboard advertisements bidding for your time, money and customer loyalty is itself remarkably refreshing and only serves to make its impact greater.
A couple of examples
Robert Montgomery is a Scottish poet creating poetry installations across Europe. Trying to ‘write about our collective unconscious in public space’, he sees the best poetry as ‘an intimate conversation with strangers, one at a time, heart-to-heart.’ You can find out more here.
‘The Drunken Poets Project’ is created by American poet and mixed-media artist Andy Knowlton, who hand-makes dozens of unique dolls out of materials found on the streets of Seoul, where he currently resides. Each doll holds a bottle containing a poem. Find out more about Andy’s work here.
So back to the question – what impact does this freely accessible poetry publishing have on the reader, on the poet and on society in general? I don’t have an answer, of course, and can only state that I personally am delighted if I happen to come across a poem at the bus stop or written on the pavement (assuming it’s a good poem, naturally…!). I would, however, be really interested to hear anybody’s ideas or perceptions on the subject. Have you come across poetry installations in your town or city? What impact did it have upon you or on other people you know? Are you a guerilla poet yourself? Or do you think poetry should be a more private, personal affair? If you have any thoughts or experiences, please do post a comment below.