Nancy Holmes: The Art of Random Acts of Poetry
You are rushing down the street on your way to have lunch with a friend, when a woman steps in front of you waving a handful of paper and, ominously, wearing a flashy button. Oh no, you think, someone wants to sell a raffle ticket. You shake your head and sidestep, but then she says: "Could I read you a poem in support of literacy in our community?"
This surprises you and now that you've hesitated, you're lost. She says, "I'm not trying to sell anything. I'll just read you a poem." Even though you don't like poetry, you listen, and it turns out to be okay. The poem isn't too long and you get a free book, although unfortunately it is a poetry collection. Soon you're at the restaurant telling your friend, "Sorry I'm late, but I was poemed!"
You were the victim of a Random Act of Poetry and, if you were in the Okanagan, the woman reading the poem was probably me. For the past three years, I have been the local representative for this national phenomenon, created and organized by a wild and wonderful Victoria poet named Wendy Morton. With Wendy's blessing (and the blessing of the READ Society of Victoria and The Canada Council for the Arts though Wendy's blessing is the most important), once a year along with about 40 other poets across the country, I stand on street corners and read poems to total strangers. Usually the poems are my own, but sometimes at wineries I read Neruda's wine poem or, in college calculus classes, I read Szymborska's "Pi" poem. I try to find poems that suit the occasion, for although the act is random, it has strange connectivity to specific places and real people, as all lyric poetry should.
Reading someone a poem face-to-face is a surprisingly intimate act. People who stop to listen get a chance to have a poem spoken directly to them and they don't have to find the metaphor and it won't be on the final exam. The real experience of lyric poetry is this intimate listening. Unlike most storytelling, plays or bardic epics, lyric poems weren't created for a communal audience. A lyric poem is meant to talk to you, to "thou"; yes, you, you lover, friend, dear one, fellow human being. The lyric voice is accessible on the printed page because reading is so private; the voice travels down the generations into your own ear: Sappho's voice, Shakespeare's voice, Dickinson's voice.
Off the page, we usually only hear poems at poetry readings. These events can be great but by their very nature they are distancing, not half as intimate as the page. In the way of the poem are rows of chairs, a podium, sometimes a microphone, introductions, a church-like hush or a noisy espresso machine, and lots of politeness or lots of hooting if you're at a slam. The poet is talking to a whole lot of people instead of just "thou" which often defeats the whole purpose of the poem.
So a Random Act of Poetry intimate words spoken face-to-face, person-to-person, on the street, at the bus stop, in the grocery store line-up returns the poem to its bliss. Reading poetry like this is a reminder of literacy because they are similarly private, powerful, personal communications. Lyric poems and reading text form a perfect match. So if you find yourself subject to a Random Act of Poetry this fall, enjoy your poem, think about those who can't read, and support literacy programs in your community. And if you have a special request, feel free to contact me; yes, you thou, dear one, fellow human being.
Nancy Holmes is a Kelowna poet who teaches creative writing at UBC Okanagan. She is shown left at the Mission Hill Winery in 2006 (photo by David Murray).
The fourth annual Random Acts of Poetry - October 1-7, 2007.
The Poet Laureate of Canada, John Steffler, will be in town, so look for a special event.
Truthfully, people rushing down the street rarely want to be poemed, but
people sitting in outdoor cafés, sunning
themselves on park benches, having a brown bag
lunch at a construction site, or standing in just about any line-up, make perfect
candidates for a Random Act of Poetry. So beware
one may be coming your way!