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[whitespace] The Poetry Bug

The Poetry Bug keeps the spirit of creativity alive

By Traci Hukill

Something about a Volkswagen Beetle tooling down the highway covered in Magnetic Poetry makes people smile. Maybe it says something hopeful about art and democracy: Poetry for the People on the People's Car, or something like that. Maybe they like it because the whole picture just flies in the face of practicality.

Or it could be because the car looks like a toy and the little white magnets remind people of their friends' refrigerators and the good times to be had scooting words around into poems.

Janell Schmitt and Peter Vircks didn't realize just how popular their literary vehicle would be when they set out on an April-long "Catch the Poetry Bug" tour of the West Coast to celebrate National Poetry Month.

"We thought people would steal the words off the car at night, but they don't!" exclaims Schmitt in wonder. "They just rearrange them. We'll come out of the hotel in the morning and there'll be new poems."

As one of three groups of Emergency Metaphor Technicians touring the country, Schmitt and Vircks travel to schools, libraries and coffee shops with magnetic notebooks and Magnetic Poetry kits. Dressed in white lab coats and wielding stethoscopes that can detect poetry in people's hearts, they give each kid a notebook filled with word tiles, talk a little about poetry and then turn 'em loose. The results are pretty consistent, Schmitt says: "They get hooked into it right away."

One overcast morning at the Evergreen branch of the San Jose library, poetry has seized the imaginations of the kids and turned all the adults present into amazed anthropologists, as if they're witnessing a ritual performed by a vanishing tribe deep in the Amazon. One adult questions a young lady of 6 or so about the creative process. The native herself, dressed in a fetching red coat with faux leopard trim, offers sibylline answers.

Adult: "How do you decide which words to use?"

Child: "I don't know."

Adult: "Are you picking the prettiest words?"

Child: "Maybe."

Adult: "Are you picking an idea and trying to make the words fit?"

Child: "Maybe."

Shaunice Price, 13, says she sometimes writes poetry "about life," but finds Magnetic Poetry a great facilitator for her art because all the words are right there, laid out in front of her. "The hardest thing about poetry," she says, "is thinking of the words."

She's not having any trouble today. After a while she takes her notebook to Vircks, who asks her if she'd like to record her poem. She does, a little shyly. It goes like this:

    silent gorgeous green turtle
    she is gentle as a petal
    her life is the choice
    it is about to rain
    a flood a storm is coming
    quick turn shout
    don't be afraid
    a voice said come follow me
    smile it is all over.

Vircks presents her with an embossed Poetic License, which gives Shaunice, among other things, "the right to utilize or to ignore, according to one's personal discretion, poetic forms, rules, structures and devices, including the following: rhyme, meter, and rhythm; formalized structures such as sonnet, haiku, tanka, cinquain ...; and 'traditional' themes such as love, death, birth, loss, justice, nature, culture and time."

If this is a mission to make poetry less scary and more fun, it's succeeding. Invented when a frustrated songwriter named Dave Kapell sneezed, scattering magazine cutouts intended to help bust through his writer's block, Magnetic Poetry has become an educational tool, an inspiration for writers and a means of introducing Joe and Josephine Average to the magic of language. Thanks to magnetic paint, walls in certain children's museums are now covered with Magnetic Poetry. Rumor has it Dave Letterman's writers have slapped word tiles on one wall of their office.

Of course, Magnetic Poetry can be used to mischievous ends, but even elementary-school boys can't resist the call to creativity. Explains Vircks, "It's funny--when you get a group of boys around the car, they'll try to make up something dirty. Yesterday it was 'My dad eats yellow snow.' And then they all giggle and get it out of their system, and then they shift gears, and the next poem might be about gardens."

Schmitt and Vircks work hard to keep their enterprise clean. They wash the white Bug almost every day. As for the tiles, which stay on the car when they're driving, they get washed every night too--in the hotel room. "And that," Schmitt says, "is weird."

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From the April 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro.

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