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

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He continued, “Or maybe there’s a word, like tulle, which you don’t know when you’re in third grade. And then in eighth grade, you learn about the word, and you understand the poem in a different way.”

For two years, Young has served as the public artist in residence for St. Paul, a Midwestern city with a serious creative bent. Literature and art flourish here, supported by a network of independent bookstores, coffee shops, and galleries.

One of Young’s first goals, when he moved into his office in a dilapidated government building, was to bring that vibrancy to street level.

“The sidewalk in front of your house is public realm, it’s city property, but you feel some sort of part ownership,” he said. “I knew I wanted to ask people to make a conceptual leap and to think about their streets as a canvas, or, in this case, as a book. And then I thought, ‘Well, if it’s a book, who’s going to get to write in it?’ ”

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 The only stipulation was that entries be kept short and that the material be previously unpublished.

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.

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