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The Poetry of Everyday LifeStorytelling and the Art of Awareness$

Steve Zeitlin

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781501702358

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501702358.001.0001

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The POEMobile Dreams of Peace

The POEMobile Dreams of Peace

Writing with Light

(p.117) 11 The POEMobile Dreams of Peace
The Poetry of Everyday Life

Steve Zeitlin

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the POEMobile, an art truck with brightly painted iron wings arching above its roof and poems in two dozen languages emblazoned on its sides. Jointly sponsored by Bowery Arts + Science and City Lore, the truck projects poems onto walls and buildings, combining live poetry readings and musical performances in neighborhoods throughout New York. As poets perform in their native languages on the street or plaza, a beam of light soars past them and the words float in light above their heads, often several stories high. The projections open with an animated feathered wing brushing words onto the building, an idea inspired by a Martin Espada line: “God must be an owl, electricity coursing through the hollow bones, a white wing brushing the building.” The door of the POEMobile is inscribed with lines of poetry in some of the world's endangered languages.

Keywords:   art truck, poems, Bowery Arts + Science, City Lore, musical performances, New York, poets, POEMobile, poetry, poetry reading

Llegó la poesía a buscarme (Poetry came in search of me).


The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is bumper-to-bumper—an accident somewhere up ahead. Up in the cab of the POEMobile, I can see a clear and beautiful view of nighttime Manhattan on my left. I’m returning home from the POEMobile’s celebration for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (which commemorates Abraham’s sacrifice) at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens.

The POEMobile is a magnificent art truck with brightly painted iron wings arching above its roof and poems in two dozen languages emblazoned on its sides—beneath which hides a dilapidated 1988 Chevy step van that could conk out at any moment.

Jointly sponsored by Bowery Arts + Science and City Lore, the truck projects poems onto walls and buildings in tandem with live readings and musical performances in neighborhoods throughout New York. As poets perform in their native languages on the street or plaza, a beam of light soars past them and the words float in light above their heads, often several stories high. The projections open with an animated feathered wing brushing words onto the building, an idea inspired by a Martin Espada line: “God must be an owl, electricity coursing through the hollow bones, a white wing brushing the building.”1

The door of the POEMobile is inscribed with lines of poetry in some of the world’s endangered languages. When the POEMobile drove to Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an arts festival, one woman was moved to (p.118) tears when she saw a line in Tlingit, her native Alaskan language, inscribed on the truck. She exuded unabashed joy as she called her mother in Alaska to let her know. A few minutes later, an inebriated visitor saw me in the driver’s seat and asked if he could purchase a hot dog.

In each community we appoint a poetry ambassador to co-curate the program with us. We look for interesting architectural features on a church or movie house façade or just a blank wall for our projections. From then on, it’s a ragtag operation. The POEMobile drives up, we pull out the ladder, hoist the high-powered projector onto the roof, then string party lights around the truck and through the performance area, creating the feel of a European piazza. We set up a stage with sound, assemble a few benches, and then turn it over to the poets and musicians who perform with their words soaring high above their heads. Specially designed software enables the projected poems in their original language to dissolve into English, and vice versa. The community experiences the impact of the poetry in their spoken tongue, while the English-speaking visitors and neighbors are able to grasp the life experiences of the foreign-language poets they live among. The beams appear and disappear, underscoring their ephemerality to a surprised and often enchanted crowd. When it’s over, the POEMobile pulls away, leaving the street and building as if nothing had ever happened.

As traffic inches forward, one car length at a time, I muse on this guerrilla poetry, set up in diverse urban neighborhoods, creating momentary beauty and wonder in words and music and light, and traveling under the radar of both news outlets and, for the most part, the authorities.

In the driver’s seat I think back to the Pakistani mushaira, a gathering of poets, we held at Shaheen’s Sweets in Jackson Heights. Working with poetry advocate Ashraf Mian, we asked eight poets to compose ghazals for the occasion. When the poets read in their native languages, the community audience burst forth with “Wa Wa, Wa, Wa!”—a call-and-response that prompts the poet to read the line again. A local college professor composed literal translations of the Hindi and Punjabi poems into English, and when those translations were read, the audience remained silent. Then Bob Holman, our collaborator on the POEMobile, read his (p.119) freewheeling translations of the poems, and the audience went wild with their “Wa Wa”’s. The poets were especially pleased, so happy to have their poetry appreciated by an English-speaking audience. Here is one:

Song after Dr. Shafiq

  • I’ve left
  • Got a mortgage
  • Sold the house didn’t repay the mortgage
  • So marry me
  • In my last life you said no
  • This time around—I am rich and on the lam
  • So let’s do it do it do it
  • Let’s invent love
  • And spin in the opposite
  • Direction from the world.2

Still stuck on the BQE, I reflect on some of the POEMobile’s great moments. “Sing in Me, O Muse!” highlighted Greek American poetry at the Federation of Hellenic Societies in Astoria with poets, musicians, and dancers honoring their Greek heritage. We projected poems onto the nearby Amtrak overpass and offered a commemoration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis.

Until the advent of printing, poems were made to be spoken. Since then, most literary poems were intended to be read silently, to oneself. There is something wonderful about having them spoken and read simultaneously, as well as about seeing the poems brushed by an animated wing onto a building and then disappear. Holman described the event this way: “The vision of the show from a vantage point behind the crowd was heartbreakingly beautiful, truly Cinema Paradiso come to town. And the central moment of audience communing silently with the projected bilingual text of Sappho while traditional musicians played provided a moment of sheer delight. For this was Pure Poetry of the Moment, gentle, clear, demanding, individualized. We were simply living it. It was New and Old and the fact that it was Greek, Classical & Modern, created a marvelous blend of orality, tradition, and high-tech.”3

(p.120) With Brooklyn in the rearview mirror of the POEMobile, I remember another event, our Haitian Poetry and Music program at Five Myles Gallery in Crown Heights, in collaboration with Haiti Cultural Exchange. A highlight was the Haitian poet Denize Lauture, who was accompanied by master Vodou drummer Frisner Augustin, just a few months before Frisner died of a stroke in Haiti:

  • Our poet is
  • A vodou priest
  • Who makes words
  • Sound like conch shells
  • Who makes words
  • Sound like bamboo trumpets
  • And who turns words
  • Into beautiful Rada drumbeat
  • Our poet is a wizard
  • Who juggles
  • Wondrous literary sounds
  • Inside a magic jar
  • A wizard who knows how to twirl
  • The most beautiful words
  • Who knows how to jam
  • The small drum of heavenly sounds
  • And who knows how to sing the blues
  • On the tip of his mother tongue
  • Until all priestesses, all angels
  • And all souls become possessed
  • Our men and women poets
  • Are shining masters of midnight
  • Who draw magic symbols
  • at the crossroads
  • Of knowledge
  • With the sacred dust
  • Of all gone master poets4

I recall other recent programs—a Russian-Ukrainian Yevgeny Yevtushenko tribute on the Bowery; and both a Korean and a Chinese New Year celebration in and around Flushing Town Hall, in Queens. We covered many of the world’s hotspots in their respective New York City (p.121)

The POEMobile Dreams of PeaceWriting with Light

Figure 2. Live from the POEMobile at Eldridge Street Synagogue, 2012.

Photo by Abby Ronner.

neighborhoods. My favorite line came from the poems we projected at our Persian/Iranian Norooz (New Year) celebration in DUMBO. From the poet Forugh Farrokhzad: “Kus ölür sen uçusu hatırla” (Remember flight, the bird is mortal).5

This line was found scribbled on scraps of paper that were found in the trenches during the Iran-Iraq War.

I began to wonder if poetry could indeed save the world. If global tensions did boil over and conflict erupted, certainly all support for the arts would be summarily axed, and I would be out of work. I imagined that I would take flight in a new POEMobile—some wildly decorated, poem-bedecked Chinook helicopter left over from the Vietnam War careening into the world’s war zones to bring a message of peace. I imagine projecting lines from the Yevtushenko poem “Babi Yar” in tension-ridden towns in Russia and Ukraine:

  • I am
  • each old man
  • here shot dead
  • (p.122) I am
  • every child
  • here shot dead.6

I began to think of anthropologist Steve Caton’s book Peaks of Yemen I Summon: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe. He describes how tribal leaders use the zamil tradition of poetic couplets to resolve obstinate disagreements. He relates a dispute that broke out between the Banī Shadād and ‘A’Rūsh tribes over a pasture straddling a tribal borderline. One side argued, “[It was] my grandfather’s property after my ancestor’s and my property after my father’s;/[and so it goes] down the past generations all the way to Shem, the son of Noah.” The other side responded with a verse arguing that the presence of their sheep grazing on the land was proof that it belonged to them. The Yemeni poets explained to Caton that honor is a window into the tribe’s innermost character. “[H]onor, like glass, is fragile and easily broken; and once honor is shattered, it cannot be mended.” So, in this situation, to avoid conflict, a mediator interjected, “War is not a wedding;/beware: honor is like glass.”7

If only resolving the world’s problems were so easy.

Not long ago I had a conversation with my friend and colleague the performance artist Ruth Sergel. In 2011 Ruth ran a vast array of events to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, perished in a blaze caused by unsafe working conditions in a factory on New York’s Lower East Side. The tragic event helped spark the American labor movement. Ruth’s myriad programs included youth poetry, a play by Elizabeth Swados, street processions, several exhibitions, and discussions with women from Bangladesh who faced similar unsafe conditions in their factories. I loved the programs, and frequently joked that she should wear her tiara at all times in honor of what she had accomplished.

When I asked Ruth how she felt about her festival in retrospect, she said, “I thought it was an absolute failure—I thought the events would change the world and they didn’t.” I was taken aback; her entire initiative had been an unqualified success. (p.123)

The POEMobile Dreams of PeaceWriting with Light

Figure 3. The POEMobile projecting onto the façade of Eldridge Street Synagogue, 2012.

Photo by Abby Ronner.

(p.124) “Ruth,” I told her, “if you’re going to change the world through the arts, it’s going to be a slow process. It’s like righting a great ship of state that turns oh so slowly.” And in fact, there are a lot of countervailing winds to overcome. Besides, as I’ve often said, judge me not by what I did but by what I tried to do. We’re always up against our own limitations and the limits of human endeavor.

Perhaps poetry expresses the ethos of the poet or the performer. It expresses people’s inner life, illuminates their humanity, but certainly does not justify their actions. Hitler, Mao, and Bin Laden all wrote poetry, and great American poets such as Ezra Pound and e. e. cummings had fascist tendencies.

With the POEMobile still at a standstill, my mind turns on a recent ar­ticle I’d read in The New Yorker called “Battle Lines: Want to Understand the Jihadis? Read Their Poetry.” Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel write “It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. … [U]nlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto how the movement talks to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.”8

How can we wrap our minds around the fact that the brutal jihadis love poetry and that their poetry undergirds their brutality? They imagine themselves recapturing past glories atop a steed, swinging sabers as warrior poets. The jihadist Awshan wrote: “I announced there would be no more rest/until …/I strapped on my machine gun with a mujahid’s resolve.”9

Perhaps it is not the writing but the sharing of poems across cultures that can create intercultural understanding. Reading one another’s poems can tell us where someone else is coming from, even someone with a radically different worldview—and can be used as a tool for building empathy if we first put down our guns. We don’t need to “study war no more”—just the poetics of peace.

(p.125) The BQE starts to move, putting an end to my reverie. The tractor-trailer wreckage has been removed. I am reminded of the day the performance artist Annie Lanzillotto stopped traffic on Third Street in New York. Walking around her old neighborhood haunts with the POEMobile following the procession, she stopped to sit on mailboxes and tell stories, and to project her prose poem “Catching a Fly Ball in Oncoming Traffic” onto the wall high above us:

  • I grew up playing in traffic. Under the arcs of balls, balls hit high—’til they became small and black in the sky.
  • The ball’s going back and all the while you have your inner ear on the car at the intersection.
  • You don’t miss the ball.
  • You don’t get hit by the car.
  • With a car coming at you, you face the open sky.
  • You never miss a pop fly because a ball is coming at you.
  • You listen. You turn your ear to the horizon. The ball is in the air.
  • Your feet are moving beneath you.
  • Your ear tracks the speed the car is coming at you.
  • Your eye you keep on the ball.
  • You know a car is coming without needing to look.
  • You don’t want to stop the car, just like you don’t want the car to stop the play.
  • With your throwing arm you flag the car around you.
  • You figure which side of the street the ball is favoring in the wind.
  • You wave the car to the other side of you.
  • You may temporarily halt the car ’til the ball is square in your hands.
  • The car inches forward ’til the ball is in your hands, then the car proceeds.
  • The car is your audience rushing to find you.
  • The car came all this way, down this particular street, around several corners, jumped the exit ramp, to back up around the corner to see you make this play.
  • The car in the middle of the play is part of the play.
  • It’s all in the timing.10

The gathered audience read the poem out loud along with Annie. Then she walked out onto the street, waved her arms, and signaled for the cars (p.126) to stop. Amazingly, they did. Even the yellow cabs didn’t blow their horns. She held up a Spaldeen, the classic New York City rubber ball, smacked it with a broomstick, and watched it arch over and above the POEMobile. If Annie’s poem could stop New York City traffic, well, then perhaps poetry can change the world.


(1.) Martin Espada, “The Owl and the Lightning, Brooklyn, New York,” in Alabanza: New and Selected Poems, 1982–2002 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 120.

(2.) Bob Holman, Sing This One Back to Me (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2013), 30.

(3.) From an informal communication with Bob Holman waxing poetic over a POEMobile presentation on July 15, 2011.

(4.) Denize Lauture, “Neg Ak Fank Powet Nou,” in Denizens of Hope, ed. Jack Hirschman (Berkeley: CC Marimbo, 2013), 46, 47.

(5.) From “Interview with Iranian Poet Farideh Hassanzadeh: Iranian poet Farideh Hassanzadeh talks about war, loss, and the politics of poetry” by Melissa Tuckey and John Feffer on June 12, 2007 on the website Foreign Policy in Focus, fpif.org/interview_with_iranian_poet_farideh_hassanzadeh/. The line has been translated in different ways. A version of the poem called “The Bird Shall One Day Die” appears in Forugh Farrokhzad in Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, ed. and trans. Sholeh Wolpeh (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2007), 111.

(6.) Yevgeny Yevtushenko, The Collected Poems, 1952–1990, ed. Albert C. Todd with the author and James Ragan (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), 149.

(7.) Steven C. Caton, Peaks of Yemen I Summon: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 168, 169, 174.

(8.) Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel, “Battle Lines: Want to Understand the Jihadis? Read Their Poetry,” The New Yorker, June 8, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/08/battle-lines-jihad-creswell-and-haykel.

(10.) Annie Lanzillotto, “Catching a Fly Ball in Incoming Traffic,” in Schistsong (New York: Bordighera Press, 2013), 60.