As such, I made an initial presentation to the London Arts Council before Christmas. They were very enthusiastic and want me to present it next to City Council in hopes that it might be adopted and put into practice.
Since we started the open mic/reading series, the one aspect of it (and of any poetry reading) that I always felt didn't quite work was the transience of each poem that’s read on the stage. Most poems are written to be read on the page, not the stage, at the reader's pace, with no distractions, and allowing the reader to refer back and forth within them at will. But at a live reading the pace is unchangeable, there are many distractions, and the listener can't refer back and forth. This necessarily makes the poems more difficult to appreciate, at least to the kind of depth, sublety and detail that most good poems expect of their readers.
At London Open Mic, we've done two things so far to try to alleviate this problem. First, I started putting a batch of the featured reader's pre-published poems on the internet in advance of the reading. Readers can discover something of the poet's writing ability and style, at least, and usually a couple of those poems will actually be in the reading, so they can be studied in advance. Then one of our committee members, Erik Martinez Richards, got the idea of having the entire reading videotaped and put on the internet. This we’re now doing. It’s a big jump in reducing the transience of a reading, probably the maximum jump possible.
Nevertheless this problem is always on my mind, and a while ago, when I was looking at the poetry website from the little town of Cobourg over on the other side of Toronto, a poetry town if there ever was one, I read of a new idea they’re using that got me thinking. On the sidewalk in front of their poetry cafe the featured poets write one of their poems in chalk before their readings. I liked the idea but of course immediately thought about how quickly that transient chalk would get scuffed and rained on and be unreadable. It occurred to me that the poems would be 100% better if they were stamped into the cement as it was poured.
The more I thought about this the better the idea seemed: poems as part of our sidewalks. My favourite fantasy about it is of a child walking to the school bus every day and stopping to read a poem in the sidewalk. And reading it again coming home. And again and again. Slowly getting more of the depth and mystery that's in it. Until, in some of these students, the poem would one day reveal itself in a burst of revelation. And the children would then become addicted to poetry. And the arts. And culture. And creativity. And might one day become poets themselves. A few of them.
And, at the same time, poetry would become a bigger part of the culture of the city. Instead of a smaller part, as has been happening in our society for a long time now. It might even be the deciding issue that would prevent some of London’s young people from leaving for Toronto.
Well, I thought this is such a good idea that I couldn't possibly be the first person on the planet to think of it. So I Googled it. And sure enough one other person had. The idea had occurred to marcus Young in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota one day in 2008 when he noticed a cement company's name stamped into the sidewalk. Already holding a city position, as “Artist-in-Residence", Marcus Young, was able to influence St. Paul’s equivalent of our London Arts Council to take up the idea, with the result that the City of St. Paul adopted it as standard practice five years ago.
In the process, St. Paul has gone through all the trial and error we would have to otherwise. It has worked out all the kinks, figuring out how to implement it so it really works, not just one time, but every year into the future. It knows the costs, how it should be organized, everything, even down to how to make the stamps.
Here’s how they do it:
Every year they hold a poetry contest and pick five poems. During their first year they received over 2,000 submissions. (And St. Paul is a smaller city than London.) Seven of the city's poets went through them all, selecting twenty for that first year and then five each year after that.
In the beginning they decided that stamping poems into just-poured concrete had to be made a standard part of the process of sidewalk repair by city workers. Workers are constantly repairing single or double squares of sidewalk all over the city. So part of the job, one of its last steps, became stamping a poem into the wet cement. At the beginning of each year the five stamps are made in 2X4 frames on plywood, with 3D letters attached. Each poem gets stamped a fifth of the times repairs are made around the city that year, in random places. St. Paul now has 43 different poems in it's sidewalks, with a total of over 700 impressions.
On the City of St. Paul website, there’s a special page for the sidewalk poems, which includes all of the poems, bios of the poets, and, most importantly, a Google map with a flag for the location of each poem. People can make themselves a route to walk, bicycle or drive over. It’s a new event for the city, but a unique one: any person can do it any time they want to.
As Marcus Young said in his introduction on the website, the city of St. Paul has itself become a book of poetry.
At the moment, I’m talking to St. Paul officials about getting more information from them about their program. I’ll present that to the City of London. Hopefully they will adopt it. If they do, everybody in the city will have an equal chance to accidentally become enthused about poetry.
See Sidewalk Poetry in St. Paul
organizer, London Open Mic Poetry Night