It was on a Vancouver bus, years ago, that islander Susan Alexander looked up and read a poem.
“It was a simple, beautiful poem,” she says. “I remember just thinking ‘I want to be able to do that.’
“I never thought I’d ever get a poem up there.”
Through twists and turns of life, Susan is one of 10 poets chosen in the 22nd annual Poetry in Transit program. Her poem “Scales” from her 2017 book The Dance Floor Tilts will be featured on Vancouver transit overhead poster cards later this year.
B.C. poets with work in a Canadian-published book in the past year are eligible for the annual travelling exhibition of sorts. This year’s selected poets include George Bowering, Kate Braid, Aidan Chafe, Linda Crosfield, Leef Evans, Rachel Rose, Emily Nilsen, Arleen Paré, Michael V. Smith and David Zieroth.
Susan says that she’s thrilled to be part of this year’s collection of poems on the roads and rails of Vancouver.
“This is where poems should be,” she says.
“Many of us have a very bad time of it with poetry in school and it taints us for the rest of our lives,” she says. “This makes it more available and more accessible.”
The chosen poems are short for the captive transit audience. Passengers have the chance to read a poem once, maybe again, look at their phone for a few minutes, and read it again.
“This is the coolest place ever to read a poem,” says Susan.
The islander of 25 years says that she always liked poetry, but didn’t get serious about it until 2009.
“I kept putting my energy writing these big things,” she says. After trying for years to write novels and plays, Susan attended a poetry workshop in Naramata with Lorna Crozier, who’s received both the Governor General’s Award and the Order of Canada.
“Time with someone who was so accomplished,” says Susan, “it was such a privilege.
“Everything shifted,” she says. “I fell in love with poetry.
“It’s the most distilled form of literature.
“It can be very technical, yet it can have a greater impact in a smaller space.
“You can play with the idea, the image the rhythm, the words, the form on the page. It’s really flexible.”
But Susan recognizes that it’s not a monetary or fame-attracting pursuit.
“It’s one of those mediums,” she says. “You’re never going to be a superstar writing poetry. The superstar Canadian poets –most people don’t know their names.”
In the years since that workshop, Susan’s won the 2016 Short Grain Poetry prize and the 2015 Vancouver Writers’ Festival Contest.
“My most successful poems,” she says, “they don’t just hit the mind, the aesthetic pleasure, they also touch the heart.
“It doesn’t always work,” she laughs.
But it seems to have worked for “Scales.”
It’s like the scales on a map explains Susan. The free verse poem of contrasts and shrinking love relies on images. A movie screen kiss to a FaceTime conversation. Each stanza, getting smaller.
The poem grew from the line that gave title to the book, “The dance floor tilts.”
The line came from a piece of art she and her husband own. “It’s these people kissing on the screen,” says Susan. “I was seeing it every day and then the line came to me.”
The image is now the cover of her book.
The launch of the Poetry in Transit poems will be at 2:20 p.m. Sept. 30 at Word Vancouver’s Sunrise Suite tent. Some of the selected poets, including Susan, will do a poetry reading.
After that, watch for “Scales” on Metro Vancouver buses.
“It’s a sad poem, but it has I think a detached tone to it,” says Susan.
“I thought that worked,” she laughs. “Not everything works.”