Maddy: Hi, I’m Maddy Fisher and this is Crossing the Rubicon, SPA’s poetry podcast. In this episode, I will be interviewing a member of Public Art St. Paul about the sidewalk poetry initiative.
Jordy Breslau: My name is Jordy Breslau, my pronouns are she/they, and I’m the administrative and development associate at Public Art St. Paul.
Maddy: Can you briefly describe the mission of Public Art St. Paul? Just sort of a general overview of what the organization is aiming to do and the type of work that they’re involved in.
Breslau: So Public Art St. Paul’s mission is to shape public space, deepen civic engagement, and change city systems. That can look like a multitude of things. It can mean designing a permanent or temporary public art piece and object, it can be designing a program that is ongoing, that is about kind of creating a holistic new way of operating. It can be partnering with artists and community members and organizations. A lot of our work looks at different major issues, from climate change to food systems to urban planning, with artists leading the decision-making process for all of these things. We also have a city artist program; we were one of the first arts organizations to do this in the country and it has inspired a trend of having a city artist in government to look at how cities are operating, think about what creative interventions that artists can make that will have a metro-wide impact. And so we started that in the early 2000s and have been doing it ever since. One of our most popular programs is sidewalk poetry. There’s over 1000 poems stamped across the St. Paul area and that was started by our city artist, Marcus Young in 2008. When Marcus was in City Hall, he was thinking about what is a department that I could integrate a major public art program into seamlessly. And he came up with sidewalk poetry.
Maddy: Great transition to sidewalk poetry; you’ve done my job for me. Can you talk about what that process is like? How do artists’ poems end up on sidewalks?
Breslau: Sidewalk poetry used to be an annual program, and it exceeded capacity, so we switched it to a biannual program. There’s a sidewalk poetry writing contest, where any resident of St. Paul can submit a poem; this year we’re accepting two poems. The only requirement is that you are a resident here, and so you can be any age, any identity. You submit your poem and then you’re there reviewed by panelists, expert poets, all published, established writers from the Twin Cities. It’s not PASP staff; we hire these artists, and it’s hard to be selected. We joke that it’s harder to get into sidewalk poetry than it is to get into Harvard, because I think we have like a 2% acceptance rate for how many poems we are seeing, compared to how many are selected. It tends to be around eight or nine a year and we see 600 to 900 poems every writing contest. If you’re selected we work with you to think about the design of your poem. It’s then put into a special fabricated stamp and then the sidewalk poetry coordinators work with the Department of Public Works sidewalk team, and they stamp poems across the city as sidewalks are being repaved. What’s so cool about this is we as an organization or an individual cannot determine where these poems are placed; it’s determined by the needs of the city, by which neighborhoods or streets need to be repaved. So, it becomes this kind of democratic poetry book in this public space in which these poems are the voices of our neighbors; the thoughts and feelings and stories of our community are printed on the sidewalk. It’s very beautiful.
Maddy: I don’t know if you have an opinion on this question or if there is a specific answer but why poetry? Why was that something that the organization wanted to share with the city?
Breslau: I don’t know why poetry. I think it’s pretty cool. This project is a merging of literary and visual arts into one. I don’t think I ever thought of poetry as a public art initiative, but it’s a big part of our work at PASP and so I think we feel really grateful that we get to facilitate it and we’ve been hosting these language-based workshops, something we started in 2019. We expanded the languages in which we accepted poetry and I think now we’re always like, of course, why didn’t we do this sooner. We accept poems in Somali, Hmong, Dakota and Spanish in addition to English, and I think it’s a great way to reflect the diversity and cultural richness in St. Paul and Twin Cities. We’ve been having these language-based workshops in Spanish and Dakota, and then they also have one for different cognitive abilities as well. And it’s just so cool to see the rich histories of poetry these languages have. Somali has an oral tradition and Somali poetry is often spoken by women and so that it’s a political storytelling tool; in Dakota, there’s also an oral tradition and they have such a commitment to ecology and protecting this earth, and thinking about how that’s the social justice issue. I think last year we had a poetry workshop about Spanish and in Spanish, and I don’t speak Spanish but it was really special to hear the attendees think about the poems that they’re writing. I love that it kind of activates engaging with a history beyond this project and a practice of writing, and being integrated into a visual culture.
Maddy: What do you think is the significance of sidewalk poetry to the cities? I know that’s a really big question, but in your personal opinion, what do you think its importance is?
Breslau: I mean there’s my personal experience and the stories that I hear. I think it’s really easy to take for granted how meditative going the walk can be and getting outside. I love the idea that we can come across a sidewalk poem unexpectedly, and it can give you a moment to pause and to read and to look at the environment around you and to think about your sense of self. I think a lot of the poems are really powerful poetry, really powerful stories that reflect a range of experiences. Some of them are about nature, some of them are about kind of playfulness, some of them are about really difficult experiences. Some of them are about, you know, what it is like to immigrate to St. Paul, some of them are about hope. I imagine this year with the murder of George Floyd and Dante Wright and the Chauvin trials culminating around the same time that the poetry contest ends, I could imagine that there will be a lot of people thinking through and processing. I believe that this project provides an opportunity; when you experience these poems and take a moment to reflect and stand still. I love that they’re just across the entire metro area, when we look at the map, they are pretty well distributed. We do have a map on our website. I think it’s really important that public art is accessible and available to all communities and all neighborhoods. This is one project where we’ve really been able to reach most places in the cities. We’ve heard a lot of stories, people just writing an email and people call us and just say hey I love sidewalk poetry, it brings me joy on my walk; especially during COVID I think people have been getting out and walking. I think people identify it as a part of their neighborhood, it’s something that makes St. Paul unique and special. A lot of other city planners and public art initiatives call us and say how do we do this in our city and we love to share that information and help other cities reach their vision. I think it’s a great tool that in some ways seems really simplistic but in practice takes a lot of coordination and planning but it can be used in any urban setting.
Maddy: Thank you to Jordy Breslau for sharing her story. Once again, I’m Maddy Fisher, and this has been Crossing the Rubicon.
Adding The Sun by Kevin MacLeod