Public Poetry – To Go

Mailbox“Here, hon, you got something in your poetry mailbox,” my husband said, tossing a flimsy receipt with handwriting my way.

Poetry mailbox. He said that, as if I poetry were delivered daily, along with Frontgate catalogs and the usual stacks of money pleas from high schools and universities attended by my children.

Poetry mailbox, it was then.

But it wasn’t meant as a mailbox for me to receive. I designed concept as an opportunity to give. Part of my motivation to move into the city had been to connect to the creativity that existed here, and within myself ; co-creating poetry readings, developing a new blog with a new voice, planting myself in a Books by the Banks book festival committee, sitting in a circle on Monday mornings men in transitional housing, learning their names over and again, until they leave after a few months, and I am forced to learn anew.

That is the extravert in me, the part that keeps my face out in the world. It is not necessarily the part that keeps my “writing” soul, the introvert in me, out in the world. For that, I reserve a few precious writing circles, and a file folder on my Mac called Stay-at-Home poems (now numbering 353).

But my inner extrovert always finds a way to overpower my inner introvert. I decided to find a way to showcase poetry, in a fashion inspired by other public poetry projects. (This inception was long before City Ink was whispered about). In places like Oregon, I found poetry in parking garages and carved into driftwood on the beach. I found Edgar Allen Poe poetry on wallpaper. Poetry should be made public, for too long it had been considered the passion of the intellectuals, and conjured up images of the reclusive Emily Dickinson, writing alone.

Cincinnati boasts of well-known poets. But the poets I know, the everyday poets are much like beat poets. They are writing about their lives magically traversing the boundaries between ordinary life and inner soul. They are an endless list of men and women fearless about form and breaking all the poetry rules to create their own.

I began my research, as we say in our household, “going to the Google.”

Public Art, as described by the Project for Public Spaces website, states, “Participatory public art initiatives, such as community-based public art projects, provide communities with the means to positively impact their environment and develop a sense of pride and ownership over their parks, streets, and public institutions.

Here, the artist serves as a collaborator, interpreter, visionary, teacher, mentor, and liaison between client and community.”

The artist is the link!

And, in “Public art: theory, practice and populism,” Cher Krause Knight purports, “Public art is art in any media that has been planned and executed with the intention of being staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all. Public art is significant within the art world, amongst curators, commissioning bodies and practitioners of public art, to whom it signifies a working practice of site specificity, community involvement and collaboration. Public art may include any art which is exhibited in a public space including publicly accessible buildings, but often it is not that simple.

Rather, the relationship between the content and audience, what the art is saying and to whom, is just as important if not more important than its physical location.”

The relationship between content and audience is just as important as the actual location!

With those two tenets in mind, I set about to create a poetry mailbox. Foregoing any actual mission statement, my only mission was to scour the Internet for the best possible container for my poetry, one that would coordinate with our 1870’s-style home, and not get my husband’s goat up for not blending. I found a Victorian style, cast iron mailbox last summer, last summer! Then, I let the box sit for the longest time, while other projects took shape.

This past Spring, I went out and bought a gold sharpie and wrote, “Poestry” (like poetry on a post), in sparkling gold marker on the mailbox front. My handwriting appeared shaky that day and I honestly didn’t like the outcome. I put the mailbox away, stuffing it near the remaining cartons of my book that I often handout as gifts.

When All Star week approached, I sensed a desire to put a fresh face forth for the city’s visitors. I pulled the mailbox out to the courtyard and erased my creative error by spray-painting a new black matte finish on the front of the mailbox. I bought sticker stencils, and madly rearranged the letters of my slogans until I landed on “Poetry-to-Go,” without the drive-through component. Not entirely satisfied with this creative effort, I let the mailbox “rest” another few days on my office floor. Each time I passed by, I cringed at the weight of my unfinished project, it was like incomplete syntax at the end of a poetry line.

As we readied the house for houseguests, I no longer wanted to be tripping over this damn project of mine each time I entered and left my office. So, I grabbed black pipe cleaners and told my husband it was time to hang.

At the first pass, he balked at placing the mailbox on the front of our six-foot gate, the weight possibly bearing down with nowhere to anchor the mailbox in place. Then, he suggested a move to the lower side fence, in full-view from only one direction. Gradually, I had to accept my project would be moved to a lower gate. Was I also relegating my idea to a lower status?

But we wrapped the box with plenty of wire and placed copies of a baseball themed poem, not mine, inside. I left copies inside through All-Star week, still feeling unsettled, this time about its contents.

I thought, “This is silly, I have hundreds of poems that will never see the light of day (literally) if I don’t send them out into the world. Why would I print one off the Internet?”

So, I grabbed a recently completed poem about my mother with a city tone, placed ten copies in the mailbox inside a plastic bag and called my project “complete.”

The following Sunday night, when Mark had returned from the garbage run, he had noticed a slip of paper with handwriting, hanging between the slats of the box. Now, he had tossed it my way.

Krueger receiptThe writer, a visitor to Krueger’s Tavern, has scribbled a Thank-you note. Someone, a few someone’s from Chicago and Tennessee had stopped, stooped and read. Then, she scribbled her own poem on the backside.

What the art is saying is more important than location, right?

I have replaced the poetry twice. While passerbys stop to view our courtyard, they receive the added benefit of interacting with the person inside the gate who cares for the bushes, herbs and flowers. In essence, they are given the gift of my viewpoints of the city, my attempts to connect.

How long will I keep this up? Perhaps I’ll invite friends to submit poems that are city-related, or fashion something similar to “Poets Respond” on, where poets write about a newsworthy event from the past week. I don’t know where the project will lead, but part of my desire to return to the city was to conjure up my own creative force. I will giddily accept the knowledge someone, in the midst of my project, found her own.

Below is the original poem placed in the box.

Urban Tan

The sun pulses
beating to
mix tapes and mash ups
of heat and dust,
horrid, humid
conditions, clouds hovering
wanting to smother or slow
every move.

Later I strip
and find the line
that separates skirt from knees
shorts from thighs.
After fourteen blocks
and a days worth of rays,
the lines have become
a divider on the potholed streets
of life.

Arms browned like toast,
Mother runs her hands
across my furred veins
as she does to the African-American women
who look after her body and soul.
She praises them for their smooth skin,
something about the color
appears soft, wanting to be touched.
Perhaps the unfamiliar, or exotic.
Or the tone closely resembles
arms of one she loved,
called “The Cuban,”
burnished into the edges of her mind.

Or, she imagines her own bronze body
lying on the rumpled sand of Lake Erie’s shores
with Czechs, Polacks, Dagos and Blacks,
mixing it up under the sun
‘til they all shared the same shade.

© AJW 6/2015



The Earl of Race

photoFor ten months, I had called him Harold. He reminded me of a Harold I once knew, the caretaker for the Golden Acres Sanitarium.

That Harold mowed the immense field of weeds between the center’s property and my father’s back fence. He witnessed us kids steal apples from Mr. Witte, and watched from the shadowed windows with those in wheelchairs, as we sledded down the icy hill into the cracked creek. That comforting image of “oversight” must be why I equated my Harold of then, to my Harold of now.

Harold sits in front of his home located at an intersection near Washington Park. More appropriately he sits at the juncture of long-time residents and new, his former life and present one, black folks and white, and money and none. His location is convenient in that my husband has to pass by him and offer ice cream, to which Harold never says no.

Harold has a certain charm about him, as well as a harem of neighbors and friends. He lives next to a group of university urban planning students. And, he has a cigarette man who delivers a pack to him every day.

My dog Enzo is in love with Harold, and equally so, his cigarette butts and ashes. Once, upon my stopping to chat with Harold, Enzo pulled away from me. As I yanked him back, I saw he was chewing on the butt of a cigarette. Countless runs outside to the grass later, Enzo swallowed his medications and passed the butt. Now, I keep him on a close leash. Harold too learned his lesson. When he sees me coming with the dog, he drops the cigarette where Enzo cannot reach.

Over the course of a year, in times measured by weather, sweat or to-do lists, I have come to know Harold. His father suffered from Alzheimer’s and recently passed away at the age of 93. We had deceased fathers and a parent’s dementia in common. And while he roots for Bengals and can be found with the rest of his companions bemoaning the team’s woes, Harold grew up a Brown’s fan. That fact always makes me gloat.

Harold warns me about suspicious characters milling about, or the possibility of one particular young man who, riding a Red bike two days in a row, had quite possibly stolen the bike. There are usually other residents hanging out on his corner, which Harold never bothers to introduce. He assumes I’ll do the honors for myself. Harold is always right.

One morning, I arrived at the corner with Enzo in tow. The dog ran to Harold as if I had been torturing the pooch with a daily walk. Harold was sitting on a stoop opposite his home, watching painters work on a nearby historic home. Perhaps he was also waiting on his cigarette man, or needed a new viewpoint, tired of looking at the grand lady of Music Hall. She can be so imposing some days.

“Hey, there’s my boy,” Harold called out, in a not-quite-booming James Earl Jones voice. Enzo nuzzled up to his hand for some love.

I had visited with Harold earlier that morning, so we had already dispensed of the necessary minutiae of the day – rain, car speeds, dubious streetwalkers, Top Gun showing in Washington Park.

I parked on the curved ledge beside Harold while Enzo licked away on the sidewalk, hoping for a trace of ash. I scoured Enzo’s horizon for anything resembling a cigarette. Confident we were in the clear, I relaxed, while Harold marveled at the painter brushing the detail work on the bas relief beneath a bay window.

“I used to paint, when I was young,” Harold offered.

“Oh, yeah, where was that?”

“Back in Akron.” Yes, we also had Akron in common.

“Yeah, what else did you do?”

“Cut meat.”

His short responses were typical.

“In Akron?”


“How’d you get down here from Akron?”

“Oh well. I was running away from my drinking.”

“I guess you didn’t get too far.”

“Oh yeah I did. Went even further than here,” he chuckled with heft. “Seems like the farther I went though, the worse the drinking got.”

“Where else did you go?”

“Oh, Connecticut, Texas, Arizona, about thirty states. Oh yeah, New Jersey,” which elicited a laugh. “Yep, the more I traveled, the worse I got.”

“I went out with a friend one night in West Virginia, and we went to get some vodka and maybe had some bourbon, and next thing I knew it, I woke up in someone’s driveway in Trenton, New Jersey. Didn’t remember nothing. Not driving through the toll roads. Nothing. And this guy, comes to knock on my window, says I got to move my car so he can get his car out and go to work. Then he knocks again.”

“Finally, I move and go to call my brother and he asks, ‘where you at’?”

“I tell him New Jersey and he says, ‘how bout that?’”

“By then, I was blacking out all the time.”

I wanted to ask, How did you know when to stop, how did you get better?

Harold didn’t know that alcoholism and addiction ran in my family and I had witnessed tragedies on a significant scale. We had that in common, too.

I prodded some more because I wanted to know that even if you were running around in the world, you could still settle down somewhere and find a home, without the bottle or within the self. I needed to hear his story, one with a tidy finish.

“So how’d you land in Cincinnati,” I asked.

“One night, I went to my mamma’s house three times.”

“Three times? Did she finally kick you out, is that what made you want to quit?” We laughed.

“Nah, she made it worse by helping me.”

“Oh families – such great enablers,” I mumbled, Harold unable to hear, watching Enzo oblivious to whatever he was licking at.

“I guess I asked for money, and she gave me a hundred dollars. Then I went back, and she said, ‘I already gave you money.’ And I didn’t remember none of that.”

“So I had a friend who called and said, ‘Hey in Cincinnati they got this place called the Drop Inn and they got a good program there.’ So, I sold my truck, everything I owned, bought a greyhound bus ticket to Cincinnati. Got in to the Drop Inn.”

“What’d you do when you got here?”

“Well, Buddy Gray at the Drop Inn asks me one day, ‘Hey can you cook?’ and I said yeah.”

“’Can you cook for 300,’ he asked me.”

“I told him no.”

“But another guy come along and said he’d teach me. So I cooked for 21 years at the Drop Inn. Cooked some good stuff.”

“Yeah? What was your favorite?”

“Beef stroganoff.” Suddenly I remembered I hadn’t eaten and his description, how the staff could hardly wait until the residents were served so they could partake in his famous dish, made my mouth water. My mother always cooked beef stroganoff and it was more hearty and juicy than any Russian could ever duplicate

“I had to call a guy for the recipe, but I don’t have one no more.”

The streets were thickening with trucks and passer-bys. Harold’s friends were circling around and Enzo was finished licking any residue off the sidewalk.

It had only been one month prior, after we had lived in OTR for close to a year, my husband asked a question that devastated me. “Why do you call him Harold?”

“What do you mean, isn’t that his name?”

I wasn’t going to take flack from a husband who never remembers his parking space. I prided myself in recalling names and faces.

“No it’s not. It’s Earl.”

“No….,” I breathed out.

“No, really? Really? Oh, how embarrassing.” My face turned a Music Hall shade of red. How I would ever face Harold again, let alone Earl? But I went back, and Earl accepted my mistake, after nearly falling off his stoop from laughter. We were going to be good friends.

I still call him Harold, not in his presence, but in my mind, my writing, in general conversations about the neighborhood. And like Harold of Golden Acres, he presides over a vast expanse of green, overseeing the intersection of contrasts and commonalities, in a neighborhood where not all lives have a tidy ending.