Public Poetry on the MI Capitol Steps

Jul 19, 2017

Thursday night, a crowd will gather at the steps of the Michigan State Capitol Building. They won’t be there to hear a political stump speech though, it is poetry that brings these people together.


It’s a powerful image. Someone standing up and speaking in front of a capitol building. Whether fictional, like Charlie Chaplin…

[Audio from the final speech of Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR]

Or real, as in JFK’s inauguration…

[Audio from JFK's "We choose to go to the moon..." portion of his Inauguration speech]

Rina Risper of the New Citizen’s Press wants to give you that same opportunity on the Michigan State Capitol steps in Lansing.

"Some people just get up there and say a quote because they want to be on the Capitol steps and they want to get their photo opportunity in," explains Risper, "but that's what we're there for. We're there to make you feel like you are part of the city of Lansing."

This free event at the Capitol Thursday night is the 11th annual Poetry in the City. But Risper explains that the rules are pretty strict to participate.

"You have three minutes. No profanity or offensive language. Your three minutes... get your camera ready, and then you're down and the next person's up."

The Lansing-based Poetry in the City used to be Poetry in the Parks, thanks to one individual who now works for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, but he will be celebrated during Thursday night’s gathering.

"So, we are honoring Murdock Jemerson, who used to be over Lansing Parks and Recreation," says Risper "and what we did was call him to the Turner-Dodge House because that was one of the places we wanted to have a poetry reading. And I just stood up and started doing poetry and he was so surprised that he said 'Sure! Let's go ahead and do it!' And when I called him, 11 years later, he was very surprised that I still remembered that he was the impetus for us getting started. He was just really appreciative that we're going to be honoring him at the 11th annual Poetry in the City."

[Audio from 2016's Poetry in the City event.]

"We invite everyone to do a poem, even if it's 'Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star!'" says Risper. "We don't care, just as long as you get up there. The most amazing thing about Poetry in the City is that it goes from 2nd Grade on up. If you have a three-year-old recite something, we want to see the three-year old."

"One of the most interesting things that I've seen is when poets come and perform and they do Black Lives Matter poems, or police brutality poems and we have a Michigan State Police Officer standing to, you know, guard over the poetry reading. But what happens is in my mind, I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm black and I have a father who was a police officer.' So, last year, I was inspired to do a poem about being black and having a father who was a police officer and how that dynamic may impact, you know, the way people perceive the relationships that are currently occurring in society right now."

But has Rina Risper read that poem anywhere yet?
"No." she chuckles, "Not yet."

The 11th annual Poetry in the City takes place Thursday night from 7 till 9, rain or shine on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol Building. The event is free, and organizer Rina Risper of the New Citizen’s Press recommends bringing your own blankets or chairs.