Pablo Neruda called poetry “an act of peace.” But this week, D.C. poet E. Ethelbert Miller finds himself stuck in the middle of a jealous dispute involving two groups vying to bring verse to the masses of the city.
This week, the Poetry Society of America (PSA) unveils its Poetry in Motion project in the Metrorail system, marking its first foray into Washington with a campaign to promote literacy and public art. Since PSA first introduced poetry on posters in New York’s transit system in 1992, it has expanded to reach 10 million commuters daily in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, among other cities. The D.C. version includes poems by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and one of his predecessors, Mark Strand, along with work by Washington-based poets Anthony Hecht and Reuben Jackson, as well as Miller’s own, “The Door.”
But that work, a meditation on democracy in Chile (“the day after the national election/the sky cleared and the sun found its guitar…”), has already been in circulation on the transit systems of D.C. The poem was originally published in the late ’70s by Black Classics Press in First Light: New and Selected Poems, a collection of Miller’s work, and was first picked up earlier this year by the District Lines Poetry Project, a home-grown version of Poetry in Motion that has been operating here since 1993.
The folks at District Lines are
“The more poetry, the better,” says Laurie Stroblas, director of District Lines. “That’s my overriding opinion here. But it’s tinged with some real confusion. It just isn’t right for a national group to come to the area and ignore the existing project.”
Differences between the two projects are subtle, but the distinctions between the two sponsors are vast. The PSA, founded in 1910, constitutes an august, highbrow band of celebrity bards, whereas District Lineswhich is overseen by the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Public Librarychampions local, grass-roots writers and the work of young poets with an innocent edge.
For the past five years, District Lines has sponsored poetry workshops with kids in D.C. public schools and libraries, and placed the work of 39 young poets in Metrobuses through a series of Metro Muse posters. In April, the group started also promoting the work of established adult poets from the D.C. area on Metrorail platform billboardswhere it will now go head to head with Poetry in Motion for the limited space the transit authority assigns for public service announcements.
Metro donates some of its advertising space within the transit system to the public service announcements of nonprofit groups that apply to its marketing department. Metro spokesperson Cheryl Johnson explains that applications are considered according to community needs and available space. “Metro sees [the poetry projects] as an opportunity to provide a literary outlet for its passengers,” says Johnson. “I’m not aware of any conflict in the relationships between these organizations, but we don’t see it as a competition, because we’re putting up both groups’ poetry.”
But competition for precious space has frustrated District Lines since its inception. For its project to have any impact, Stroblas says, District Lines needs to mount the Metro Muse posters in high-visibility areasprime advertising real estate that Metro doesn’t give away casually. Indeed, although the local group’s work has appeared in Metrobuses for four years, Stroblas says it took five years to petition Metrorail for space before it finally said yes this summer.
District Lines’ attitude toward PSA goes back to 1993, when Stroblas was first launching the local poetry campaign. Stroblas is an accomplished poet in her own right, who has worked on several ambitious poetry projects, including Hungry as We Are, an anthology of D.C.-area poets edited by local stalwart Ann Darr; she is also a former PSA member. At the outset of her project, Stroblas approached PSA for support of District Lines, hoping to set up a cooperative relationship and share resources.
“We had a very cordial meeting in December of ’93, in which I was told that they had no resources, no intent, no interest whatsoever in developing a regional project for D.C.,” says Stroblas. “They wished me luck, and that was the end of that.”
Stroblas says she didn’t hear about the group’s expansion to D.C. until she learned that the two groups would be competing for space in the Metro system.
Timothy Donnelly, managing director of PSA, remembers Stroblas’ overture. “I am familiar with the District Lines project, and we had spoken to Laurie Stroblas a few years ago when she was eager to bring the Poetry in Motion project to D.C.,” says Donnelly, who adds that he recently made repeated efforts to reach Stroblas but never established contact with the District Lines project. “The mission of Poetry in Motion is to put poetry at the crossroads of American life. This is the most successful way we’ve found of doing that. Unfortunately, we were unable to work in cahoots with Laurie Stroblas, but we don’t mean to compete with her, either. It’s a very amicable thing.”
Maybe it is to him, but one adviser to the District Lines project, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says PSA’s inclusion of Miller’s poem adds “insult to injury.” The person suspects the overlap was intentionala claim that Donnelly contends is false.
“I wasn’t aware that they had chosen the same E. Ethelbert Miller poem until very late in the production process,” says Donnelly, noting that Poetry in Motion relies on pro bono graphic design work and has a rigorous selection process. “We decided that it was a great poem, and we didn’t want to scrap it and start again.”
Miller, meanwhile, an acclaimed poet (and adviser to District Lines) who has been publishing steadily over the last two decades, finds the whole scrap rather ridiculous. He says the projects are not incompatible and agrees that some collaboration couldn’t hurt. While he says he is flattered to have his work involved in both projects, he suggests that Poetry in Motion’s selection committee would not have had to look hard to find another suitable poem by him.
“I am concerned about Laurie’s work getting overshadowed, but anything that presents the work in a public view is positiveyou know, the more poetry, the merrier,” says Miller, who is also director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center and serves as a D.C. arts commissioner. “It’s not like Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Any poetry getting out there is a good thing, especially in a place like Washington, where you’ve got a lot of living writers and a great history of poetry to work from.”
Poetry in Motion won’t include student poetry in its posters, and Donnelly says that the project will also feature poets from outside the D.C. region. But when it comes to selecting work by adult poets based in the District, it seems the groups share more than a little in common. In addition to Miller’s poem, both groups are also using poems by Reuben Jackson in their current campaigns.
“It certainly confirms that we’re on the same trackwe both have good taste in poetry,” says Stroblas. “On the other hand, this is an example of something that a little bit of coordination could have helped sort out. Obviously it’s good to have the poetry out there, but I remain confused about why they would refuse to work with the local group.” It could be that the poetry establishment world likes to lament the loss of its audience, but doesn’t want to condescend to the upstarts all that much. CP