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MTA Buses Adding Rhyme to the Ride

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once again the bus is late; The MTA I sure do hate.

Maybe you won’t see that poem on Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses. But the transit agency--hoping its rhymes are better than its arrival times--is putting poetry on 2,200 buses in the belief that it will soothe stressed-out riders.

A group of Los Angeles-area poets helped launch the project Thursday that will see their poetry posted in empty advertising space above passenger seats.

“Poetry in Motion,” is the somewhat fanciful name given the yearlong rolling exhibition.

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The works of such poets as E.E. Cummings, Langston Hughes and Octavio Paz will be mixed in with those of local writers during the project, which is a collaboration of the Poetry Society of America, the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus and the MTA.

“It’s not going to fix the mood of passengers,” said Getty’s Michael Roth, whose organization is footing the estimated $50,000 cost of the poetry project. “But they can look up and read something both literary and pleasurable.”

It’s not the first time that transit executives have turned to poetry to “soothe the savage beast inside our breast,” as former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove once put it.

Two years ago, to the delight of some riders and the consternation of others, poems quietly replaced bus schedules in racks on some buses.

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“Instead of a bus schedule, surprise! You got a poem,” one MTA official recalled Thursday.

This time around, poems that are relatively short and “upbeat” and relate to Los Angeles’ diversity were picked for display by the Poetry Society. They are printed in English and Spanish.

An advertising company that rents out ad space on the buses has donated two poem placard spots on each bus, MTA officials said. Two poets will be featured on the buses each month.

If all goes as planned, poets will be stationed on buses in April to read their works aloud to MTA passengers. April is National Poetry Month.

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“I’ve read to concert crowds and to stuffy luncheons. I think I could take the bus crowd,” said poet Michele Serros, whose bus placard includes the lines:

Every poet has a bus poem,

Every bus, a poet.

Speaking up to be heard over the noise of an idling bus outside the MTA headquarters, Serros added: “Maybe we’ll have bullhorns.”

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At the front of the bus, driver Hugo Bonini said he might be inclined to turn over his public address microphone to the poets. “I wouldn’t have a problem. But as for the other drivers . . . I don’t know,” he said.

Thursday’s welcome for the poets was in contrast to an earlier encounter with the MTA, when they experienced transit authorities’ brand of poetic justice.

A group of poets who tried to conduct readings on the MTA’s Blue Line between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach were busted.

“They actually got removed by transit police,” said Maya Emsden, head of the MTA’s Metro Art Department. “I guess they were afraid people wouldn’t like the poems.”

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The trolley poetry readings had been organized by poets who had met at a Silver Lake laundry to read their works against the backdrop of washer and dryer spin cycles.

But what goes around comes around.

Poetry Society leader Elena Byrne of Rancho Palos Verdes indicated that society members have successfully worked with transportation agencies in New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta and Portland, Ore., to put poetry placards on public transit vehicles.


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