Culture | Taking poetry to the streets

Nationwide event aims to raise poetry’s profile

Besides communicating the meaning of a particular group of words, poetry also captures their rhythm. For me at least, part of the allure of poetry is its musicality, which is why I have trouble understanding the animosity that the art form often encounters. After all, does any one genuinely dislike music? Of course, this question suggests a gross generalization. Case-in-point: my best friend, who appreciates music but hates poetry. At the very mention of a poetics paper I may have had to write, or at the threat that I would narrate Edgar Allan Poe out loud to her, I could reasonably expect Liz to roll her eyes and then to explain to me that a rose is simply a rose and nothing else. “I didn’t even know the “A” in The Scarlet Letter stood for adultery until my middle-school teacher told me so!” she says, proof that poetry, like prose, can at times be too metaphorical.

So while I am a poetry enthusiast, I cannot fault others for criticizing the form as esoteric and inaccessible. Whether it is the non-linear arrangement of words on a page or the (sometimes) blatant disregard for spelling and grammar, poetry can be disorienting and therefore, alienating. This year’s sixth Annual Random Acts of Poetry, taking place during the week of October 5-11, aims to stifle that problem. The event continues the important endeavour of increasing poetry’s accessibility to the masses. Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Random Acts of Poetry project was instituted in 2003 by the Victoria Read Society, a non-profit literacy organization. Since its inception, Canadian poets have used Random Acts of Poetry to approach unassuming individuals and recite poetry to them at dépanneurs or on street corners, in classrooms or metro stations. As the Random Acts blog says it, poets will cruise the city “looking for people to ‘poem.’”

Intrigued by the project’s aims and its modification of a noun into a verb (how does one “poem” another?), I decided to meet with Michael Mirolla, a Montreal poet who is involved in Random Acts next week. The project’s goal is to increase the availability and visibility of poetry, and Mirolla’s appearance and demeanour suggested exactly that. A great conversationalist, he harboured neither artistic hang-ups nor pretensions. An Italian by birth who describes himself as a “Montreal-Toronto corridor writer” and who counts McGill as his alma mater, Mirolla elucidated various aspects of the Random Acts project.

When I asked him what he thought of the event’s use of guerrilla-art tactics, Mirolla positively grimaced. As he explained it, the event’s goal is directed more toward encouraging people to consider poetry, rather than dressing in camouflage and accosting them in the middle of St. Laurent. Mirolla’s own plan for next week suggests significantly more planning for his Random Acts segment than the blog would have one believe. He outlined his tentative locations to poem people next week: the McGill Institute for Retirement Studies; The Bricklayer School, a masonry institution; and then, a monthly sports meeting. Moreover, Mirolla confirmed that the poetry would be suited to the milieu of each location. He will not, for instance, narrate “The Wasteland” at the sports meeting. When I broached the topic of William Carlos Williams, Mirolla mentioned that he would consider reading “The Red Wheelbarrow” at the Bricklayer School. “Some of the greatest poems are also simple,” he commented.

Because Mirolla is a fiction writer as well as a poet, I asked him what differentiated the narration of poetry from that of fiction. “Fiction does not lend itself to orality in the same way poetry does…. [Fiction] is not as essential. Poetry crystallizes the idea. It is the word trying to become the thing,” he responded. Maybe it’s poetry’s very immediacy that is at once alarming and beguiling; unlike fiction, it does not build up to an idea but rather imagines that idea in a way that can be too direct to ingest immediately. When Mirolla further discussed the musicality of poetry as “get[ting] in with the heartbeats,” he confirmed my initial thoughts – that it posesses a rhythmic quality that is human and relatable. Poetry need not be convoluted. As Mirolla suggested, good poetry ultimately possesses a “mythic” quality that hopefully makes it relatable to most people, or at least harkens back to a universally human heartbeat. So if a poet randomly approaches you this week, do not be too taken aback: poetry may not save your world, but it could certainly improve it.

*Michael Mirolla will participate in the Random Acts of Poetry Week in Montreal from October 5-11, along with poet Eliz Robert. Mirolla’s latest collection of poetry, Light and Time, was recently published by Skywing Press. *