Ambushed by Poetry: The Brick Project

Ambushed by Poetry: The Brick Project (kick-off)

[Be sure to read the In Case You Were Wondering section at the end! Subjects: Wrap Up Party; Selection of Poems; What Poems Go Where; New Poems in June and August; Locations; Plaques and Adhesives; Theft and Vandalism]

It has happened to all of us. We’re slowly making our way through the line at the grocery, and we hear someone behind us say, in the midst of a conversation, “She walks in beauty.” Or we’re slowly making our way through a movie that’s not living up to its hype, waiting for the chase scene and the explosions, and we hear the Private break into Military Headquarters and say, “O Captain, my Captain.” And there was my mother, trying to clear the kitchen of kids, shouting, “Out, out, damned spots!” Or my choir-geek friend Brian, making fun of surfer types, “They only surf who also stand on waves.” (That’s Byron, Whitman, Shakespeare and fractured Milton, respectively.)

We’re surrounded by poetry. It’s the thing that breaks up the prose of life. The thing that interrupts and says, “Yeah. But have you considered it from this angle?” That is the motive behind Poetry in Motion, the international organization that places short poems, instead of ads, on public transportation in towns like New York, London, Paris, Rome, San Francisco. And it was what was behind the 19th and early 20th century custom of American newspapers, no matter how factual the rest of the contents, to include a poem on the front page of every issue.

But now days, you mention poetry and the word summons bad memories of endless English classes in high school and college, where you were constantly tested on iambs and rhyme schemes, and the dates of Byron, Keats and Shelley (their birth and death dates, not their love lives), and always got them wrong because, well, they’re hopelessly knotted and, ultimately, it really doesn’t make a difference to your wife and kids, and mortgage, and two cars for the two car garage, and the house on the lake or on the beach, and, and, and….

So, for the sixty part of my Poet Laureate’s Ambushed by Poetry project, I walked around the Historical District of Portsmouth and asked myself, “Where, in Portsmouth, do people least expect to see poetry?” Where would it be most likely to take them off guard, be most likely to redirect their day? The answer is easy: red brick walls. Portsmouth has acres and acres of red brick walls. Ever since it burned down in the early 19th century—three times, in 1802, 1805 and 1813—and the business community and city government decided it might be better to build red brick than wood, the town has taken on its thriving New England Industrial Town look—red brick everywhere.

We’re launching “The Brick Project” at the Discover Portsmouth Center, Friday, April 13, 6-8 pm. What I want is that momentary surprise you might get when you’re riding the subway in New York. You look up at the endless line of ads, and suddenly you realize one of them isn’t an ad. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant– / Success in Circuit lies. / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb Surprise.” (That’s a quotation from Emily Dickinson from the MTA/New York City, Poetry in Motion project.) They’re not trying to sell you anything. They’re just trying to make you feel good. That’s what I want when I read poetry in public, when I submit poetry for consideration for publication, when I offer you one of my books or hand you one of the “Poem in Your Pocket” poems from the Academy of American Poets. I just want to share a little humanity with you and make you feel good about being you.

Starting the week after the Discover Portsmouth Center launch, a couple of good lines from each of a dozen, dozen-and-a-half famous love poems will appear on the exterior walls of downtown Portsmouth in different locations. (In case you’re wondering, we’ve asked and received permission.) They’ll be accompanied by QR codes, which will be explained in detail at the launch. And if you’re not QR savvy and don’t want to be (it’s easy enough to download the app), you can simply check out the web page and find out more about each poem there. There you’ll find the complete text of the poem, some biographical information about the poet, and some historical information about the building the poem is posted on. Each location will get new poems at two-month intervals during the summer, in mid-June and mid-August. And, as if that isn’t enough, I will have a YouTube page searchable under Ambushed by Poetry, which will feature me reciting each of the poems at the site they’re posted. (I think of it as the only good news on the ten o’clock news, filmed on location by cameraman Mike Nelson and featuring yours truly, your Roving Reporter.) “The Brick Project,” which is the sixth of the series of projects I’m working on as Poet Laureate under the umbrella Ambushed by Poetry, will run from mid-April until September 26, when we’ll have a big wrap up party at the Sheraton Harborside.

We’re also hoping there are those of you who will take up the challenge to find all of the poems, all three times in April, June and August, and will post your comments to PPLP via Twitter or Facebook. Arts projects succeed or fail on the basis of “audience” feedback, so I would like to encourage you to go to the Ambushed by Poetry page on Facebook and add a comment on each poem as you find them.

In the end, I believe it is the poet’s responsibility to remind whoever will read, whoever will listen, that the most redemptive part of life is that we’re surrounded by poetry. Many of us were schooled to expect Utopian flights of fancy in poetry, perhaps even to define the success of any given poem by the distance it strikes between itself and the world we live in. But those poems are not the only poems, and they’re certainly not the majority of poems.

Every detail of our world has a poem in it. As William Blake succinctly put it, “see a world in a grain of sand.” A dark bedroom on a lonely night is as crowded with poetry as a brightly lit room full of banqueters. There’s poetry in the dust of the street. In a new building going up, or an old building coming down. In the yowls of the neighbor’s hungry cat, or the mob of February robins stripping the neighbor’s holly of last year’s berries. The crumbs you brush from the table. The lint you remove from your dryer. Wilted arugula at the market. A pocket full of singles and receipts. Dog owners striking a Michael Jackson pose, wearing a shiny glove on one hand made from a Hannaford’s bag.

The dignified, red-brick walls of a famous New England port have as many poems in them as they have bricks. I invite you, the residents of Portsmouth, and the summer’s tourists, to revel in that fact starting in mid-April.

In Case You Were Wondering (The audience at the Launch Party was!)

Wrap Up Party: What will happen at the wrap up party on Sept 26? There will be food, music, comments from the Facebook page will be read and discussed. Bricks with the poems on them, paperweight mementos if you will, will be available for…we haven’t decided (auction? door prizes?

Selection of the Poems: Who decides what poems will be used? This is the one place in my collaborative project with the PPLP Board where I exercised my Poet Laureate’s prerogative and said, “Mine!” The first set is excerpted from what i consider the most basic volume for every poet’s library, The Classic Hundred, All Time Favorite Poems, ed. William Harmon (Columbia University, 1990). From the 100, I winnowed out the 20 or so love poems as the candidates for the first display of plaques in the project.

What Poems Go Where: Who determines what poems go on which locations? The board is sensitive to the fact that some might consider the subject matter or diction of certain poems inappropriate for posting on a church or toy store wall. Ms. Kimball is mapping out which poems go on which locations to avoid any suggestion of offense.

New Poems in June and August: What will be the theme of the June and August poems? My goal is to make the June poems a set of poems about Portsmouth, taken from books published over the last couple of centuries. I haven’t decided about August yet. I have several ideas that are percolating.

Locations: How did you pick the locations? Very carefully. When I presented to idea to the PPLP Board last May, the first challenge the Board recognized was locations: where are we going to put them? Selecting locations was simple, getting permission to use them was labor-intensive. Several of the Board members count themselves among friends and acquaintances of downtown real estate owners. Drawing a circle of maybe five blocks’ diameter, using Market Square as its center, they then began approaching owners of buildings with favorite, brick-faced, businesses within that circle.

Plaques and Adhesives: What are the plaques made of? This problem required a conversation with a sign and advertising companies. They all recommended a thick Mylar. From there, it was simply a question of black or white, depending on text and logo.

Selecting adhesives has the air of a science experiment about it. Obviously, we’d want something that would hold for months. We’d also want something that could take extremes in temperature, especially heat. And we’d want something that will not disfigure the brick. After researching tapes and adhesives on the web, it suddenly struck me that this could not possibly be a new problem. No surprise, our friends at 3M/Scotch had already solved the problem. They not only have a web page, searchable by the qualities you want in the adhesive. Once you isolate a product, you can go to their detailed discussions of its properties.

Theft and Vandalism: What If Someone Steals One? We will check the poems at least once a week to make sure they materials are holding up and the poems haven’t been subject to theft or vandalism. If they’ve been stolen or defaced, we’ll replace them. The poems are mounted at about eye level and none of them are hidden, so we can count on people who frequent the area (and support the project) to help keep an eye on them.


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