CM: The idea came from a selfish desire - I love my city, Beverly, Massachusetts, with its friendly community and great main street; I love the school where I work, Montserrat College of Art; and I love poetry. I wanted my three loves to spend more time together. I was walking from class one day, I passed the friendly bike shop, and asked if they might host a poetry reading. Sixty people showed up, some serious cyclists, to hear poems about bicycles. Do you remember that scene from The Fisher King where everyone is going about their business and suddenly begins ballroom dancing in the train station? For me, the readings feel like my whole neighborhood is dancing with me.
CM: The third season begins this fall.
3. Can you talk about some of your most intriguing events? I know you've had readings in banks, flower shops, swimming pools and laundromats.
CM: I think the tattoo parlor, Good Mojo, with the theme of ink, was the most beautiful. The stage looked like a jewel box. We had poets read from the front window with their voices amplified onto the street while someone was being tattooed in the back window. The police had to come and block the street because the crowd of 100 was flowing out into traffic.
Recently I used Emerson’s quote that “poetry is a type of skating” as the call for work, and the reading was held at the Beverly Roller Palace. The podium was set up under the disco ball, and skaters circled the readers. You should know that January Gill O’Neil, a fine poet and the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, is also a very good roller skater.
4. How do people react to poetry in flower shops or in massage parlors? Any reactions that stay with you?
CM: Massage Parlor? I haven’t tried that one yet; thanks for the tip! The Laundromat crowd’s reaction was one of my favorites. I think they were the most surprised crowd, as many were just there to do laundry and had no idea that a poetry reading was about to begin. The sound of the coins going into washers added to the atmosphere and many stayed well after the final spin. One family brought in a pizza, folded their clothes, and listened intently. It’s a small moment, but one that reminds me that poetry can and should be accessible.
5. I know you direct the writing center at an art college — what is the students' participation?
CM: The Tour wouldn’t work without the students’ participation. They’ve come to think of it as professional practice. Painters and sculptors show in galleries; writers go to readings. This is a way for them to share their work with the community.
6. Plans for the future? What’s next?
CM: I’ve got my eye on a local beauty salon and an auto parts store.
7. I know you recently participated in the Mass Poetry Festival with poetry coasters and window displays – how did that work?
CM: I was honored that the Massachusetts Poetry Festival had invited the Tour to participate, but I knew I had to change it up. A poetry reading at a poetry festival is just, well, too probable. I also wanted a way to feature some of the Montserrat artists who have found ways to add new layers to the Improbable Places Poetry Tour. We have letterpress artists, installation artists, graphic designers, filmmakers who all make the poetry tour better – I needed their talent to make it special, “improbable” in a new way. I decided that it had to be an installation piece, sort of a treasure hunt. The Tour is always about place; once I had the place in mind I thought about poems (especially your wonderful poem “Mapparium”) that might connect, or even push back a little.
8. An idea as superb as this should be replicated in different places. Any plans for other cites to follow your good lead?
CM: I’m hoping you will start a West Coast chapter! I’ve also been talking with Ariella Ruth, a poet from Naropa, who’s interested in starting it in Colorado.
9. Is it true that you usually sew a new dress to coordinate with each venue?
CM: You betcha! It’s hard to find bicycle-print and laundry-themed frocks off the rack.
Colleen Michaels directs the Writing Studio at Montserrat College of Art. Her poems and essays have appeared in print and in online literary journals, including The Paterson Literary Review, Blue Collar Review, The Mom Egg, Bread and Circus Magazine, Literary Mama, and the anthology, Here Come the Brides!: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage. She was a 2010 finalist for the Split This Rock Poetry Competition and was the recipient of an honorable mention in the 2011 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize. She lives with her family in Beverly, Massachusetts.