How Poetry Hit the Road: A history of Poetry on Buses, 4Culture’s most popular and populist public art program

Poetry on Buses (Writing Home), 2014. King County, WA. Photo: Tim Aguero

There’s a good chance you’ve experienced it yourself: you’re riding a King County Metro bus as it makes its way through the city, looking out the window, watching your fellow passengers, when your gaze turns toward the rows of familiar advertisements flanking the bus’s interior. Amid the various promotions and PSAs, you spot something a little…different. A poem. A few lines of verse inviting you to linger for a moment as you soak in its meaning.

Nuradin Rage. Hooygiyoow, Poetry on Buses (Writing Home), 2014. Photo: Tim Aguero

4Culture’s Poetry on Buses program began more than 30 years ago and has since published the written work of over 1,000 people from across the region. Some of those voices were professional writers, but the majority were ordinary people—of all ages and backgrounds—who caught a little bit of magic in a few lines of language. Among the wide range of works and experiential projects in the King County Public Art Collection, Poetry on Buses stands out for its unmatched popularity and populism, inspiring submissions by the thousands and proving that art can be created by anyone and everyone.

Its evolution traces back to 1992, when 4Culture hired Port Townsend-based poet and essayist Sheila Bender to curate the first set of poems to be printed on placards and placed on Metro buses. Bender orchestrated a contest and convened a panel to review submissions. Ultimately, six buses were, as Bender put it, “decked out” with four exhibitions of poems—a new one for each season.

“[The project] motivated citizens to value poetry and to write poems after they experienced poetry’s intimacy and power to change perceptions and sometimes lives,” Bender said, recounting the program’s history.

Every other year from 1992 to 2007, 4Culture selected, printed, and displayed roughly 50 poems as part of Poetry on Buses, with different iterations spinning off a mix of related projects: collaborations with visual artists and graphic designers; collections of poems on websites and in printed booklets, including a 2005 anthology from Floating Bridge Press; framed editions that entered the County’s Portable Works Collection; and special events that celebrated community voices with workshops, readings, and more.

Roberto Ascalon. Poetry on Buses (Writing Home), 2014. Photo: Tim Aguero

Poetry on Buses went dormant in 2007, but resumed in 2014 with a new vision, led by Poet Planner Roberto Ascalon. Together with a team of community liaisons, Ascalon held a series of powerful workshops and performances in community spaces throughout the county, welcoming diverse language and cultural communities to explore the poets within themselves. At those events, people shared both their poetry and the vibrant poetic traditions of their cultures. An open call for submissions on the theme “Writing Home” led to the selection of 365 poems in five of King County’s most spoken languages—English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, and Somali. The poems not only appeared on buses and online, they were also shared in person at an array of readings and a community launch party at the Moore Theatre.

Jourdan Keith. Poetry on Buses (Your Body of Water), 2016. Photo: Tim Aguero

When Jourdan Imani Keith became the program’s next Poet Planner in 2016, six transit and water stewardship agencies, as well as the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, signed on as partners, putting poems on light rail trains and street cars as well as buses. An astonishing 1,600 people submitted entries in response to Keith’s chosen theme—“Your Body of Water”—365 of whom were selected and featured on transit, online, and at readings, with a focus on African American, Amharic, Chinese, Urban Native, Spanish-Speaking, and Punjabi communities. This cycle of the program introduced a multimedia component as well, producing portraits of 52 of the selected poets alongside audio recordings of them reading their work.

Poetry on Buses (Your Body of Water), 2016. Photo: Tim Aguero

This year, following a five-year hiatus, Poetry on Buses returns as Poetry in Public, led by Poet Planner Laura Da’ and ushering in a new era for the program. Learn more about its latest focus, broadened scope, and ways you can get involved.

You never know where your next transit ride might take you, what it might reveal. As Andy Sentir wrote in a poem that appeared on Metro buses in 2005, “In the window’s reflection, I see who I want to be.”

Poetry on Buses is just one of many collaborations between 4Culture and King County Metro. A few current transit projects include the first-ever Metro artist in residence, limited-edition ORCA cards designed by emerging artists, and ongoing art commissions related to the expansion of RapidRide.