The Raven de Opiemme (Torino, Italy) - new piece 2013
I opened an email today from Opiemme, a street artist from Italy whose Twitter bio is “poetry for the masses.”
This summer, while I traveled the nearly 3,000 miles from San Francisco to Washington D.C. as an ambassador of “poetry for the masses,” Opiemme was taking the same cause across Italy. He traveled 3,000 miles doing it, too.
If that’s not poetry, what is?
Here’s his website. He hasn’t had a show in the U.S. yet, but I want to bring him here. I’d be down for another 3,000 mile odyssey for poetry.
The evening of the day we finally arrived at Washington, completing the inaugural transcontinental Millennial Trains Project journey, we had a little dinner party to celebrate at National Geographic HQ. Every participant was given a minute to speak about what they’d done along the way, and what they’d learned.
For the record, I love good poetry because it’s beautiful, it makes my brain dance, and it helps me make sense of the world. But I recognize that everyone doesn’t respond to poetry the same way, and some people need a bit of convincing. So, this is my elevator pitch (provided it’s a very tall building.
Here’s what I said:
Through my project, I am using the power of photography and social media to democratize access to poetry.
Since concentrating in poetry as an undergraduate at Davidson College six years ago, I have been frustrated by the derision and disinterest with which people—particularly in my generation—meet poetry.
I am even more frustrated by how little interest working poets may have in expanding their readership beyond academia.
So, in each city where we stopped, I took lots of photographs involving vinyl banners printed with lines of poetry—from U.S poet laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners; poets I’ve worked with and poets everyone should read.
The project is far from complete—in the fall, I will publish a portfolio of accompanying stories.
So, why does this matter? Why does poetry matter? I’ll give you an example from the trip.
Picture the scene: all of us packed into the dining car’s observation dome, the Chicago skyline receding in the distance at sunset, and Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor at The Associated Press, is arguing for the merit of a society interested in facts, for honest journalism as the core of a true democracy. And he recites a line of poetry to make his point. “The center cannot hold.” Yeats, from his poem “The Second Coming.”
It was written in 1920.
What if, 100 years from now, a thinker like Michael Oreskes doesn’t have a poetic lexicon to help make his argument for democracy? What will we, as thinkers—as a society—lose if that happens?
If we lose poetry, we lose love. We lose passion. We lose original thought, and we lose arguments.
The first time I visited Pittsburgh, I was 12, and old enough to know that a state with no sales tax meant shopping. Pittsburgh came off to me as incredibly hip. It was the North. It had bridges, and a downtown where actual people seemed to walk, and perfect autumn clothes at the Gap that wouldn’t hit Dallas for another two years, and it had a restaurant inside an old church that served bison burgers like it was no big deal.
We stayed at the home of my mom’s close friend from graduate school and she had a futon and a shower with a window and a loofah. I had only ever used washcloths. Pittsburgh seemed to me like some perfectly imagined future, my ideal future, where I lived in a three-story townhouse, typed on a bright teal iMac, slept on a blue futon, ate unusual meats and traded the unrewarding sop of a washcloth for the sudsy, lathery loofah.
So, as the MTP train pulled into Union Station 15 years after my first Pittsburgh trip, my expectations were high. They were met.
Completing the Hardesty family Millennial Trains Project tour, my mom came to meet me in Pittsburgh to spend the day putting poetry in public places so I could photograph it. Her friend from graduate school, Nancy, who had hosted us 15 years ago, joined us. They hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, and here they were, buzzing around the city where they forged their late-20s lives—a city of memories—in the service of contemporary American poetry (and love, and friendship, and possibly nostalgia). Here’s my mom holding lines written by my undergraduate advisor, Alan Michael Parker, from the poem “Apologetic Ditty” from his most recent book of poetry, Long Division (used by permission from Tupelo Press):
They were the best models, drivers, navigators, guides, and helpers I could have hoped for. And here I was, in a version of the future at which, in the fullness of time, Pittsburgh had foretold and helped deliver. My mom had gone to graduate school and set roots in this city, and I was proud to create a reason for her to come back to tend them, if only for a day. We saw the house where she lived during graduate school, and my mind went back to my first true home in Washington—a pink three-bedroom near Lincoln Park whose kitchen filled with light and the smell of bread frying in bacon grease every Saturday morning.
The best “poetry” thing that happened: fellow MTP participant, Lindsay Patross, linked me up with a PGH poet through her formidable Twitter network. I met Scott Silsbe at the warehouse of local favorite Caliban bookstore, which, unsurprisingly, was an excellent place to take photos about words. It gets much better, though: this poet had moved to PGH to study his master’s at Pitt, and one day, he decided to find Jack Gilbert, one of the greatest American poets of the last century. He found him at his home.
It wasn’t technically Gilbert’s home; he was living above the garage. Anyway, it was near the end of the great poet’s life—he was 85—and he invited Silsbe right in. Gilbert even asked Scott to read some of his poetry. He even told him it was good! And they sat and talked for an hour about the writing life. Naturally, I asked him to pose with the Jack Gilbert banner, from the poem “Tear it Down.” Here’s a photo & the poem:
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of racoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.
You can (and should) buy the book here.
The millennials aboard pursued projects that were not always in sync with their professional lives. These were passion projects — learning, for the sake of learning. A novel idea in today’s time.
Cameron Hardesty reintroduced poetry to public spaces, like the Red Rocks of Denver.
"Putting innovation on track: The millennials’ train to somewhere"
By Esha Chabra
The Washington Post
(Source: Washington Post)
Here is what Chicago’s Union Station has in common with D.C.’s Union Station: both are cavernous, both are grand, and both remind you that rail travel was once a part of American life. Both are dotted with card table kiosks covered in cheap fabric where some entrepreneurial person is hawking Tupperware or beaded purses and souvenir key chains. The bronze railings, outsized roman columns and vast, domed ceilings that were designed to make train passengers feel purposeful are now an ode to an extinct culture. Gone the way unions are going. Gone the way of civility; men in hats; handkerchiefs; touching up your lipstick in private.
In these stations, you can imagine the America hoped for by Malcolm Kenton, train advocate and MTP’s living encyclopedia. In the America that Malcolm would like to see, the federal government gives railroads a fair shake by subsidizing them as equally as the car and air industries are subsidized. Once, it could have gone that way. It hasn’t. Grandeur is mocked in these stations—mostly by their emptiness.
[The steps connecting the gates to the terminal are worn smooth and curved with footfalls.]
By the time our morning lectures were over (thanks to Jason!), our hub in Chicago was a hive of very serious, very industrious looking people staring at laptops. It was intimidating. Like, hundreds of people. Maybe not hundreds. At least *a* hundred.
Walking from the hub to my first stop in Chicago felt like the end of a long, long pilgrimage. After years of reading, subscribing, giving subscriptions as gifts to indifferent family members, admiration, podcasts, poems-of-the-day, and inspiration, I was finally going to see the home of Poetry magazine (and Poetry Foundation) for the first time. I still remember picking up Poetry at the Davidson College library as a freshman in 2004 and reading one of Kay Ryan’s poems. I couldn’t believe it was poetry—it was so short, so understandable, so entertaining. Like most other 18 year olds in America, I thought poetry had to be difficult in order to be legitimate. Poetry showed me that wasn’t true. I have loved it ever since. In fact, the Foundation’s mission (to celebrate and share the best poetry with the largest audiences) was an inspiration for my Visual Poetry Project.
The Foundation’s media and marketing associate, Kristin Gecan, was extraordinarily gracious and generous with her time. I don’t know how many poetry advocates she regularly fields, but I wouldn’t be surprised or offended if, after receiving my request to meet, she thought I was kind of a freak. It seems a little crazy to traipse across the country with (as the inimitable Robert Reid put it) “streamers of poetry” trailing behind you. I was glad to at least have a chance to show her I’m basically a normal person. She and the Foundation’s librarian and library associate were extremely welcoming and even let me do a quick poetry photo shoot in the library, which was fun and meta.
The Poetry Foundation building, by the way, is an architectural masterpiece. Designed by John Ronan and built in 2011, its got an elegant reading room, an open, bright library and a garden designed for events and perfect for late-summer lunches. It was borne out of the largest single gift to Poetry—ever—a $200 million endowment in 2002 from Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune. That gift also gave rise to a truly revolutionary and intelligent expansion of Poetry’s digital presence (check out their website & mobile app, for starters).
I hope I didn’t overstay my welcome at the Foundation—it was hard to leave! Kristin left me with some awesome marketing goodies: a Poetry tote, some poetry & new media guides, the centennial issue and the most recent issue, dedicated to Landays, a form of oral verse from Afghanistan. Speaking of digital, Poetry’s Landays issue online is basically perfect. It could only be improved by in-line tweet functionality, a la this NYT article.
So, yeah, I went to the poetry mecca. It was awesome.
Then I had deep dish pizza with my brother, who was my assistant for the day, and then we went to Wrigley Field for a photo shoot at the Skybox on Sheffield, a rooftop deck just across the street from the stadium. Thank you, Tim, for welcoming us in! MTP’s badass filmmaker, Andrew Hinton, came with us and took a rather moody photo of us holding one of my poetry banners. We were in better spirits than we looked, I swear.
From there, Michael and I did a quick shoot at Millennium Park and Daley Plaza, sadly missing the Art Institute where a friend of mine works (we were running late for the train). Here are some rough cuts from the end of the day:
What’s iconic in Omaha?
Warren Buffet. Corn fields. Steaks.
It’s hard to get a photo of Warren Buffet, particularly one of Warren Buffet holding a sign that says “You were born to feel a way you don’t have a name for.” Corn fields are cliché. Steaks are, too.
In every city we’ve visited, I’ve organized my photo shoots around seven themes:
Cities like San Francisco and Chicago lend themselves easily to these themes; lots of people know what the view from Dolores Park and the Cloudgate sculpture look like. But who knows what Omaha looks like, except for the people who lived there or once did? That was a challenge.
The advantages of flexibility in Denver were clear: I was able to do a kickass photo shoot in Coors Field only because I asked the right person the right question at the right time. I might have been able to organize the same shoot myself, but it could have taken weeks of back-and-forth emailing, and time I didn’t have or needed to spend differently.
So, in the spirit of loosening my grip on my itinerary, I let our morning lecture guide me to my first photo shoot (which ended up being my only photo shoot of the day). Every morning, we got a presentation from an innovative local—we heard from designers, inventors, entrepreneurs, etc., etc. In Omaha, we heard from Anne Trumble, who leads a non-profit architecture and design firm called Emerging Terrain.
As a last minute surprise from the railroad gods, we weren’t allowed to park the train at the Amtrak station overnight in Omaha, which meant that we had to leave it at a railyard way out in the sprawl of West Omaha and drive into downtown via the I-80 highway. That was lucky. It was lucky because it made us drive right past a huge, old grain elevator covered in art. When we passed it, not knowing what it was, I frantically scanning my phone’s map so I’d know how to get back to it. I knew that I had to do a shoot there.
When the I-80 highway was expanded by six lanes in the 1980s, two silos from this 135-foot grain elevator were lopped off and the exit ramp was demolished, cutting off access for grain trucks. The elevator eventually fell out of use, and into dereliction and disrepair. The Omaha city parks department owns a well-maintained walking trail that ends just before the elevator, and until 2011 the land where the elevator sits was abandoned, covered in brush and heaps of industrial waste; pieces of the silos that had crumbled. In 2011, a local, non-profit architecture firm, Emerging Terrain, led by Anne Trumble, covered the silos with 80-foot loose weave poly mesh banners of murals designed by artists from across the world. Once the art was installed, Anne & co. decided that something of the human scale was missing, and a dinner party was ordered. So, she built an 800-foot dinner table and served 500 people with the help of 10 local chefs serving Nebraska cuisine.
It could have been the lack of sleep, but my eyes watered when Anne showed photos of the dinner. I had to go to the grain elevator. She gave me the address.
Omaha was my first solo shoot—no assistants, no help. After about an hour of fiddling with four wooden stakes I had bought optimistically at the local Lowe’s, I gave up and set the camera on the ground. My wireless timer wasn’t working, so every time I wanted to take a shot I would scramble away from the camera into the brush in the shadow of these huge silos, trying to look still and hold up my banners. I’m not sure I got a single good photo that way. Things were looking dismal for me in Omaha, which was a shame because the scale of the silos and the scope of Anne’s project deserved something beautiful. I wasn’t making anything beautiful.
A group of three 15-year-old boys holding skateboards—who I had previously mad-dogged in an effort to deter them from considering taking the thousands of dollars in electronics I was toting around with me (see: mad-dogging)—approached the path from under the bridge where it disappeared into somewhere that was good for skateboarding, apparently. I mad-dogged no more. Instead, I asked, “Would y’all be in my project?” It didn’t take too much convincing, and they picked their favorite banner and hopped in the shot. They were magic: dressed so well for photographing, with these expressive faces and skateboards and interest in what the hell I was doing there and skepticism about poetry.
Right before we wrapped up, I asked the three of them to hold one of my favorite and, I think, most versatile banners, which contains these lines from Matthew Zapruder:
“You were born to feel a way
you don’t have a name for.”
They looked at each other, became quiet for a moment, turned to me and asked, “Is this about being GAY??” I assured them that no, I didn’t think so, and just to be sure they should check out Matthew’s book. In his words, I can’t think of anything suckier for a 15-year old boy than to be tricked into holding a placard that implied they were gay. For the final record, no such implications were made, no one who ever skateboards at the grain elevator is gay, touching poetry doesn’t make you gay, and everyone can just relax.
The whole shoot took about three hours, and then it was time to get back to downtown to meet up with Brad Tice, a poet and professor who lives and teaches in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a 100% pleasure to meet Brad (which is not surprising in the least, considering the SF-based poet Bruce Snider put me in touch). He totally got what I was doing, dug the Millennial Trains Project, let me read his forthcoming book, and bought me a beer. I really hope to work some of his new book into a future project, because he’s a fantastic writer and person.
That was it, basically. We had a little party that night at our extremely gracious host’s space, the Kaneko Gallery. Then we got back on the train and MTP’s resident futurist, Lindsea, played some old-timey tunes and we fell asleep very tired and very merry.