Poetry by the foot


This year as the weather warms, walkers throughout St. Paul will notice something unusual at their feet. As they race to the bus stop or ramble along with their dogs, Capital City residents may find themselves pausing a moment and peering down, staring closely at the sidewalk and reading…poetry.

For more information, see everydaysidewalk.org or contact Dave Hunt at dave.hunt@ci.stpaul.mn.us.

Beginning this summer, approximately 100 of the new sidewalk squares around St. Paul will contain poetry written by local citizens. A new City of St. Paul Public Works endeavor, aptly named the Everyday Sidewalk Poems project, invites city residents to submit short poems to be considered for impressions in new city sidewalks. Over ten miles of sidewalk (out of a total of 1,000 miles) are replaced throughout the city each year, and up to twenty poems will be selected for the project. Winners will receive a $150 prize, publication in a printed book and on a project Web site—and, of course, an indefinite impression in the city sidewalks. Seven panel members, five of whom are poets (including Carol Connelly, the city’s poet-in-residence), will judge the submissions.

The project is, in part, the brainchild of the St. Paul Artist-in-Residence Marcus Young, who saw blank space in the public realm as an opportunity. He says that the idea was inspired by two experiences he had. “When I was in China, I noticed that there is text everywhere you go. Some is propaganda, but there are also pieces from well-known writers. Looking around St. Paul, I saw only functional signs and advertising. The sidewalk squares appeared as large empty slates. I noticed the small stamps in the corners identifying the contractors who installed the sidewalks. I began asking myself questions. Could the stamp be bigger? Could it incorporate text?”

He discussed his idea with public works employees, and they devised a way to make his concept a reality. Each of the twenty winning poems will be made into large plastic stamps that will be pressed into the concrete squares. Young estimates that this year, roughly five stamps will be made of each poem. “This is a new idea,” he notes. “We don’t know if it’s ambitious or cautious.”

As the spring thaw beings, public works employees will scout out the locations and the course for the installment of new sidewalks. Young will then review sites for consideration and make recommendations on placement. “The idea is that this will decentralize art,” Young says. “It doesn’t place [central locations such as] Grand Avenue or downtown St. Paul as priorities.”

The funding for the project comes from Public Arts Saint Paul, from a Cultural STAR grant, and private funds. The city will not be spending money on the project beyond its usual allocation for sidewalk repairs. In addition, the project will not affect regular maintenance plans for the sidewalks.

“My job is to manage the ‘raw material,’ the poetry,” reports Young. “We’ve had over 40 submissions so far. The purpose of Everyday Sidewalks is encouraging people to add beauty to everyday public realms.”

Betsy Mowry (betsy.mowry@hotmail.com) works as an arts administrator with COMPAS and the Arts & Culture Partnership of St. Paul.