Sidewalk poetry

Sidewalk poetry

The city of Saint Paul has stamped poetry into its sidewalks. Scattered throughout neighborhoods in a wide swathe between the capitol and the Mississippi River, the poems turn up sporadically enough that they always feel like surprise gifts underfoot. Each is brief enough to fit into a single sidewalk panel. I have seen dozens of them in the last five years. Some are little riddles, and some offer quiet introspection, and some are just flashes of an image.

I cannot pass a new one without reading it, stopping to consider the words, marvel at how it is so unlike any of the others. I have a handful of deeply familiar ones, ones that exist within a few blocks of my house, which I do not always stop to reread. But I do find that I smile slightly as I approach them, and I realized the other day that I also sometimes give them a small nod of greeting. Which feels like a very Minnesota thing to do.

As of last summer, there were 1000 poems stamped into city sidewalks, I have learned. “Today, everyone in Saint Paul now lives within a 10-minute walk of a Sidewalk Poem,” the site devoted to the project proudly announces. Since there were only 54 poems in the poem library at that point, the city is clearly extremely thoughtful about where they put each copy of the same poem, to ensure some kind of maximum distance between them: I have never seen the same poem twice, although I walk a lot and in many different directions.

The city holds periodic competitions for new poems, since they insert stamped panels into existing sidewalks every summer during repair season. There is a word limit, and, starting in 2019, poems could be submitted in any one of five languages: Dakota, English, Hmong, Spanish, or Somali. You have to be a resident of Saint Paul to submit a poem for consideration. I find every bit of this quite wonderful, particularly the fact that the poems are not limited to English.

The page containing the 2019 winners tells us nothing about the people who wrote them. I like to think that at least one of the writers is a child. I have no idea who chooses the poems, either, but I like to imagine it is some sort of city poet laureate, or council or artists. Or perhaps a nondescript, city manager type, who just happens to be gloriously, secretly, deeply poetic.

There is currently not a poem on any of the sidewalk panels that border my house, although I harbor hope that one of these lovely gems may appear there one summer. In the meantime, whenever I am walking, I find myself on a constant lookout for tiny poems around my feet. Nature, I have learned, takes part in this project: last year’s fallen gingko leaf, unearthed when the snow melted, a fleeting shadow, a more permanent impression pressed firmly into the once-damp concrete. Sidewalk poetry.

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