Sharpen your pencils: St Paul looking for more sidewalk poems

As City Artist in Residence Marcus Young doesn’t beat around the bush when asked what he wants from the third annual Sidewalk Poetry Contest in St Paul.

“We want your back-of-napkin poems, your classroom poems. We want your deepest secrets in poetry form. And then we will publish your poems in the sidewalk, in the public realm, to create these delightful moments of out door reading,” he says. “We live in a very big blank book, so this is the time to begin writing in our blank book.”

The idea is quite simple: write a poem of 250 characters (including spaces.) It can be a maximum of 10 lines, with a maximim of 40 characters in a line. Once your piece is polished yo your satisfaction submit it to the contest by March 28th.

If you are one of the winners chosen by the judges, your piece will be transformed into a giant stamp, which will be applied to new sidewalks being installed around the city this summer. (One caveat, the contest is only open to St Paul residents. Would-be sidewalk poets elsewhere should talk to their own city public works departments about poetic possibilities.)

“Right now we have 261 poems installed around the city from a collection of 26 poems,” Young says. “It’s quite interesting how often people see them, although they are not everywhere. I’m just surprised that people notice them, and enjoy them.”

I mentioned that I had stumbled across some of the poems as I was out walking in my own neighborhood.

Don’t say stumble,” Young laughs. “The Public Works Department doesn’t want a trip hazard. You’ll get me in trouble.”

OK, so I have happened upon some of the Sidewalk Poetry, and it has always come as a surprise, or even a shock, given that the pieces I found were a little on the dark side.

Young (at left with a poem about to be stamped into wet concrete,) says the idea is to create a gentle surprise as people are out and about.

“I mean how many times do we in our lives do we get such gentle pleasant surprises that are just meant to hopefully spark something in your imagination, or create a moment of joy, simple joy.”

Young says some people wonder if the poetry is vandalism, or something that the homeowner has done. He likes that mystery.

Some people wonder who is paying for it, and Young likes to poinbt out there are many sources of funding including The Public Art Saint Paul’s program fund, the City of Saint Paul, and Readings by Writers; and is produced in collaboration with the Department of Public Works.The project also receives support from several local foundations.

The City of St Paul replaces about 10 miles of sidewalk each year, and Young aims to get about 100 poems printed in cement each summer.

Now he wants more. The winners will be announced in May. Young encourages allcomers to submit a poem.

“We have funny poems, we have thoughtful poems, we have dark poems. You just have to be concise,” Young says.

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