Sidewalk art sinks into Northfield

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 11, 2012 - 11:51 AM

Poetry, "palpable and mute like a globed fruit," or maybe fresh concrete, is making an impression.

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Dillon Hansen of Hansen Concrete and Remodeling smoothed a sidewalk panel stamped with a poem in Northfield.

Photo: Jim Adams, Star Tribune

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"A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs."

From "Ars Poetica," by Archibald MacLeish

Poetry has stamped an indelible impression upon Northfield. This spring, the city began locking up some of its best poets' work by imbedding it in a humble, immobile place that will be viewable for decades -- downtown sidewalks.

"Poetry is just one door into the artistic experience, but it's a very accessible medium," said poet and author Leslie Schultz, a member of the city's Arts and Culture Commission. It organized the sidewalk poetry contest in the Cannon River town, nestled between St. Olaf and Carleton colleges.

Poetry "lights up the brain," Snyder added. "It's joyful. It's playful. It's exciting. There's just no downside to encountering a poem here and there in your life."

The contest began in 2011 with nine winners, whose poems began appearing underfoot this spring. Another 10 winners were chosen this year by five judges who could see the poems, but not their lyrical authors' names until the winners were selected.

More than 100 poets, including a fourth-grader, a Carleton College student, a City Council member and senior citizens, have submitted 210 brief poems (one or two each) in the two annual contests.

"A poem should be palpable and mute

Like a globed fruit."

Schultz has her winning epigram embedded in a sidewalk slab:

"Tonight, a red star

catches in the elms,

the moon burns

on the horizon,

the whole world

glitters,

even my breath."

For Schultz, "Poetry is language at its most compressed. It's everyday language, like leaves on a tree. Over time, the leaves compress into coal and then into diamonds. For me a poem is like a diamond. It starts as something organic and ordinary and through the pressure and heat of living and experience, it becomes very compressed."

Another winning poet is Matthew Fitzgerald, who wrote:

"My father asked if I wanted the farm

Looking across the still barren fields

Praying for rain

Fearing thunder and God

I wondered what would happen

If I said, 'yes.' "

"A poem should not mean

But be."

Rob Hardy entered winning poems both years. He sat on a sunlit bench one weekday morning by his unsigned ditty imprinted in a white circle of pavement at Bridge Square. It ends like this:

"Something happened here:

rain fell,

wind tugged at someone's umbrella,

someone persevered."

Hardy, who has been published in Minnesota Monthly and elsewhere, said he writes poems about his kids, insects and ordinary things.

"Making poetry is trying to get you to look at things in a new way. It helps you express yourself better to have that exposure to carefully crafted language," he said. "It's fun to try to come up with new words for something that hasn't been done in that way before."

Why should the city enshrine unsigned poems in concrete?

"It gives people a focus on a walk through downtown," he said. "It is an expression of the spirit of the town."

City Engineer Joe Stapf watched recently as workers stepped on a plastic mold of a poem to sink the letters into wet concrete outside Quality Bakery on Division Street. Stapf provided the arts commission with a list of old, cracked sidewalks that could be replaced by poem-bearing beacons. Being a poetry judge alongside profs and poets this year "opened up a whole lot of awareness for me," Staph said.

Although business owners like having sidewalk poetry near their shops, Staph said, a few residents have called it a waste of money. He noted the concrete poetry work was covered by grants.

Across Division Street, Ellen Cox stopped to read a sidewalk poem by Brenda Hellen:

"When the songs of our grandmothers

fill our mouths

we are obliged to sing."

"I love this poem," said Cox, 60. "I sing a lot with my grandchildren. My 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter believes she is obligated to sing. She sings and she loves poetry. I am excited about showing her these poems on the sidewalk. It's a good start, toward poetry and public art."

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283

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