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Poetry That Works

On Kelowna's buses, writing about ordinary jobs creates extraordinary connections.

By Veronica Gaylie 28 Nov 2006 |

Veronica Gaylie is an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus. The poems are on view on Kelowna buses until Dec. 2. Some claim the tradition of transit poetry began in New York in 1992, but we're sure there have been rhyming tram conductors and haywagon poets for much longer than that. In B.C., the Association of Book Publishers of B.C.'s Poetry in Transit initiative just celebrated its 10th anniversary, with an event at the Vancouver International Writers Festival.

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A vehicle for the working person's art.

What is it about electricians and poetry? A recent contest to put poetry about work on 45 Kelowna city transit buses attracted over 100 entries from plumbers, nurses, millwrights, air traffic controllers, firefighters, care aides, coffee baristas, clerks, cashiers, aircraft maintenance workers, students, pilots -- even a phlebotomist. And lots of electricians. Under blind judging, the two second-prize winners were both electricians, married to each other. Between the two of them, they have five compelling poems posted inside Kelowna buses.

When I first started thinking about a poetry project for Kelowna buses, my first thought was to encourage poems written by working people. Poetry placed on buses and in subways in cities around the world allows people to contemplate life from a variety of odd angles, on their way somewhere else, often on their way to work. Minds on buses tend to wander. I thought: what if people on their way to work could read about others at work?

I wondered what people who worked on construction sites thought about life, and their jobs, when they weren't busy pounding nails. How does a phlebotomist cope with sticking needles and drawing blood from sick people, all day, all night? What is the feeling of working as a care aide in a seniors' home, when all their patients think they're going home? What does the flag person think? Has anyone ever asked?

B.C. Transit supported the project and a contest was developed that invited workers to take some time out from their busy jobs, and write. Ordinary poems for ordinary people, set at the scale at which the majority of people live.

New venue for an old tradition

As soon as the contest opened, the poems began flooding in. I received many letters similar to this one: "Hello! I'm a retired millwright. Here's my poem. First one I ever wrote. Thanks for the contest. Frank." These are poems written by people who have something to say, written in a vernacular tradition that goes back to Robert Burns and, long before that, to the lost "Song" poems of ancient China, found hidden in a cave early in the 20th century, written by "Anonymous."

The bus poems similarly and compellingly describe people's everyday dreams and disappointments. Many of the poems are about bad bosses, pressure, responsibility, difficult customers or colleagues, mind-numbing routines -- and layoffs. When I spoke to some of the bus poets, they had already been let go from the jobs that had been the subjects of the poems. One of the electricians, second-place winner Alice Brown, wrote a poem entitled "Shutdown," about the shutdown of a large mill. The poem describes the daily negotiation of labour, the pressure on manual labour contractors, the seemingly lacklustre routines of daily survival:

Sweat on your face, ache in your back, camaraderie and frustration
grab this, go there, pull in cable, get that motor running
good job says the foreman as you hand in your hardhat
see you on the next shut down.

-- Alice Brown, Industrial Construction Electrician

These poems are about bread. They are written from the pace of daily life, revealing the mysteries of how people get up every day and make a living. There is not a trace of fabrication; a pipe on a worksite appears in a poem -- as a pipe. Irony takes care of itself.

Call it a refinery, but it's a pile of pipes
With the wind blowing through at 35 below
Men and materials, they call it cost-plus
We call it hide-and-seek, for 2,000 a week
As we stay out of sight and try to keep warm.

-- Howard Brown, "Scottsford Blues"

Working for better metaphors

The poet Stanley Kunitz says, "If someone wants to write, they should do manual labour. At least it improves your metaphors." A common element to the poems is their use of tangible, ordinary objects like nails, screws, hard hats, jackhammers, TVs, garbage trucks, rats, hockey pucks, cookies, x-ray machines, airport runways and shopping carts. These are poems written by people who do things, who can perform complex, skilled tasks that involve x-raying an airplane for rust or working in customer service at the Cherryville Emporium. Another common theme, in both form and subject, is repetition, as garbage truck drivers, plumbers, all describe tasks they do repeatedly, and well, in order to survive.

Disease would be endemic
Were not garbage collected,
Rats would not be gotten rid.
A great city, thus, was saved.
The way to honor, thus, is paved
By the routes of garbage trucks.

--William Kirk Floyd, "This is Garbage," first-prize winner

These poems do not ruminate. Even if the mood of the poem is low, about hard daily life, it is impossible to read this work without thinking of the gesture of a fellow worker somewhere out there, truthfully writing down his or her story. People riding to work, reading poems about work, forms a kind of pure, organic process. It's like buying blueberries directly from the farmer, bypassing the packaging that somehow distorts the taste. In a world where people's lives are too often described through television, advertising, big media and professional politicians, this is work that speaks to workers -- about work.

I recently rode "The Poetry Bus" with a group of the poets who read their poems on the bus on local CBC radio. One woman stated that having the poems on the bus was "a big confidence boost." Another poet told me: "I have the stories. But I haven't the pull!" Sitting there watching people interact with people on such an ordinary level seemed extraordinary. After the poems were read, people simply smiled and clapped. It was simple, human-scaled, necessary. Average citizens writing poetry in isolation from one another, writing after work, at work or on their days off; each of these writers has a unique, Canadian voice that is clear, powerful and informative. The bus drivers love the poems. And the poems are still flooding in.

Another new day in the Department of Stores...
And so it goes, the daily deliverance,
Of nuts, bolts and screws, with a whole lot of patience.
The parts in their boxes, row upon row,
Alpha-numeric ain't necessarily so.

-- Jean Willerton, Kelowna Flightcraft