ASK ELI: Poetry Attack
A reader asks: What’s up with all the posters on trees in front of the East Lansing Public Library?
Eli answers: The “posters” are actually poems, part of the most recent Poetry Attack executed by members of The East Lansing Street Arts Commission (ELSAC).
Eli spoke with Carolyn White, a founder of both ELSAC and East Lansing’s Poetry Attacks. White is a professional story teller, the world’s foremost expert on leprechauns, and a children’s book author.
She explains that the idea for a The East Lansing Street Arts Commission/Poetry Attacks came as she and her friend Lexy Carl rode the train back from Chicago together in the winter of 2012. They had gone to see a performance by art activists The Gorilla Girls. White remembers Carl saying “I wish we could do something like that in Lansing,” and as they talked, they both realized that there was really no reason they couldn’t.
The first Poetry Attack was staged in East Lansing’s Harrison Meadows in 2013. “It was a covert action,” says White. “We had live music and we wore costumes. I came as the Mad Woman of Chaillot and Lexy wore a gorilla mask.”
Unfortunately, the poems posted during the initial Attack “didn’t have re-enforced holes” so the poems quickly fell down. White recalls that “people came by and put every poem back up. We were so touched by that.”
White herself hadn’t written poetry for many years before the first Attack, despite having earned a PhD in English from MSU with emphasis on the history of poetry. As a grad student in the 1970s, White was part of a group of young poets who “got together and wrote poetry and exchanged it.” Members of that group have contributed to Poetry Attacks, including well-known poets Dick Thomas, Marcus Cafagna and Barbara Drake whose “Amazing Mavis” is part of this year’s crop of poems.
The 2014 Poetry Attack was staged, as it is this year, in the wooded area on Abbot Road in front of the Public Library. The Library not only gave permission, but invited Attack organizers to create mobiles out of the poems to hang inside the library. White recounts that Carl adamantly refused to move the poems indoors; she wanted them outside so people who don’t regularly read can find them. Her reasoning: “people who already read go into the library.” An important goal of the Attack and of all ELSAC activities was and is to make art accessible to everyone, especially those who are not regularly exposed to art in any form.
Poems are solicited about a month before an Attack is staged. Poetry Action Network, an organization headed by Ruelaine Stokes, is involved, and this year MSU Lecturer and artist Guillermo Delgado involved his students. Financial support for the Attacks comes from a variety of sources including a Valentine’s Day haiku writing fundraiser and a longstanding anonymous donor who pays for the printing of the poems.
I asked White what she says to people who insist that they don’t like poetry. “There is so much to find in poetry,” she responded. “If you like music, if you think words matter, if you like surprise, you jump in and you don’t know where it’s going to lead you. It’s going to lead you to insight.” In the end, she says, “all I know is poetry.”
To learn more about the Poetry Attack, visit their website. You may also want to check out Poetry Action Network on Facebook.