Sidewalks are for poets

An excerpt from "Bad Day." It's one of a number of sidewalk poems on Dayton Avenue.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

You can't miss the short, pithy poems etched in the fresh sidewalk on St. Paul's Dayton Avenue. They mark Ray Mackenzie's regular walking route and though he doesn't know where they came from, he thinks they're charming, including this untitled poem.

Marcus Young
Marcus Young is St Paul's Artist-in-Residence. He came up with the idea of stamping poems in city sidewalks.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"She was steward of the smallest things: pair of dead bees in the windowsill, Santa ring, cluster of elm seeds in their felted cells."

"It's nice," MacKenzie said. "It's got a haiku touch, and its very concrete. It gives you a set of images to look at and think about. It's very quiet and peaceful."

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Concrete. No pun intended?

"No pun intended," laughed Mackenzie. "I'd like to take credit for it, but no pun intended."

A St Paul City worker prepares concrete for stamping.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Are these poems the work of guerrilla poets with engraving tools stalking the neighborhoods of St. Paul on the hunt for fresh cement? No, they're not. Actually the project is being funded by Public Art St. Paul with the city's blessing.

As St. Paul's Artist-in Residence, Marcus Young is charged with improving the quality of life in the city through the arts. Young too was walking along the sidewalk, looking down, when he began to notice how construction companies stamp their work.

"And it'll say Knutson Construction or Standard Sidewalk, and one day I just thought, 'hey, that's an opportunity for art,'" he said.

Why not enlarge that stamp, Young thought, and imprint the verse of local poets on new sidewalks?

A worker stands in the mold to impress the poem into the wet cement.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

So he organized a citywide sidewalk poetry contest, limiting the poems to 150 characters or less. Judges selected 20 winners from more than 2,000 submissions. The poems are being stamped in neighborhoods throughout St. Paul. City maintenance crews pour the concrete, smooth it out and then stamp the poems under the supervision of Young and his team.

For Young the project reflects how St. Paulites lead poetic lives. Sure, he says, we all have to go to work, pay the bills, feed the kids.

"But we also are dreamers, and we have high aspiration," he said. "And so I think that comes out when you ask people to write about the things that are most important to them."

"I reach for a name, a song, a tune, and memories scatter," he said.

This is one of the molds used to stamp poems into the sidewalks
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Naomi Cohn is looking down at the sidewalk. It contains her poem "Dementia." It's dedicated to her father, who began to lose his ability to think and remember as he got older. Again, 'I reach for a name, a song, a tune,' Cohn writes...

"And memories scatter," Cohn recites. "Minnows fleeing a toothy pike. I catch a few laggards, but know these are nothing to the hundred fish that fled."

Cohn wrote this poem a while ago in a workshop. She knows it's sad, but she's happy it's being published in cement.

Naomi Cohn
Naomi Cohn wrote the poem "Dementia" which is about her father.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"I think it just puts it in a different place where it's free and open," she said. "You don't have to go to a reading or coffee shop or library or a space that has a certain approach to it."

There's another sidewalk poem a few blocks away from Cohn's. It goes 'A little less war, a little more peace. A little less poor, a little more eats.' Ten-year-old Daijon McDonough passes over it every time he walks down his block.

"I like it, because it's true, and poor people do need to eat food, and stuff," he said.

Daijon thinks the sidewalk poems bring a lot to his neighborhood. He likes how some of them share wisdom or lay out a path to follow. He even protected one as it was drying.

Daijon McDonough
Daijon McDonough likes the poem in the sidewalk near where he lives. He protected it while the cement was still wet.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"When it was wet cement my friend almost stepped on this, and I said don't step on that cause that is beautiful work that people worked on a lot," he said.

That poetry stamping work will continue through October. Then there's the question of whether the poems can survive the freeze/thaw cycle of a Minnesota winter. But organizer Marcus Young says the project has already come up with a new way to look at sidewalks as blank pages.

"And if you accept that the sidewalk panel is a blank page, then we have this amazing book in our city that is our city," Young said.

Residents will soon get a chance to read that book. This Saturday St. Paul Public Works and Public Art will hold an open house at St. Stephanus Lutheran Church. The church is in a section of the Frogtown neighborhood where there's a fairly high concentration of sidewalk poems.

A hand-bound artist made book featuring the winning poems has also been published, so people can see what they look like on the printed page.