Underground Poetry is a new movement in which poems by current writers are photocopied and handed out to people travelling by Tube. Lizzy Dening speaks to the movement’s founder, Nina Ellis, about how poetry can fit into the nine to five.
“Our techniques became fairly guerrilla,” grins Nina Ellis, tucking her hair behind her ears, “It turned out that you’re not really supposed to hand out leaflets of any kind inside Tube stations, so we sped from one station to the next with calls of “Free poem?” before the Tube staff noticed us. We got some fairly inane responses too, like ‘Do I have to pay?’ and ‘Wow, a free phone?’”
Nina and her poetry ‘guerrillas’ have been handing out new works on the underground since March this year, after frequent travelling coupled with an interest (or dare I suggest, a poet’s nosiness) about her fellow travellers gave her the idea.
“I’ve lived in London since I was thirteen, and Paris before that, so I’ve spent hours of my life on the Tube and the Metro. I’ve always found my co-travellers on the Underground fascinating… I look at them and wonder about them and try to work them out until they catch me staring. I love how, like airports and other transportation hubs, the Tube throws together the most unlikely combinations of people.
“Nowhere else, in my experience, are people from such different walks of life placed in such close proximity – a closeness which feels quite normal to us in that setting but which might seem inappropriate or surprising in any other context. Travel puts us all on the same page, I think. We all become kind of alike because of our shared desire to get somewhere.
“So I guess the Underground Poetry idea was sparked by thinking about people on the Tube – who rarely speak or find out each other’s stories – but betting that most of them are as interested in each other as I am. What if we could experience their world view for a minute or two – and that’s what poetry lets you do.
“I had that sequence of thoughts on the Tube one day and decided that Londoners giving each other insights into each other’s lives by exchanging poetry and distributing it for free was a good idea.”
I am inclined to agree with Nina, having sent her two of my own poems in early April to be given out. The day they were distributed I found myself thinking about them frequently: would people think they were some sort of advertising flyer? Would they read them? And more importantly, how would they respond? With the poetry world often seeming incredibly small, the idea of not only strangers, but strangers with little to no interest in poetry reading a piece of my work intrigued me.
Although unable to afford the ‘premium’ website account to let her track the site’s traffic, Nina knows from the body of submissions that the movement is growing in popularity, “I get the impression that about half of the submissions are from people who found them on trains, or from people they’ve passed them on to. It’s really nice, actually: often travellers will ask for several copies to give out to their families or whoever they are going to meet. One woman asked for fourteen for her cancer support group. That made me really happy.”
Whilst studying from her degree in Social Anthropology, Nina makes her hand-outs once a month, and is currently producing a leaflet of free poetry to be handed out at Firefly music festival at the end of July, in the hope that music fans will be even more receptive of poems than her average receiver. I ask her whether she believes it’s important for poetry to become a part of people’s day-to-day lives.
Frowning slightly, she replies:
“Well, it’s important for me to have poetry as part of my day-to-day life, because it’s instinctively what I do, I write all the time. But I wouldn’t presume to say that it’s crucial for everyone to have it be part of their day-to-day lives, because we all express ourselves in different mediums. The right medium for me is not necessarily the right medium for the person sitting next to me on the District Line.
“However, I do think that it’s important to make interacting with other human beings part of our day-to-day lives – interacting with them, understanding them, learning to see the world from their varying perspectives. Being open-minded and accepting of other people’s cultural backgrounds is so important in this globalising world – especially in a culturally diverse place like London. And I think reading poetry by the people who surround us is an extremely effective way of opening our minds to their widely varying points of view – the most effective way I can think of, though of course most art forms are capable of doing that to a greater or lesser degree.
“Besides, it’s fun to read! Handing it out like that – something genuinely free that is being given out with the totally innocent aim of making Tube travellers happy, is just a nice thing to do. So little is free… And the Tube can be so gloomy. Why not brighten it up with some poetry?”
Both Nina and I agree that poetry can seem quite alien to many young people, something associated with GCSE revision and dry teachers, something which they believe requires a special knowledge to access. I ask how she believes poetry can be made more accessible,
“I think the best way of incorporating it into common life would be to make it more fun. People our age go to music gigs all the time, and music is a crucial part of most of our lives – why isn’t poetry? I think, sadly, that the answer to that is that poetry does not tend to be seen as very “cool,” so it doesn’t even occur to many people to get into it. It’s not massively alluring. The poetry festivals I have been to and worked at have been great – but most of them are about 70% over-40-year-olds.
“So of course poetry is unlikely to hold that much glamour or appeal for people our age. But they’re all mistaken – it is cool! To bring poetry into common life we just need to open people’s eyes to that. Start small-scale, have lots of poetry evenings, encourage friends to write, email our poetry round to each other, create forums, hand it out on the street and on Tubes, collaborate with musicians and artists, start poetry and music collectives, show that it can be fun.”
As for the future, Nina is fired up and full of enthusiasm. She is currently applying for funding from the Arts Council, and that being successful is ready to take Underground Poetry into the sunlight and further afield, on buses and to airport terminals.
“I think it’s important to not hoard our poetry but to share it just for the sake of sharing it. I think being generous with it and enthusiastic about it in the same way we are about music would be a good first step. And that’s my rather ambitious aim,” she laughs, “To make poetry cool again.”
If you are interested in having work handed out on the underground, Nina is looking for poems, short prose or lyrics (a maximum of 31 lines, as she distributes on sheets of A4) with or without illustrations, which can be sent to email@example.com See the website www.undergroundpoetry.webs.com for more information.
Lizzy Dening is a freelance journalist and poet. She has had articles published in a variety of magazines, including The Word, Writer’s Forum and Writing Magazine. Her poems have appeared in The Times, the Rialto, Orbis, Rising, Pomegranate and Popshot.