Poems on Buses is back: Friends of Poetry brings youth poetry to Metro Transit riders once again

The recognition that a young person's writing is important enough to put up in public is an encouragement that sticks with that person for decades.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

In place of placards with advertisements, creative verses now face Metro Transit riders -- poems illuminating the sweet people on the basketball court, calling for normalcy and for this virus to leave us alone, paying tribute to the people of Mexico fighting for freedom, and imagining that elephants are happy to be big.
Southwest Michigan youth from kindergarten to high school now have their poems in front of riders' eyes, thanks to Friends of Poetry. The group has worked to get local young poets an audience since 1976. Their "Poems That Ate Our Ears" is the longest-running K-12 poetry contest in Southwest Michigan.
Friends of Poetry Vice President Joe GrossJoe Gross, Ransom District Library director and Friends of Poetry Vice President helped spearhead the rebirth of Poems on Buses.
Submissions show that young people will express things that adults might not. 
What Gross has seen is "an indication of things that might be on the minds of young people that we might forget. There are poems specifically about the difficulty of the pandemic, poems about family, angry poems -- there's a range. One can see, frankly, the amazing range of thought and feeling that young people have. And to push those voices forward so that more people can read them and hear them is a great quality that the project is giving us."
Poets represented are from Arcadia Elementary (Kalamazoo Public Schools), Benton Harbor High School, Comstock Middle School, Linden Grove Middle School (Kalamazoo Public Schools), Three Rivers Middle School, Pennfield High School (Battle Creek), South Walnut Elementary School (Bangor), and Washington Writers’ Academy (Kalamazoo Public Schools). 
The Friends of Poetry features youth poetry on Metro Transit buses.Neela Parthasarathy is featured in the Friends of Poetry press release. Now a third-grader at Arcadia, she was inspired last year to write "Now":
Now we do not like this virus!
End it now!
End it now!
Leave us alone you crisis!
And we will be normal
Her creative process sounds as cathartic as any adult's. She was tired of the pandemic and virtual schooling, so she locked herself in her playroom for an hour to write her verse.
"I feel joyful and on top of the world," Friends of Poetry quotes her as saying when she found out her poem will be read on buses in Kalamazoo. "I hope it inspires people to get vaccinated when they read it."

The Friends of Poetry features youth poetry on Metro Transit buses.
Encouragement for young writers that's lasted into adulthood 

Starting in 1977, the shorter ear-eating works of "Poems That Ate Our Ears" had been selected for display on buses until around the mid-1980s. Former Friends of Poetry President Elizabeth Kerlikowske says that founder Martha Moffett saw poems on New York City buses, and wanted the same in Kalamazoo. "The poems were on the busses for about 12 years, I think," she says.
Gross is not sure when the program ended, but he knows why it should come back.
Angela Gross was once a winner in the Poems that Ate Our Ears contest and had her poem published in its chapbook.The recognition that a young person's writing is important enough to put up in public is an encouragement that sticks with that person for decades. Gross discovered this when his wife, Angela Gross, told him she'd been published in the late-1980s in Poems that Ate Our Ears.
"That moment of recognition was something that stayed with her and encouraged her to create more and to discover more in herself as a creative person, including as a poet," he says. 

When he joined Friends of Poetry, he had no idea this was part of Angela's past. "It was kind of an awesome thing to discover." 
Angela Gross says she was in middle school when her work was selected and doesn't recall her poem on a bus. But it was published by FOP in a chapbook, and she got to do a reading at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. "I remember sending my poem in, and then being thrilled it got chosen! I remember seeing it in print, with my name, and feeling really proud. Being invited to read it in front of a crowd of people at the KIA was terrifying, especially at that age, but also pretty exciting."
She now works with words as an interpreter/translator for Kalamazoo RESA, and poetry stayed in her life. 
The Friends of Poetry features youth poetry on Metro Transit buses."It definitely helped me feel confident about my writing and to keep doing it." She went on to enroll in college creative writing classes and was published in the poetry journal California Quarterly. After the Gross' first child was born, Angela read her work at a Fire poetry event, "a really nice way to come full circle."
Joe says, "One never forgets those moments of recognition throughout the rest of our life. They can be great springboards for our senses of self, and a wonderful opportunity to feel like part of the fabric of the community in an age when there doesn't feel like many opportunities for that."
For all writers, or creative artists of other media, one thing is certain, he says. "Somebody encouraged you, somebody said it was good, at some point you need that." 
Gross recalls that his father's godmother was a literary editor. Her father asked her, "what writers have in common, successful writers? She said an overwhelming desire to see their work in print."
It's a powerful moment for a young writer, he says, when they get "that feeling that you've achieved, in writing, your purpose. Other people are going to see it, it passed through some gatekeeping and got there." 

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Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.