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Ear-Eating Poetry

Students’ winning poems to hit the road again

It has been decades since Kalamazoo Metro Transit bus riders have been treated to poetry on buses’ overhead placards, but riders are soon in for a treat: The Kalamazoo-based group Friends of Poetry is set to bring poetry back to the buses this year.

The nonprofit group used to provide the poems via its contest for youth, Poems That Ate Our Ears, and will do so again in 2021.

The contest began in 1976 when group founder Martha Moffett brought the idea home to Kalamazoo. She had seen poetry on buses during a trip to New York City and wanted the same thing for Kalamazoo, so she launched the Friends group and the contest that same year.

Touted as the longest-running poetry contest in Southwest Michigan, Poems That Ate Our Ears generates hundreds of entries each year, even some from as far away as Switzerland, says Elizabeth Kerlikowske, president of the poetry group. Originally the contest was open only to youth in Kalamazoo County, but is now open to any youth poets.

Building community through writing

Kerlikowske says the contest brought new poems to buses each year until the mid-1980s, when the group wanted to seek a larger audience. For the next few years, winning poems were featured in murals painted on buildings throughout Kalamazoo.

Most of the murals still remain, but funding issues and zoning regulations eventually prevented new murals from being created, Kerlikowske says.

The goal of Friends of Poetry and the Poems That Ate Our Ears contest is to “build community through writing,” she says. In addition to offering bus placards and murals, Friends of Poetry has held annual readings of the contest-winning poems at the
Kalamazoo Public Library the first Saturday of June, except last year due to restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The criteria to enter the contest are simple: The poets must be students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, they can submit up to three poems, and submissions must be no more than 20 lines. To be considered for a bus placard, a poem must be no more than eight lines. The topic and style are entirely up to the author.

The poems are grouped by grade level and judged by members of the Friends of Poetry board of directors. Kerlikowske says she is always looking for original ideas and original use of language. “With the older kids, there’s been a lot more social awareness than there has been in the past, and I like that a lot,” she says.

As in the past, all of this year’s winners will be presented with a book of the winning poems. They will also be invited to participate in a reading at the Kalamazoo Public Library in June if health guidelines allow for it. Additionally, a few lucky winners will also have their poetry featured on Metro Transit buses.

Lasting effects

There is no cash prize or scholarship attached to the contest, but it can have lasting effects in someone’s life. Take, for instance, Kalamazoo native Gregory Moore, one of the very first winners of the Poems That Ate Our Ears contest. Moore went from having his eight-line poem displayed on Kalamazoo Transit buses to eventually writing cabaret-style shows in New York City. (A man of many talents, he sang opera professionally in between his writing gigs.)

In the late 1970s, then-16-year-old Moore wrote his eight lines of verse on a whim when he learned of the contest. It was the first and only poem he has ever written, he says, but it won and turned out to be an interesting prelude to the rest of his life.

“My goal is to be the most prolific one-poem poet in Kalamazoo County history,” Moore joked recently.

Moore’s poem was about a young man who endured weekly symphony concerts with his mother just so he could wait for a break in the music to cough loudly, hoping to hear his “voice” on local radio personality Garrard Macleod’s weekly rebroadcast of the concert on WMUK.

Moore admits he never kept a copy of his poem, titled “The Sunday Ritual.” But unbeknownst to him, MacLeod had kept a framed copy of the verse in his office until the day he retired. Although Macleod knew Moore’s sister, Lori Moore, professionally, the two men had never met.

Years later, Lori Moore got a tip that Macleod planned to read her brother’s poem at Friends of Poetry’s annual “Can Poetry Be Funny?” poetry reading at the Kalamazoo Public Library. Gregory Moore decided to attend the reading and sat in the back.

As Macleod finished his recitation to applause and laughter, Moore rose and met him in the aisle. “I’m the kid who coughed,” he said by way of introduction.

“It was quite a stir,” says Macleod, who had no idea that Moore was sitting in the audience. “He was very theatrical.”

Macleod says the poem is now displayed in his home office. He also wanted Gregory Moore to have a copy of it, so he gave him a framed copy with one difference. When the poem was written, Moore misspelled the name of Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Tcherepnin. Macleod graciously corrected the mistake in the framed copy he presented to him. Macleod jokingly wonders if his original framed piece with the error might be worth something someday.

Julie Smith

Julie is a Plainwell-based freelance writer.

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