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  • 23 Aug 2014

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Public displays of poetry a local phenomena

Paintings, sculpture and other forms of art are displayed in museums, on walls, in public places, but poetry? That is usually only available on pages in books squirreled away on shelves — until now.

About 10 years ago, Laura Foster, author of “Portland Hill Walks” and several other books, noticed a lone poetry pole — a box on a stick in a front yard playing host to a typewritten poem for passersby to read.

“I thought it was a one-off, but a friend called me a couple of years ago and asked if I’d noticed the proliferation of poetry posts,” Foster says.

Once she started looking around, she found plenty of poetry poles, enough that she could lead walking tours, taking in a dozen or so at a time.

“It is a charming part of our city; Portland is so literary minded,” Foster says.

Why the sudden interest in public displays of poetry?

“Maybe the gray skies make you contemplative; we are less active in the winter and more introspective. When we take a walk on a gray day, it is so apt to read someone’s well-thought out thoughts,” Foster says.

Although she admits she is not one who reads a lot of poetry, she does pay attention to the ways that people express themselves creatively, like in their gardens or with stonework.

“If people feel strongly enough to type up a poem, that becomes a magnet; it shakes you out of your own world,” she says. “These wonderful threads weave together, as we go off and explore the city.”

Maps and apps

Matt Blair has been working on an iPhone/iPad application that will allow folks to choose a neighborhood, look at poetry boxes near their current location, share them via email, Twitter and Facebook and submit their own photos of the poetry boxes they visit.

It is taking him a bit of time to make the app happen, he says, so in the meantime he made a Web-based map that works with desktop and laptop computers, showing the locations of poetry boxes in the metro area.

“When I started this project, I only had two photos and seven confirmed locations. Now I have 71 photos, and 173 locations, but it’s taken more than two years to get there,” Blair says.

“I’ve always been enthusiastic about projects/practices which bring art out of traditional venues and into the ‘real’ world; the spaces where we live, walk, move and interact in our everyday lives — to bringpoetry into pedestrian places, literally,” he adds.

He has found a few examples of similar phenomena in other cities, but thinks that Portland has more of these than the rest of the world combined.

“I think poetry boxes have the potential to be one of Portland’s next great cultural exports,” Blair says.

“We are a city of walkers, that’s a big part of it. And also a city of words. People here love language and literature, and poetry boxes give them a way to put that love on display and share it with their neighbors,” he adds.

‘Opportunity to philosophize’

Two couples have poetry poles in their front yards, and they have experienced a coming together of neighbors who read and enjoy the works on display.

Susan Moray and Art Nord live in Southeast Portland’s Ladd’s Addition, and they saw a map of poetry poles in the city, drove around looking at them, and then six months ago put up their own box.

“I loved the idea of poetry out in public; I like the idea of art being visible, especially in these days when art is not in the budget, this is an inexpensive way to get it out there,” Nord says, adding that he and Moray always include a photo illustration to accompany the poems in their box.

The couple also makes a point of putting out poems that will appeal to children, since they live so close to Abernethy Elementary School.

“We like to have children exposed to the poetry come away thinking they could create this, or maybe they’ll ask their parents to do this,” Moray says.

The two have different tastes in poetry, Nord says, noting that he is more image oriented, while Moray, his life partner, prefers inspirational poetry.

“I like nature imagery that captures a moment, an experience that can inspire us to wonder, whereas Susan likes poetry that tells where the moment has led you,” he adds.

The couple gets a kick out of watching people stop to read the poem in the box, and once had two people come to the door asking about a poem that had recently been taken down.

“Susan keeps all the poems she has put out, so she was able to give them the poem,” Nord says.

Moray likens putting up a poetry pole to putting a bumper sticker on a car, noting, “It’s my opportunity to philosophize.”

Nord adds, “When we read other people’s poetry posts I feel I know a little bit about them — I just like walking past a poetry post and knowing there is a poetry lover inside the house.”

Touching moments

Colleen McClain and Don Riggs live in North Portland, on a walking route to New Seasons and light rail. They put up their poetry pole in 2008, and at first didn’t know if anyone would stop to read the poems they posted.

“We were astonished — it has been incredibly well received. Poetry is a language everyone understands at some level,” McClain says.

Riggs says he started out keeping a list of how many people commented on their poetry box, but stopped when he had 60 names; he now figures there have been at least 100 people passing by who have expressed their thanks.

McClain and Riggs are lucky enough to have a front porch facing the street, so they can watch passersby stop to read the poems. They noticed such a wide variety of types and ages of people, that they decided to put some small stones under the box, so that children could rearrange them, while the adults read the poems out loud.

There have been a few touching moments.

“We’ve had people stop us on the street and say, ‘You don’t know me, but that poem got me through a really tough time,’” McClain says.

Riggs adds that he and his wife put up a poem written by a 10-year-old neighbor girl, who had written a poem about autism for her brother, who is autistic.

One poem, “Soneto de la Noche,” by Pablo Neruda, has come to have special significance for McClain and Riggs.

It is a love poem, with an opening line reading: “When I die, I want your hands upon my eyes ...”

In December, after playing a game of basketball, Riggs says he came home, “collapsed on the bed and died for a few minutes.”

His wife called 911, and some of the firefighters who first responded had been the same ones Riggs had just played basketball with; they were able to revive him. He was diagnosed with cardiac arrest, but has now completely recovered.

As to why others should put up poetry poles, McClain says, “There is no ‘should’ attached — you do it totally because you love poetry.”

Riggs adds, “We’re delighted when we see new ones come up. There is a sense of sharing; that’s how it started out.”

Poet Laureate

Paulann Petersen, Oregon’s sixth and current Poet Laureate, and a speaker at the upcoming Wordstock Festival opening today, Oct. 11, said she is honored and delighted when she hears that her work has been displayed in poetry boxes around the city.

Petersen, who was appointed to her position as Oregon’s Poet Laureate in 2010, has a poetry post outside her Sellwood home and says she thinks the boxes have become popular, because “people enjoy the serendipity, the unexpected delight of finding a poem beckoning to them as they take strolls or walk their dogs.”

Her poetry post serves two functions: it displays the current poem for reading, and it offers each passerby the opportunity to open the flap and take a copy of that poem with them.

“I’m continually surprised by how quickly the copies of a poem are taken,” Petersen says, noting, “Poetry speaks the language of us at our best. A poem speaks to us as our most creative, attentive, responsive selves. Who doesn’t want to be spoken to as a creative, responsive, attentive creature?”

She adds, “More and more people are reading and writing poems. When people are moved by a poem they encounter, their impulse is to share it with others. A poetry box is a way to publicly post a poem, a way to share it with as much of the rest of the world as possible.”