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Bringing Poetry to the People: Q&A with David Hassler on 10 Years of Traveling Stanzas and the 2019 Arts Day Book

Bringing Poetry to the People: Q&A with David Hassler on 10 Years of Traveling Stanzas and the 2019 Arts Day Book

Traveling Stanzas poetry workshop at the Chautauqua Makerspace. Photo courtesy of Traveling StanzasFor 10 years, the Traveling Stanzas project has been infusing everyday life with pop-up poetry in unexpected arenas. From posters on city buses to interactive installations on downtown street corners, the Traveling Stanzas team is on a mission to take poetry from the page to the public. In celebration of a decade of expectation-shattering accomplishments, the award-winning program that began as a partnership between Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center and Valora Renicker, an associate professor in the university’s Visual Communication Design School, has published a collection of poems called Speak a Powerful Magic. The book will be featured as the 2019 Arts Day Book at the Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio luncheon on May 15.

To learn the key to making poetry approachable, we spoke to David Hassler, poet and director of the Wick Poetry Center, who will host a hands-on workshop following the awards ceremony for luncheon attendees.

For additional information about the Governor’s Awards, visit oac.ohio.gov/governorsawards.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Speak a Powerful Magic is a collection of poems celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Traveling Stanzas project. Could you talk a little bit about Traveling Stanzas and its history?
Traveling Stanzas poetry workshop. Photo courtesy of Traveling StanzasWe came up with the name “Traveling Stanzas” early on. I love that the word “stanza” in English means “a section of a poem,” but it comes from Italian, where it means, literally, “a small room.” So, we like to think of these traveling stanzas as offering moments of pause or little pockets of time in which we can slow down and step out of our normal busy lives and enter into the room of a poem and see what kind of meaning bubbles up and what kind of memories and reflections are triggered in our own thinking.

This is an idea of bringing poetry to people’s everyday lives, publishing them out into the public, where we don’t normally expect to encounter a poem. They experience these poems which have been carefully curated to speak to issues that are important in our lives and our communities. I think people see themselves mirrored in these poems, in part because they are written by everyday folks, whether they are refugees or immigrants, caregivers or patients, school children, senior adults, or veterans.

The mission of Traveling Stanzas is to “bring poetry to the people.” How do you make this art form accessible to a wide audience?
Traveling Stanzas: Writing Across Borders, a partnership between the Wick Poetry Center and the Lakewood Public Library. Photo courtesy of Traveling StanzasWe all have the capacity for the leaping thought of a poem, to be coached in the right way, to find some emotional truth, or to recall a memory that only we can tell. We all have the capacity for a poetic voice. It really becomes a thread that empowers communities and gives them a sense of themselves.

We like to use the phrase that “poets are the means by which a place comes to know itself.” We all have the capacity to write a poem and to find memorable language to capture our own stories. These traveling stanzas become a way in which communities reflect on themselves and on their belonging and connection to a larger world.

What is the significance of the book’s title?
The title, Speak a Powerful Magic, actually comes from a beautiful group poem that we scripted from two months’ worth of writing workshops with faculty, students, and alumni of the College of Nursing here at Kent State University. After collecting all their poems, we made this group poem called Some Days, which is now installed as a 40-foot-long, 7-foot-tall mural in the lobby of the College of Nursing building on campus. There’s a stanza that says:

Your mouth can speak
a powerful magic
Your heart is
a lighthouse in your body

Remember your patients can teach you lessons
greater than any you will hear
in a lecture hall.

When we were thinking of a title for the book, I was also very aware of a beautiful statement that was told to me by a woman from China, Linda Zhao, who has a poem called You & I that’s a tribute to her grandmother. After being interviewed about her poem, she said to me, “You know, David, these poems are magic to me.” And what she meant by that is these poems became a way for her to honor her grandmother who had died recently and who Linda had to leave behind in China when she came to the United States in her late teens.

So, it was a combination of Linda telling me that these poems were like magic combined with one of the College of Nursing students saying, “Your mouth can speak a powerful magic.” I think all metaphor has the potential to be a powerful magic, and we all have the capacity to speak a powerful magic.

The “Some Days” walking poem in the Kent State University College of Nursing was a point of inspiration for “Speak a Powerful Magic,” the 2019 Arts Day book that commemorates 10 years of the Traveling Stanzas project. Photo courtesy of Traveling Stanzas

What do you hope people take away from Speak a Powerful Magic?
We want to democratize voice. We want to create the experience so that people see that a third grader can have a poem alongside a well-known American poet or a U.S. poet laureate. They can be equally meaningful and memorable. That is a way to think of poetry as a great equalizer, in the sense that, given the right conditions and training, we all have that capacity to speak a powerful magic.

Traveling Stanzas was launched as a partnership between the Wick Poetry Center and the Visual Communication Design school at Kent State. How do you view the relationship between visual and literary arts in this project?
Traveling Stanzas poetry workshop. Photo courtesy of Traveling StanzasFrom the beginning in 2009, we wanted Traveling Stanzas to be a conversation between visual art and the written word. We have found that it is another way to demystify and make poetry more accessible. So, it’s not just small words on a printed page—it is a visual work of art that gets somebody to initially pause and pulls them in.

We’ve formatted some of our Traveling Stanzas posters to be three-sided and wrapped them around metal utility boxes. They are on street corners now, wrapped around what would’ve been ugly utility boxes, and then we’ve created little audio buttons so you can walk up to these boxes downtown and push the button and hear the child or a veteran or senior adult read their poem. It’s a great testament to bringing poetry to people’s everyday lives.

Throughout your involvement with the Traveling Stanzas project, what have you learned from your interactions with people through poetry?
One of the greatest pleasures is to introduce poetry in this fresh and acceptable way so that people who may not have ever volunteered to think of themselves as a poet discover and make an “Aha!” moment and write something meaningful and then take on a whole new appreciation of poetry.

I can’t tell you how many dozens of times I’ve had a student or a senior adult or a veteran say, ‘Oh, I can’t write a poem,’ and then two or three weeks later, they’ve made that discovery on the page.

Why do you love poetry?
Traveling Stanzas at the United Philanthropy Forum’s annual conference in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Traveling StanzasI am interested in the idea of sympathetic resonance, which I think is very much at play in this book. It’s an actual scientific term for a physical phenomenon that has always fascinated me. When you strike a tuning fork and then you put another one next to it that’s the same shape and size, just by being next to that vibrating fork, it will begin to vibrate. I truly think that poems offer the capacity for a sympathetic resonance between people and between self and world.

This is a way in which we get in tune with each other. And in a culture and climate where we are experiencing such a division in our culture, I think this approach to poetry can find the shared common ground. What we have in common—the shared human experiences. We can resonate with each other, which we need more of in an important way.

How do you feel about the book being featured as the 2019 Arts Day book at the Governor’s Awards luncheon in May?
We’re thrilled. We’re really grateful. I think the book is an eloquent and very persuasive testament to the value that art—not just poetry—brings to our everyday lives.

The Governor’s Awards and Arts Day is a day to inspire advocacy for support for the arts. This book offers this lasting testament to everyday folks from the entire spectrum of our community and becomes a gift for others through this artistic process. I think those who come to the Governor’s Awards become better advocates. They are going to be given this tool, this book, to inform them of what we’re all advocating for—the power and strength and the depth and resonance of what the arts can do in our everyday lives.

You are hosting a poetry workshop after the awards ceremony for luncheon attendees. What can people expect from the workshop?
In my workshop, I would like us all to experience the joy and the leaping thought of a poem, no matter how big or small, in our own personal way. Like the philosophy of all our Traveling Stanzas workshops in the community, we want people to sign up who have never thought of themselves as writers or poets per se. But people who are open and willing to go through a process to find some hidden treasure in their own voice and to capture and express a feeling or emotion or a memory I think will find it very rewarding.

Learn more about Traveling Stanzas at travelingstanzas.com.



Video by Wick Poetry Center

The 2019 Arts Day book is sponsored by Spectrum.

ABOUT THE GOVERNOR’S AWARDS FOR THE ARTS IN OHIO
Since its beginning in 1971, the Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio has recognized individuals and organizations who have been vital to the growth and development of Ohio’s cultural resources. Each year, the public is invited to nominate individuals and organizations in eight award categories. The program is presented by the Ohio Arts Council and the Ohio Citizens for the Arts Foundation, a nonprofit arts organization. 

THANK YOU TO THE 2019 GOVERNOR’S AWARDS PREMIER SPONSORS
Buckeye Broadband, Crown Lift Trucks, Ignite Arts, and Owens Corning.

2019 GOVERNOR’S AWARDS MEDIA SPONSORS
CD 102.5, Charter Communications, CityScene Media Group, Dispatch Media Group, Ohio Magazine, and WYSO

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Interview by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Featured photo courtesy of Traveling Stanzas



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