Since 1992 the Poetry Society of America has installed hundreds of poems on New York City trains and subway cars, reaching millions of commuters each day, as part of Poetry in Motion, a project that has since expanded to twenty other cities nationwide. In 1997, when Robert Pinsky launched the Favorite Poem Project during his tenure as U.S. poet laureate, nearly eighteen thousand Americans sent in letters about their favorite poems, an initiative that grew into a video series, anthologies, and public readings and events across the country. Now, Traveling Stanzas, a project similarly designed to democratize and celebrate poetry, seems poised to reach that same kind of broad audience.
Established in 2009 at Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center in Kent, Ohio, to “facilitate a global conversation through the intimate and inclusive voice of poetry,” Traveling Stanzas (travelingstanzas.com) is further developing its programming in nearby Akron and beyond after receiving a $125,000 grant this past March from the Knight Foundation. Over the next two years, Wick will expand the project’s reach by working with Akron’s growing immigrant community and by building a new digital poetry exhibit that will travel locally and nationally.
Since its founding, Traveling Stanzas has promoted the power of poetry through its website and installations of poetry in public spaces in and around Northeast Ohio. “We originally launched Traveling Stanzas to interact with the community,” says Wick director David Hassler, “so we built a website where anyone in the world could record themselves reading an original poem or a poem they loved. We’re talking eight-year-olds right alongside poets laureate. So even before the grant from the Knight Foundation, Traveling Stanzas was already a beautiful democratization of the joy of writing poetry.”
The Traveling Stanzas website features poems in five different languages from a wide array of contributors. Wick selects a number of poems to showcase and collaborates with the university’s School of Visual Communication Design to create original art, such as an illustration, video, or animation, to accompany each one. The poems have also been printed on posters, banners, and kiosks throughout the area—in coffee shops, metro stations, buses, and a dedicated “poetry park” on the Kent State campus.
“The arts tell our stories, who we are and where we as a community are going,” says Victoria Rogers, the Knight Foundation’s vice president of arts. “Traveling Stanzas is a wonderful example of that. When you watch the videos and read the poems on the site, Northeast Ohio comes alive. And you begin to realize, too, that poetry is a living, breathing force that can both reflect and light up a city. Wick’s project is poetry’s platform, one that has the potential to bring people together through the arts.”
With the Knight grant, which is given for programming specifically in Akron, Wick is launching a series of workshops geared toward the city’s growing immigrant community. “Akron has seen an influx of refugee populations from Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, and Thailand via the International Institute of Akron [IIA],” says Hassler. “We saw a need and an opportunity to celebrate and promote the voices of our region and community, particularly those people who are voiceless—who are not seen and not heard in the larger public realm—as well as nationally known poets. And we wanted to do this in the real world, not just the digital one.”
To reach this community, Wick will work with Akron Public Schools (APS) and IIA to hold weekly workshops taught by Wick staff, student teachers, and teaching artists. Early results of the project have been promising, says Hassler. “Pilot workshops that we conducted last year at four APS locations and the Juvenile Detention Center garnered extremely positive responses. A particularly shy eighth-grade student from India wrote a poem about her name: ‘Today my name is peace. / Yesterday it was lonely. / Tomorrow it will be unique.’ Another student from Myanmar was grappling with the loss of a loved one. She wrote, ‘Does she shine like a moon? / Does she melt like snow? / Or break like a bowl when it falls? / Maybe like a puzzle her heart’s torn apart. / Does she fade like the TV screen? / Then does she appear again?’”
In late 2017, Wick plans to launch a new mobile poetry exhibit, composed of a portable, interactive touch screen—similar to those found in museums—that will be installed in various locations throughout Akron. Patrons will be able to browse poems in multiple languages—some generated in the APS and IIA workshops, plus a selection from the Traveling Stanzas archive—along with related animations, video stories, and artwork. Wick plans to display the exhibit in and around Akron for a year before setting off on a national tour.
“The Traveling Stanzas mobile exhibit will offer people pockets of time to slow down and reflect on their lives, their city, and discover a shared humanity through the intimate voice of poetry,” says Hassler. “Most important, it will be accessible by that community and by people visiting or just passing through. It’s totally different and very exciting.”
Hassler’s not the only one excited by the Traveling Stanzas expansion. “Traveling Stanzas [will be] the most luminous interactive poetry site in the wondrous wide world!” says poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who has taught workshops at Wick and has two poems in the Traveling Stanzas archive. “It honors the voices of the world—all people, all ages. It reminds us why we fell in love with poetry to begin with, it lights up the darkness of which we have plenty, it brilliantly restores the magic of language and hope and connection.”
“Ultimately,” Hassler says, “Traveling Stanzas will empower individuals and families in the Akron community to participate in a global conversation while also becoming more informed and engaged in Akron’s unique, diverse culture. The project will succeed in decreasing barriers to participation—whether those of dominant language, age, culture, gender, or educational background—and will encourage people to share their voices and stories across any border or division in their lives.”
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. He is the acquisitions editor of Upper Rubber Boot Books, founder and editor in chief of poemoftheweek.org, and founder of the Colorado Writers’ Workshop. His poetry collection, Ghost Gear, was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2014. His website is andrewmk.com.