Pictured above: Alexander Grabau’s Mitsubishi Evolution II CE9A and James Daniels’ poem “Factory Love”
“Poetry speaks to everyone,” says Glen Roven, co-founder of GPR Records, a record label that produces Broadway, classical, and children’s music in addition to spoken word poetry compilations. “Far too many people had poetry rammed down their throats by bad English teachers. For them, I recommend Daniel Okulitch’s reading of Tony Hoagland’s poetry about oral sex.”
“Self Improvement” by Tony Hoagland is just one of 100 poems read by 100 well-known performers, actors, actresses, and even celebrities on “Poetic License“, the latest release from GPR Records. Hoagland’s poetry collection What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf Press, 2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Okulitch, who reads Hoagland’s poem in his characteristic bass baritone voice, is an opera singer who won great acclaim as Schaunard in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Bohème.
The poetry showcased on “Poetic License” spans hundreds of years worth of great literature and includes selections from classic writers like Shakespeare to more contemporary writers like Mark Strand and Adrienne Rich. Fans of poetry will recognize poems by John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Allen Poe, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Names like A. A. Milne and Shel Silverstein are childhood favorites that should spark old memories.
In order to transform the idea for this compilation to an actual recording, Roven, an Emmy Award-winning composer, lyricist, and conductor, had to call upon his many professional contacts and friends. He says, “The first people I called were Patti LuPone, Jason Alexander, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Cynthia Nixon. They all agreed. Then I put the call out to more of my friends. And it snowballed!”
“Poetic License” was released on April 2nd in honor of National Poetry Month, a month-long poetry celebration first established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Throughout the month of April, participating poets, booksellers, librarians, and teachers attempt to increase the awareness of poetry as a vital and vibrant art form being practiced in the United States.
(Pictured at left: cover of “Poetic License”)
Poetry is dynamic. By presenting a poem in a new medium, the poet can bend a reader’s expectations.
Alexander Grabau is a race car driver and the co-owner of Dent Sport Garage, located in a suburb of Boston, MA. A racetrack is probably the last place a reader would expect to encounter a poem, but 32-year-old Grabau applied “Factory Love” by James Daniels to the roof of his white Mitsubishi Evolution II CE9A. This month, he will debut the car in its first race at New Jersey Motorsports Park.
(Pictured at right: racetrack, by Alexander Grabau)
“I’m so surprised and happy at the reception of my idea among the writing community,” says Grabau. “Sometimes, drivers in Japan tape a verse or a photo to their dashboard or a photo.”
Readers better identify with poems when they feel the poet has spoken directly to them. In 2006, at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, poet Li-Young Lee was one of many poets to publicly read poems. After Lee’s reading, a member of the audience stood up from his seat and admitted that he has kept “From Blossoms” in his wallet for years. Lee’s message was so memorable and meaningful to him that he wanted it nearby at all times.
Members of the Miami Poetry Collective (MPC), a poetry group co-sponsored by the University of Wynwood and Louvetian Industries, have attempted to connect more personally with readers by starting Poem Depot. Launched on March 14, 2009, during Wynwood Second Saturday Art Walk, an arts event in Miami’s arts district, Poem Depot gave visitors a chance to buy custom-written poems.
(Pictured at left: Poem Depot, by Nick Vagnoni)
“We had a sliding scale menu that first time (Petrarchan sonnets were $20 or something), but pretty quickly we settled on two dollars as a price for run-o-the-mill free verse, which is usually what people want,” says Scott Cunningham, co-founder of MPC. “We made around $120 that first night and wrote 40 or so poems.”
Poem Depot at the Art Walk became a regular event, but Cunningham soon started receiving requests to perform elsewhere. Terry Riley, director of the Miami Art Museum at the time, asked MPC to bring Poem Depot to the museum for a monthly event called JAM@MAM. Poem Depot has appeared at libraries, fundraisers, and even happy hours.
(Pictured at right: Typing a custom poem, by Yaddyra Peralta)
“We’ve had people cry after reading the poems we wrote them. Some people ask for poems about some pretty heavy topics. Other people will come back and get four to five poems in one night,” says Cunningham. “We have one girl who always orders a poem about David Bowie. Other people have told me about how they have their Poem Depot poem hanging above their desk at work or in the kitchen.”
Grabau admits that Daniels’ poem “Factory Love”, which captures the reliability and sensual appeal of machinery and tools, moved him profoundly. One stanza reads:
And you, you hardly ever break down,
such clean welds, such sturdy parts.
Oh how I love to oil your tips.
In order to republish the poem on his car, Grabau had to contact Daniels, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsgburgh, PA. “Factory Love” was published in Daniels’ book Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).
“I didn’t know how to get in touch with Jim, or how old he was, or even if he was still alive! It’s weird how someone can be familiar with an author but not really know anything about them,” says Grabau. “Luckily, I found Jim. I was nervous about writing, but I’m glad I did. We e-mail now.”
Most readers, exposed only to classic poetry in requisite high school and undergraduate literature classes, would be surprised how much great work is being written by poets living and breathing today. Accessing contemporary poetry through new media is a way for curious readers to appreciate the way these poets capture and represent life as we know it.
Now, anyone with an iPhone can read and share poetry via Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Launched in February, Poem Flow is a poem-of-the-day application available as a free download from the Apple store. The standard version includes 20 classic and contemporary poems curated by The Academy of American Poets, but additional poems can be purchased for less than a penny each (100 poems are $.99, and a full year of poems costs $2.99).
Robert Peake, a poet and blogger from Ojai, CA, reviewed the application on his personal website. Peake writes:
“When we got around to the iPad, I mentioned its potential to bring some sizzle to literature–possibly in ways the Kindle cannot. I whipped out my iPod Touch, fired up the new Poem Flow for iPhone application that just got released today, and we all sat around for a few minutes watching ‘The Second Coming’ by W.B. Yeats elegantly fade, in measured lines, across my tiny screen. The implications for the larger iPad seemed obvious.”
The application has more than one reading mode so that readers can experiment with the ways they experience the text. Says Dennis Downey, founder of Poem Flow, “As a culture, we are reading increasingly on screens. The ‘form of conventional text’ has been inherited from the requirements of a static medium, but the screen is an electric (fluid) medium. A flow provides a pace, a forward motion through the discourse.”
Grabau’s race car may not inspire a casual reader to become a die-hard poetry fan, but the poem on the roof of his car has definitely attracted attention. Says Grabau, “Choosing stickers, stripes, or special wheels for a car shows how we feel. Publishing this poem is a chance to just do something different, something to get people talking. In racing, the sponsors keep you going, but sometimes that washes out the experience. I want to keep it about my experience.”
Cunningham and MPC have benefited from Poem Depot in practical ways. At a 2009 Art Walk appearance, the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation approached Cunningham. In January, the Knight Foundation awarded him a $250,000 grant to organize and execute a poetry festival in Miami. The festival, called O Miami, will take place in April 2011.
“Our goal is for every resident of Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem during that month. We will be doing a few traditional readings, but we’ll be focusing on bringing poetry to audiences that probably wouldn’t go see Robert Hass or Louise Glück,” says Cunningham. “The name ‘Hass’ may not mean anything to them, but I’m guessing poetry does. We’ll find out.”
When poets and enthusiasts share poetry through new media, readers outside of the close-knit literary community can access work in unprecedented, exciting ways. Says Cunningham, “Since 2006, I’ve been submitting poems to literary journals regularly and have had 12 to 14 poems published. I doubt any of them has been read as carefully as any of the 40 or so poems I’ve written at Poem Depots. The poem has been hand-made, specifically for that person. It has more meaning, but that’s just a theory.”