St. Paul puts poetry underfoot with annual sidewalk poetry contest

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“If you look around the city, most of the text you see is regulatory like, ‘Do not enter,’ or commercial, like ‘Buy one, get one free,’” said Marcus Young, St. Paul City Artist in Residence. St. Paul’s annual sidewalk poetry contest is changing that. From now until April 13, poets have a chance to be part of the change, in the fifth annual sidewalk poetry competition. The project invites local residents to submit original poems and five winners will have their work featured on sidewalks throughout the city.

Young said he wanted to offer a thoughtful way to share art with the public. With the sidewalk poetry project, “I tried to create a project that added a very different type of text to the public realm to offer some balance. I wanted more beauty and I wanted more mystery in our city.”

Because Saint Paul already has plans in place to repair up to ten miles of sidewalk every year, Young thought it would be both ecological and practical to use sidewalks to showcase the poetry.

“We’re doing construction that is really necessary for the city and it provides us with an opportunity to do something really beautiful,” Young said. “As we repair the city and fix its hard surfaces, we’re creating these soft, imaginative spaces for reading and writing.”

Poem by Lillian Rupp (photo by Travis Spangler, courtesy of Public Art St. Paul)

­­­­Michael Russelle, a research soil scientist whose poem about baseball was selected as a winner last year, said that the contest allows writers to give a gift to the city and to the people who read it.

“This project gives people a chance to share the magic of poetry,” Russelle said. “I hope that people get joy out of reading my poem. If it brings back a happy memory for someone, then that makes me feel good.”

By the end of this year, said Young, the city of Saint Paul will have close to 600 installations of 42 poems.

All ages and skill levels are invited to participate in the contest and Russelle hopes that people feel inspired to submit poetry.

“I think it’s a great community building project,” Russelle said. “I would especially encourage people from diverse backgrounds to enter the contest because I think it expands our view of the world.”

To see guidelines and to submit a poem, visit www.stpaul.gov/poetry. Winners, who will be announced on May 15, will receive a cash prize of $150. Poems are expected to be installed late summer/early fall.