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What Happens When You Read Poetry on the L.A. Metro?

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Tue, Sep 10, 2013 at 11:38 AM
click to enlarge Poesia Para La Gente - LUKE GATTUSO
  • Luke Gattuso
  • Poesia Para La Gente

At Union Station on the Gold Line platform this past Saturday, the commuters and sojourners of the Los Angeles weekend are greeted by the unfamiliar sound of...poets. A group of men and women -- all ages and ethnicities -- are reading lines in Spanish and English, blaring out their tropes into the air with the courage of warriors before battle. They all take turns reading. Some of the passengers try to ignore the voices, others are listening casually, and some are entranced, standing around and clapping, ignoring the MTA official's voice coming through the speakers.

This group of poets is called the Poesia Para La Gente (meaning "poetry for the people") -- an organization that attempts to bring poetry to places and people who would normally not be exposed to the art form usually seen at coffee shops, poetry readings at books stores or the occasional slam-poetry night at a rock club.

"There is no better way than motion," says Jessica Ceballos, a poet and curator at Beyond Baroque and Avenue 50 studios and architect of Poesia Para La Gente, on how to bring poetry to the masses. "Moving to one part of the city, to the other, with each stop, and the motion of the train, you have a new demographic within all the boroughs of L.A....It's a communication across all cultures, and poetry can break down some walls that we have in communication."

On Saturday, Ceballos and 16 other poets rode and read on the Gold Line from Union Station to South Pasadena station. They later stopped and read at the Memorial Park station and walked to Colorado and Raymond, finally ending their night back at Union Station, where they walked to the Last Bookstore to take part in a reading at the Lit Lab Fest presented by Writ Large Press.

click to enlarge LUKE GATTUSO
  • Luke Gattuso

But not everyone riding the metro is happy to hear poetry. Back in August, when the Poesia Para La Gente were reading on the Red Line, they were met with mixed reactions. One girl who was slumped against the window watching the emptiness of the tunnel said she was too hung over to deal with them and wanted them to stop.

"It's definitely offensive," says Yago S. Cura, a poet who reads about "soccer" players and is the editor for Hinchas de Poesia Press. "Offensive in terms of a contact sport. We're making poetry a contact sport."

"I think it's some silly shit," said a passenger who identified themselves as D. Niro, waiting at the Red Line platform at Union Station back in August. "They just trying to over talk the train. You can't talk over the train. This is some silly shit. Everyone has somewhere to be. Everyone has somewhere to go. Something on their mind. And this bitch is reading poetry. No one cares."

But this was one type of reaction Ceballos expected. She is not only launching a mobile poetry reading -- she is leading an experiment in social space.

In August, Sean Hill, a poet with a delivery similar to Chris Rock, was swaying back and forth in the train, holding onto a metal bar and blowing bubbles at the passengers. "I saw a drive by of shooting stars," recited Sean Hill. He was telling people on the train that he loved them.

Together the poets are like something from Tom Wolfe's The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test: strange, random, in your face, with the hope of awakening something human and lost in the lives of Angelenos. They even made an appearance at Hollywood and Highland, trying to match the madness of costumes and movies.

"We really want to be able to reach people who wouldn't get to poetry on their own," says Ryan Nance who has an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and reads in Mandarin, Spanish and English. "There is a lot of talk about poetry being irrelevant or you have to be hushed and quiet while people are reading...But being able to see the people's faces, even though they're not intending to listen...they're listening. You can see that recognition of thought or meaning breaking across their face when they're just sitting and going where they're going."

It was easy to see the people on the train who the Poesia Para La Gente were not connecting with on Saturday and back in August, but as the their voices battled against the humming and shaking of the cabins, of the tunnel lights flickering like illusions in a dream, they were certainly reaching some.

"People need to be made to feel awkward, especially in public," said Lee Shepard, a young man listened to the poetry while heading to a rave, back in August. "That way they realize they're human and what humanity is. It's not just a little cookie cutter, sitcom, Ikea bubble life. There are people out there who want to be expressive. If you're annoyed it's more of your personal hang up than [them] annoying you."

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