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Captive audience: An ambush poetry reading on the public bus

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In honor of National Poetry Month, Dana Killmeyer, a local poet and writer who just finished her MFA degree in creative writing at UNLV, reads from one of her books to bus riders on the Maryland Pkwy 109 bus Saturday, April 12, 2014.
Photo: Yasmina Chavez
Molly O'Donnell

A woman in a black wig and sunglasses mutters to herself in the corner of a bus that runs along Maryland Parkway. Her wig slips slightly as she gets louder and more coherent, until she’s practically shouting, “Shut up! We paid for a bus ride; we didn’t pay for this!”

This woman is not as mentally unstable as your average bus mutterer. She has a discernible target that the rest of us can see: a group of local poets who’ve turned out on Saturday to celebrate National Poetry Month by reading to literally captive audiences on public buses.

Dana Killmeyer, a UNLV MFA student, conceptualized these readings as a way to engage with audiences outside the ivory tower of academia. “It just seems like unless artists connect with people in everyday scenarios, we’ll never expand our audience or performatively challenge ourselves,” says Killmeyer.

Poetry Readings on The Deuce

As our bus rolls toward Downtown, the wigged woman rants and another in an orange dress eyes the readers curiously. Noah Cicero begins his offering from Langston Hughes, booming over the ferocious engine noise, stop announcements and very irritated wig-wearer. An older man and woman sitting across the aisle listen attentively.

As Shannon Salter reads her original work from beneath an Easter-sized hat, I see a couple of nods, curls at the edges of lips, smiles emerging through the noise, exhaust smells and pollen-coated breeze. By the time the poets stop reading, the older man offers Killmeyer some encouraging words and a woman introduces herself as Dora Turcios, saying, “Don’t worry about that lady. That’s just people in Las Vegas.”

At the transfer point on Fremont, we stop for something to drink and Salter and Killmeyer chat up a woman making the most elaborate balloon animals I’ve ever seen. She listens to what the poets are up to and giggles slightly, recommending Fremont for a performance since you don’t need a permit and people come for the spectacle. But we all think that’s the point: Anyone coming to or living in Las Vegas should probably embrace spectacle in whatever form, poets reading on a bus, Despicable Me minions under the Viva Vision, the Bellagio fountains waltzing to Sinatra.

The top deck of the Deuce is much quieter when we climb on for our second ride of the day, so the whole bus can hear Salter when she beams, “Ladies and gentlemen, in honor of National Poetry Month, we’d like to share some poems with you.” At first no one seems interested except for a pair of kids who turn around in their seats to see what’s going on. “There’s nothing bad in this one,” Killmeyer reassures herself before beginning.

The farther down the Strip we go the livelier things get. The bus is now at maximum capacity, and when Cicero finishes a Hughes’ poem with the words “no way,” a man jumps up the stairs and “woo-hoos” then says, “Yeah, Bennie and the Jets, anyone else going?” A woman and her husband plop down in the middle of where the poets are reading, and she listens appreciatively to Salter’s poem told from the perspective of a bird living above the Bellagio gardens. The longer the ride and readings go on, the more people seem into them, asking questions about the exercise and Las Vegas.

As the Deuce jolts, stopping and starting, people getting on and off (like a poetic miniature of life), the bus seems to become a little more human and a little less human mover. A couple of women getting off near Planet Hollywood thank the poets and laugh that they’ve “heard a lot worse things on the Deuce than poetry.” I think about what the friendly Turcios said on the first bus and realize that’s just people in Las Vegas, too.

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