The TTC may not always run on time, but at least it now has a bit more rhyme.
This week, poetry started to reappear on Toronto transit buses, subways and streetcars for the first time since 2012. That was the year that the much-loved “Poetry on the Way” breathed its last, after decorating the city’s public vehicles for more than a decade, since 1998.
The end of Poetry on the Way remains something of a literary mystery, but its beginning is well documented. It was the brainchild of Toronto resident and publisher Denis Deneau, who wanted to draw attention (and maybe even the odd paycheque) to poets, especially Canadian ones.
He in turn was probably inspired by Poems on the Underground, an initiative that began in the British capital in 1986 and continues to this day. Other cities took note, notably New York, which called its program Poetry in Motion, and Vancouver, whose Poetry in Transit turns 28 this year.
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Now Toronto is re-joining the club with Poems in Passage. Co-founders Addresse Haile and Latif Murji grew up in Scarborough and were in their high school years during the time that Poetry on the Way was happening.
“I took the TTC to school for a lot of my childhood,” says Haile, “and it was a beautiful way to kill time, feel inspired, whenever we saw poems. So super-fond memories for us was the biggest reason we did it.”
He adds: “We saw that the TTC felt a little bit darker, the whole city felt a little darker, post-pandemic. And it was the good memories we had seeing these poems on the way to school that encouraged us to try to bring it back.”
“We had a lot of great support from our partners,” says Murji. “It was almost a convergence of the right people and partners at the right time to make this spring to life.” Partners include the TTC (of course), the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto Poetry Slam and Pattison, the company that handles all vehicle and station advertising for the transit system.
The first year of Poems in Passage – and its founders hope there will be many more – features a dozen poems from a diverse group of writers. They include Footnotes for the Toronto Sky by Pujita Verma, an Indo-Canadian poet and illustrator; and the appropriately titled I text my love at Old Mill Station by Andrea Josic, whom the project’s website describes as “a queer, Mad, Bosnian-Canadian poet, performer, journalist, and arts educator based in the GTA.”
“Either a love letter to the city or themes of resilience and healing” is how Haile describes the selections, noting that research they did into New York’s transit poetry showed that heavy or overly sad poems didn’t sit as well with commuters as more upbeat fare. “Which intuitively makes sense but we were able to learn a bit from them,” he says.
The 12 poems in the collection will be printed up to 1,500 times and will appear on 75 per cent of the TTC’s fleet of buses, streetcars and subways.
“We really want everyone, all commuters, to have the opportunity to contemplate, to be inspired, and to even sit with the words of our featured artists,” says Murji. “They are representative of the diversity of out city, and that’s really important for us, to elevate those artists’ voices.”
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