Portland Walks and Urban Hikes

"The Settling of the West," 1936, by Edward Quigley, one of several WPA murals inside Portland's Irvington School

Monday, January 3, 2011

Poetry on the Block: Literary Posts Abound in Portland

This blog post and others I wrote in December 2010 first appeared on the Powell's Books Blog

Mike Ryerson, not letting a bit of rain get between himself and some poetry
 When stressed by money, people or deadlines, I take my feet into a Portland neighborhood and start walking. Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness.” So true. I have Portlanders to thank for my relatively good mental health. I live in the forest just beyond the city’s limits, and many afternoons I leave my computer and kitchen to climb around in our woods, pruning saw in hand, cutting back dead limbs and toppling small trees shaded into death by our growing firs. I come back tired and peaceful. But walking in the city’s neighborhoods makes me laugh and come home optimistic and enthusiastic. At an observer’s pace, the small displays of human creativity seen on an urban walk stand up to make you smile: a chimney turned into a climbing wall, a tile lizard inviting you to sit and rest in a homeowner’s parking strip, and the poetry posts that are proliferating in yards around town—
A poem about rain, on rain-soaked paper
A few weeks ago Portland author Gabriel Boehmer emailed me about Portland’s poetry posts. Gabe wrote a book called City of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Portland and is tuned into Oregon poets and writers the same way I tune in to manhole covers and urban staircases.

A poetry post (or poetry pole or poetry box) is a wooden pole, usually, mounted on private property, so that it faces pedestrians. On top of the pole is a box, with a glass or clear face and a lid. Inside the box is a sheet of paper containing a poem (or, sometimes, prose or a photograph). Sometimes the pole is absent, the box mounted to a tree. That’s it.

Gabe and I went on a poetry post tour of his Grant Park neighborhood and passed a poem on NE 36th Avenue. “My daughter and I pass this post every day on our way to Grant Park. She wants to stop and read the poem so we always do.” She’s four; she’s reading poetry in a stranger’s yard with her dad. A magical memory, one she can pull from the depths when, at 49 or 54, she’s unable to sleep one night, wondering how to pay the college tuition bill and pondering other exigencies that cause a middle-aged person to reflect on life and choices. A memory to smooth the coming bumps.

After hearing about that post, Gabe’s wife Jennifer had a poetry post built in their yard as a birthday gift for him.

As we walked back to Gabe’s house, his neighbor Frank raked sodden leaves away from the curb. “I’m enjoying your poetry,” he told Gabe as his puppy attacked the rake. “Are you typing them on a typewriter?”

Gabe admitted he was, and then Frank revealed he and his wife had put the very first poem in, while Gabe was away on a trip. They had seen the new poetry post, still empty, and typed up the poem, “A Man is a Success,” that had been on the back of Frank’s dad’s funeral card. Someone had swiped the poem out of the box soon after, and both Gabe and Frank agreed that taking a poem from a poetry box was a fine thing.

Gabriel Boehmer placing a new poem in his poetry post

That’s the civilizing effect of poetry posts that Portlander Tony Pfannenstiel appreciates. His poetry box is located in Southwest Portland, atop a steep hill. I called Tony to ask why he installed a poetry box after reading his comments on the Google Group, “Portland Poetry Box.” 

I caught him while he was out walking his pug dog in the South Park Blocks. Tony was happy to talk, and I was delighted to hear his poetry box had a connection to my book Portland Hill Walks, which features a 152-step staircase next to his home. The success of that book has brought a lot of people, Tony says, up those stairs, where he installed the poetry box at the top to “offer people a chance to catch their breath and read something beautiful.” He talks of small gestures by citizens as a way for any of us to offer strangers a moment’s respite, free of charge, as a way to soften our rather harsh world. “It’s gratifying when I see seven or eight people holding your book, huddled around the tree, reading the poem aloud. It warms my heart!”

Tony changes the poems every few weeks and, like Gabe, focuses on Portland and Oregon poets with his own poems added to the mix at times.

Tony Pfannenstiel’s poetry box offers climbers of one of Portland’s most grueling staircases a reward for their exertions
The posts have a couple of nuclei: one in Northeast Portland, around Grant Park, and another in Southeast, on Mount Tabor. Matt Blair, a Portland programmer, is close to finishing an iPhone app that reveals the location of many Portland poetry posts.  The app is being developed in response to the City of Portland’s Civic Apps for Greater Portland contest to use public data to create user-friendly content. Matt’s Heritage Tree app won a Civic Apps award; it’s available free in the iTunes store.
The poetry post app will be interactive, so walkers encountering an unmapped post can photograph it and add its image and address to the universe of posts. Matt was approached by fellow Portlander Sue Gemmell, whose interest in mobile technology, communities and culture inspired her to start the Portland Poetry Box Google Group as a virtual gathering place for people to share ideas about poetry posts. Before Sue talked to Matt about her idea for a poetry post app, he says, "I hadn't even seen one; I didn’t even know it was a phenomenon that existed in Portland.” But he must have been the right man for the job, because even while talking on the phone about what he loves about the posts, Matt crafts little nuggets of distilled imagery.

“Poetry posts,” he says, “take poetry out of rarified places and into the places where people walk their dogs.” At a post he passes often, just east of NW 23rd Avenue on Kearney Street, Matt says, “I stop, then someone sees me reading it and stops. I leave and turn back and someone else has stopped. The posts create whirlpools of attention.”

Some posts are built by the homeowners but two Portlanders will build them to suit: Doug Trotter and John Milliken. Click here for a gallery of his posts.

A note left in a NE Portland poetry post


Cornelia Seigneur said...

HI Laura

I just discovered a poetry pole in West Linn! what fun

Cornelia Becker Seigneur

Portland Website Development said...

It's sometimes refreshing to see poems on posts especially if you are doing a leisurely walk:-)

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