Looking for poems refreshing as licuados, vivid as scarlet fingernails, solid as work boots? Between 1995 and 2003, the Arroyo Arts Collective hosted five juried poetry competitions, with more than 100 Southern California poets submitting work for each contest. Well-known poets served as jurors, selecting 25 to 30 poems each year for “Poetry in the Windows.” Winning poems were printed on posters in two languages and displayed in the windows of small businesses along Figueroa Street in Highland Park.
This project, like many of the Collective’s projects, sought to exhibit art, in this case poetry, in unique spaces. Poet Suzanne Lummis has selected a sampling of 42 of these poems, along with a special selection of poetry by students from northeast Los Angeles, for inclusion in a new anthology, Open Windows: Selections from the Winners of Poetry in the Windows, 1995-2003, Translated into the Languages of Los Angeles, published by the Arroyo Arts Collective. Open Windows includes work by well- known local poets Richard Beban, Ron Koertge, Terry Wolverton and Ellyn Maybe.
The book, with its handsome letterpress cover and evocative illustrations by artist Carol Colin, is a fine introduction to lively, contemporary poetry. All the winning poems are printed in two languages, as they were on the original posters. The many languages chosen, including Spanish, Armenian, Korean, Yiddish and Tagalog, reflect the many languages of northeast Los Angeles.
The anthology, Open Windows, is funded through a grant from the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles. Below is the introduction to Open Windows by poet Suzanne Lummis who selected the poems for inclusion in the anthology.
POETRY - FROM WINDOWS TO THE PAGE
Every other year since 1995 poems on posters have sprung up in the storefront windows of little shops lining the Northern end of Figueroa where it runs through Highland Park – one poem apiece for Bird Man Pet Shop, Mr. Moe Barber, Owl Drug Store, Launderland and Mr. T’s Bowl. It’s usually during the month of May – the month after National Poetry Month, just to be different – that customers of Happy Day Clothing or El Pavo Bakery can pause for a moment before a winning entry from the Arroyo Arts Collective’s “Poetry in the Windows” contest.
The answer is: not many. Not many people knew. A city as big as Los Angeles has ways of keeping its secrets; it tucks them into its far corners, like Highland Park, Northeast L.A. But many of those who come and go in this Spanish, English, Korean, Vietnamese, Farsi speaking neighborhood knew.
And of course the poets of Los Angeles knew. This selection from five years of first place and honorable mentions includes many of the city’s best-known poets – and some of national reputation – along with the recently emerged. What we have here is a good, lively little sampler of what’s going on in on this part of the Los Angeles literary world – one that can serve, also, to help prepare new poetry readers for what to expect from contemporary American poetry in general. Of course the nature of this contest required some parameters. Usually, the judges – three for each year – took care to select poems that were reasonably short, clear, and versatile enough to stand in either Dr. Vasquez Dentist or West Coast Fragrance as pleasing but not jarring surprises.
The “Poetry in the Windows” contest, dreamed up by The Arroyo Arts Collective’s Suzanne Siegel, is the only public art project I know of that does not rise up on neutral ground but goes on faith that each year small merchants will allow poems to be placed within their own domains. The first year one merchant exclaimed in confusion and dismay when Suzanne walked in and placed a poster in his window. Of course she’d received oral consent from him earlier – she’d thought – but in now it seemed perhaps he hadn’t understood. He didn’t speak English.
Braving his protestations and “No, no’s” Suzanne took him out on the street and urged to read the words standing in his window — the version translated into his language. And he did. A large delighted smile came over his face. The poster stayed, and every year after he welcomed the new poem selected for his shop.
That first year some shop owners gave the posters to customers who’d asked for them, and had to be instructed that these things must stay up in the windows the full month then be returned to The Arroyo Arts Collective. The year following one shop owner reported that her daughter had so loved the poem she’d copied it down in her journal.
And of folks on the street? – besides, that is, those already predisposed people who drive to Highland Park for the poetry walking tour the first day? I myself can relate only one striking encounter. I think it was the fourth year, somewhere between Mr. Maury’s Shoes and 99 Cents Plus. A Latino man, who looked to be about the right age for Occidental College, ran up to me, “This is fantastic! You guys are amazing! I’ve been reading the poems everywhere. Thank you, thank you for this!”
I asked him if he had one of our brochures with selections of poetry we make available for all the shops. “Yes, yes,” he assured me, “I’ve got everything. This is amazing.” I assumed he must be an avid reader. “Have you been interested in poetry for very long?” He answered, still a little out of breath, “Not till today.”
No representatives from the city or any funding organization were in my walking tour group that afternoon, and I was glad – because who among them would have believed this? Every once in a while the world conveys to us something too perfect to be real, but it is.
And those other shoppers and passersby who, in alternate years, pause for a time before the windows of Highland Park, come away more than fresh baked loaves or new pairs of shoes- they receive an exposure to contemporary poetry that puts them above the curve. This according to the National Arts Endowment’s recent survey on reading habits in America indicating most citizens don’t read any poetry in an average year.
But let them call again, now – too you, Reader, who is in possession of this book. You could make a surprising answer to the NEA’s inquiry, as opposed to the boring, ordinary one, the standard, “No, no poetry.”
And should someone should present you with the question Who knew? you can say Well, I did.