Walking across a footbridge in Minneapolis, poet and Colorado College professor David Mason noticed a John Ashbery poem scrawled along a cross beam.
"It created a level of charm and intrigue in what might otherwise have been a dull moment crossing above a busy freeway," says Mason. "I'm not sure John Ashbery's poetry has ever been more useful."
Mason's observation begs a couple questions:
What does it mean, exactly, to make poetry more useful? And would should someone like Ashbery, a former New York poet laureate, cheer this kind of development?
A coalition of local organizations including Poetry West, the Pikes Peak Library District, Colorado College, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR) is considering those questions. And the answers will fuel the work of the Pikes Peak region's first-ever poet laureate.
Currently, 40 U.S. states have poets laureate. Towns, cities and counties across the country also claim these word ambassadors.
The Pikes Peak Poet Laureate Project (PPPLP) emerged from conversations within Poetry West, a local organization of more than 30 members (including Indy freelancer Frances Gomeztagle) that hosts monthly workshops, arranges occasional readings and publishes The Eleventh Muse, an annual journal. The chair of the PPPLP's organizing committee, John Atkinson, says a question came up within the group regarding how everyone could better share poetry and their enthusiasm for it with a larger audience.
The idea, Atkinson explains, matured in a unique way. Other poet laureate programs, such as the one that Denver started in 2006 (technically begun with a posthumous appointment of Albelardo Delgado in 2004), are at least, in part, government-funded efforts.
The organizers of the PPPLP, on the other hand, decided that if they set everything up outside of government, with the help of community groups, the range of the program could extend beyond Colorado Springs' boundaries, into places like Manitou Springs and Woodland Park. They quickly found the backing they needed from the organizations mentioned above.
According to poet, CC professor and organizing committee member Jane Hilberry, the regional poetry scene is ripe for introduction of a laureate.
"Poetry West ... regularly gets large crowds at their meetings," she notes.
She and others also point to CC's Visiting Writers Series, the perhaps dozens of published local poets and the Pikes Peak Library District's support of literary programs.
Here's the current trouble, according to Karen Sucharski, the Pikes Peak Arts Council's reigning Pikes Peak Performance Poet of the year: As vibrant and energetic as the poetry scene is, the paths of its myriad members tend not to intersect.
"There are so many amazing poets out there, and you can go to some of these open mics and catch them here and there," she explains.
Aaron Anstett, vice president of Poetry West and an accomplished poet, says that during the nearly 10 years he has lived in Colorado Springs, he's seen poetry groups come together, only to grow apart over time. He says while that's in "the nature of things," he'd like to see poetry get more traction overall.
"I think it would be great if more people knew about the poets and poetry we have in this community, and if more people tried to write their own poetry, and were exposed to the pleasures that writing your own poetry can provide," he says.
Pleasure and astonishment
Once the selection committee chooses the poet laureate toward the end of March, he or she will have the opportunity to bring local poets together. And he or she might engage people who haven't been exposed to much poetry before. Now, in Mason's opinion, the relationship between the community and poetry is necessarily complex, and a good candidate will recognize that.
"Good poets laureate," he says, "are people who think of structural ways of involving the community through schools, through senior centers and other existing organizations to raise awareness of poetry in an area, but also to create opportunities for people to write and be heard."
The position will pay a $2,000 stipend and carry with it certain requirements: the laureate must undertake a major, community-wide project; promote "point activities" like workshops and readings; and support other community-initiated "spin-off activities," such as poetry slams. But the organizers have built in as much flexibility as possible.
Some ideas that Atkinson finds inspiring include establishing slams in area high schools as alternatives to athletic competition; further connecting the military community with poetry; and putting poets in contact with hospital patients to help them process their illnesses. Projects might also draw on examples that Atkinson discovered from other poet laureate programs, such as Utah's distribution of "bite-sized" poetry that can be put on abandoned buildings, buses and other places that (officials hope) every citizen in the community will experience at some point.
Ultimately, the people involved with the PPPLP hope to create an opportunity wherein everyone in the region will have the chance to celebrate poetry together. The laureate can be a point of intersection not only for poets, but also for the community, and an agent for sharing passions.
If usefulness is the measurement, it might be hard to quantify the success of the program. Reduced crime rates, higher test scores, avoidance of a recession ... who knows? As Anstett suggests, maybe increased participation in what he calls the "pleasure and astonishment available in poetry" offers a constructiveness of its own.
For more information about the program and how to contribute, either visit the project's Web site or call COPPeR at 634-2204.
Those who donate $50 or more before March 31 will receive "Founding Muse" status, which includes an invitation to a special reception for the poet laureate and recognition on the Web site.