Finding poetry on the sidewalks of St. Paul

A sidewalk next to a Taco Bell entrance in St. Paul offers a bit of poetry for the gordita-chomping pedestrian to consider.

The sky

fell on

my

toes

and

I was

a fast

runner.

The poem, by Diego Vazquez, Jr., is one of 36 verses pressed into concrete on St. Paul sidewalks as part of a five-year-old public arts project, Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk. The project aims to turn sidewalk maintenance workers into literary publishers. So far, they’ve added poems to nearly 500 sidewalk panels.

taco bell poem.jpg

This year’s contest for sidewalk poetry begins this week, and runs through April 13. I asked the program’s creator, St. Paul artist-in-residence Marcus Young, what makes a good sidewalk poem.

“I think it makes you stop and it makes you think about your life as you’re going about your everyday business,” he said. “And it has to touch really deeply through the very average medium of sidewalks, and be short.”

Among his favorites:

A dog on a walk

is like a person in love —

You can’t tell them

it’s the same old world.

And:

A puddle,

where a moth

can shake the sky.

dog poem.jpg

The contest, judged by a panel of artists and writers, is open to all St. Paul residents. Young expects to receive as many as 2,000 entries. Out of those, the panel will select five winners.

Most of the community reaction has been positive, according to Young, although a few homeowners have opted their sidewalks out of the program. (The poems are installed when a sidewalk needs to be replaced. Homeowners have the right to opt out.)

“You’d be surprised about how some people don’t want poetry in front of their house,” Young told me.

But, he added, those requests are few compared to the number of homeowners excited by the prospect of free poetry.

Dave Hunt, spokesperson for the city’s public works department, said the project has already proved more successful than he ever imagined.

“We had some doubts initially if it was going to last this long,” he said. “We thought that people would welcome something like this, but you never know. There are a lot of naysayers out there.”

When asked to choose the most memorable poem, Hunt selected a rather dark verse.

A tourist

in the cathedral

of your silence

I am reverent

for all the wrong

reasons

“That line, ‘the cathedral of your silence,’ has always stayed with me,” he said.

(Photos courtesy of the St. Paul Public Works Department)

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