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Poetry beneath their feet: A public display of art and literacy

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So in February, Young convened a panel of judges and announced that the city would host a poetry contest, open to all residents, young and old, published and amateur. The only stipulation was that entries be kept short and that the material be previously unpublished.

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With that, the floodgates opened. The poems came from middle schools and universities, cubicle dwellers and bibliophiles, a radio producer, a former resident of a refugee camp in Thailand, a science-fiction writer, and one particularly poetic retired Chinese opera singer.

From those thousands of entries, the judges narrowed the field to 20 poems.

This summer, Young took the winning entries to Themescapes, a Minnesota company that helps produce concrete sculptures for water parks and playgrounds. Twenty stamps were made – with each poem rendered in a different font – and turned over to St. Paul’s public works department.

Standing in front of a map at his office, Young pointed to a scattershot sprawl of blue pins, each representing a freshly printed and installed sidewalk panel. “Tomorrow, we’ll do our 100th installation,” he said proudly.

“I see the poems around town,” said Sean Fleming, a teacher in the St. Paul public school system. “And every time, because I’m so drawn to words, I stop and I look. We’re living these rushed lives, and it’s good to stop and ponder a poem.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Fleming – along with his students, who were working on a poetry unit in class – submitted a packet of verse for consideration in the contest.
The kids’ work didn’t make the cut, but the judges liked “Let’s Talk,” a terse, funny poem by Fleming. (All the winning selections can be read at www.publicartstpaul
.org/everydaysidewalk.)

“A public display of literacy and art like this, who knows where it might lead?” Fleming said.

One of the most striking poems was written by Margaret Hasse, a recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship and the author of three collections of verse. Ms. Hasse said she submitted a few poems, but was happy to learn that “Meadowlark Mending Song” had been selected. “As Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers.’ Humanness was really at the heart of the contest. There were a lot of poems, from a lot of different backgrounds, and really only one defining quality.”

“Meadowlark Mending Song” sits on the same street as “Second Love,” in front of a handsome old Frogtown home. By the time Young and I arrived at the panel, living room lights were flickering to life inside the house.

“I know it’s here somewhere,” Young said, kicking through a heap of spilled soil. We both knelt down on the pavement, and I spotted the first line, its letters furrowed with dried mud:

What hurt you today
was taken out of your heart
by the meadowlark
who slipped the sliver needle of her
song
in and out of the grey day
and mended what was torn.