In its 11th year, Poetry in Public continues to bring Iowa City voices to the public sphere–literally.
In this UNESCO City of Literature, it’s a given that poetry talks the talk. But every April, just in time for National Poetry Month, it also walks the walk. Enter Poetry in Public (PiP); established in 2002 by then-Poet Laureate Marvin Bell, the program transforms seven-line submissions of poetry into posters displayed in some of Iowa City’s most accessible public areas.
“When it first started we had just finished the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk,” Marcia Bollinger, Iowa City’s Neighborhood Coordinator, explains in a City Hall office. “The whole component of literature within the art program was really significant. Writers wanted to know what kind of role they could play. So this idea of Poetry in Public came up … Almost every major city has some kind of major venue for poetry to be on display. Marvin Bell, helped come up with the game plan for how to create and promote it.”
While Iowa City has no shortage of readings and events for poets–ranging from established reading series events like Anthology, Talk Art and Strange Cage, to open-mics at Uptown Bill’s or salon-style house readings–there’s really nothing quite like having poetry usually reserved for the page quite so (as the program puts it) public.
“[Poetry in Public] expands every year,” Bollinger explains. “We wanted to get them in the downtown kiosks. [In 2002] we had just seen the downtown improvements bring those kiosks in, and we also wanted them on the downtown busses, the rec centers–downtown and Mercer–and at the Senior Center, the public library and last year we had them at Sycamore Mall. The whole idea was to get poetry into places where people who might not otherwise read poetry would see it. It’s really become enlightening to me to see how many people have a passion for poetry, whether writing it or participating in it, or simply encountering it.”
In a community that bends like a river around an obstreperously steadfast, beautiful stone slab of literature, the reflected sky’s the limit for how literature can wash over Iowa Citians. Yet there are limits to how many poems can be a part of Poetry in Public. “It all depends on how many buses there are!” Bollinger laughs. “That sounds really silly, but the first year we did 2 per bus, and there were 22 buses. The next year, I thought, if we get enough submissions, maybe we can do three per bus. This year there are 89 individual poems … it depends on the ratio of submissions, but this year we had 308 children’s submissions and 93 adult. We promote through the schools and sometimes entire classes will submit. “
The poems, printed attractively on large broadsides, speak to a wide cross section of writers inhabiting Johnson County. It’s a program that showcases poetry publically, but fundamentally, truly, thoughtfully for the public. “I have a hand in selection with the committee, “ Bollinger says, “and I’ll express my opinion about accessibility … you know, some I wouldn’t want my eight-year-old reading. There’s been poetry we’ve received that would have taken an encyclopedia or dictionary to understand. And that doesn’t make it bad poetry–we’ve selected poetry like that–but it makes me wonder, if we have to work that hard to figure out what it’s saying, is it something for everyone? The quality of and potential for great literature here is just amazing.”
“In terms of the selection committee, we’ve got a real balance,” she continues. “We have an Iowa City Public Library representative. We have a City of Literature board member. We have a public art advisory committee member. We have a professional, published poet. Then we have my intern and myself. Then we had an at-large member who used to work at the library, but she loved Poetry in Public so much she asked to stay on and participate.”
As if the poetry wasn’t enough, there’s a newer art component to further stratify the already gladly fraught lines of Iowa City’s visual arts culture. “We have a Poetry in Public art component! It was an idea that came from a teacher who had participated and thought it would be cool to encourage artistic renditions of the poetry,” says Bollinger. “First, we get permission from the poets to say yes, it’s OK to not only post my poem, but for people to create art from it. We decided that we’d just post all the artwork submitted based on the poems. We do a press release saying the poetry is posted online, and if you’d like to make artwork based on a poem, we encourage it. Last year we put them on display in the library windows.”
While artists are given free reign to interpret any work they choose, last year saw a particularly high response to one poem Bollinger remembers quite clearly. “Yeah, we had a poem … “Sid the Squid!” It was from one of our grade schoolers. Of course, it was a lot of kid artists who responded to that one. But we got some really fun submissions.”
“I really think it makes an impression upon people who take the time or are sitting on the bus or on the ped mall or hanging out in the rec center to glance at them and say, ‘That’s cool, that’s friendly, that’s something that I can appreciate.’”
You can see the poems around town throughout April and read past PiP pieces–and see some of the artwork submitted, including the Sid the Squid representations–at icgov.org/pip.