Features & Columns

Sally Ashton: Poetry on the Move

Thanks to county poet Sally Ashton, local bus riders got some good reads
Poetry on the Move RHYME SCENE: Local Poet Laureate Sally Ashton encourages residents to communicate in verse.

Santa Clara County Poet Laureate Sally Ashton is finishing her two-year term and celebrating the release of a book about "Poetry on the Move," a contest that put winning poems in public transportation throughout the county for anyone to view.

Last year, a call for poetry blasted across the horizon, resulting in nearly 100 submissions, all related to the theme of invention. Folks from every corner of the county, of all ages, submitted their work, with the judges somehow filtering five winners out of the bunch.

Those five winners had their poems displayed on rectangular cards inside buses and lightrail trains for the last year. For example, right next to the Transit Employee of the Month announcement, one might have seen poems by Dennis Noren, Samantha Le, Mark Heinlein, Diana Clarke and Danielle Roberts. In some cases, the cards remain and probably will not be removed for some time.

The book, Invention: Poems That Celebrate Who We Are and What We Do in Silicon Valley, will soon be available at every branch of the county library, with remaining copies for sale from the county. It is about 100 pages long and shaped like the rectangular cards one sees along the insides of public transportation, above the seats. Every poem submitted is now included in the book, one on each page. Readers can search for any of the poets by an index in the back. Ashton says the response blew her away.

"What I was really pleased with was the broad spectrum of people sending in poems," Ashton says. "From all over the county, I think every city was represented. ... People took to the theme of invention really creatively. I told them that it could be a poem that addresses invention as a theme, or where the poem itself as an invention."

The poems tend to view the emergence of Silicon Valley in a positive light, rather than endlessly emphasizing the demise of apricot orchards 50 years ago. Ashton says that was precisely the idea: "I decided on this theme of invention, rather than a theme around the buses and trolleys and whatnot, just to get us thinking about who we are as a whole county, and to embrace that positive-change aspect rather than the kind of nostalgic mourning of who we once were."

Joe Miller, a lecturer in what's now called the Department of Design at SJSU, designed the cards to be installed on the lightrail and the book.

Using solid bright colors and a large typeface, the cards visibly stood out inside the buses and lightrail cars. Much of the interiors of these vehicles, above the seats, constitutes dead area that most wouldn't care to advertise in. The areas aren't lit very well, dreariness dominates and no one ever remembers what's there anyway, so Miller specifically went for a bold approach.

"We talked a lot about what the constraints were," he explains. "I tried to figure out what people would actually read on the bus, looked at a lot of other programs like New York and other places, looked at their shortcomings and mostly just tried to figure out, typographically, what people could swallow in that environment."

As result, the cards stood out, at least for me. The lime green, orange, pink, lavender and light bluish-purple cards—each with a white typeface—did wonders to highlight what's usually a drab-looking interior.

They weren't so graphic-heavy that they blended in with the ads. Instead, they popped out and made me read the poems. No disrespect to my VTA pals, but it was refreshing to read poetry on the bus, as a complement to the latest of 30 years' worth of transit employees of the month, even if the poetry was not world-class material.

The county Poet Laureate, at least in Santa Clara County, is a position one actually has to apply for. Compared to other scenarios, where the poet may just take the money and write her next book, the position here is much more civic minded, which is why Ashton's first major project, in 2011, was a call for favorite poems. Everyone was invited to send in a favorite work that inspired him or her, in whatever way, shape or form. Her term ends this month; look for the county to announce the next laureate any week now.