A poem heavy with allusions to the female anatomy has been blocked from public display on the redesigned Nicollet Mall, prompting a vigorous debate over public art and free speech with Trump-era overtones.
The poem by writer and artist Junauda Petrus is titled “A Prayer for P-----s” and was submitted along with several other poems that will be incorporated into 12 globe-shaped metal lanterns permanently installed on Nicollet in front of Macy’s and City Center in downtown Minneapolis.
Petrus said the poem was in part a response to Trump’s statement from 2005, which came to light in October, suggesting he groped women. A microphone recorded him saying “grab them by the p----” and “when you’re a star they let you do it” while talking to an “Access Hollywood” host.
Trump issued a statement saying it was a private conversation and “locker-room banter.” He also released a videotaped apology.
But Petrus, whose work is vivid and visceral, said Trump’s victory in November prompted her to finish a work that was deliberately explicit and positive about the female body, meant to defy the incoming president’s comments about women.
“If he can feel bold to not only say the word ‘p----,’ but make it a philosophy to grab for women,” Petrus said, “I can fricking write a poem that is adding sacredness and having love around the idea of praying for p-----s.”
Mary Altman, the city’s public arts administrator, said Petrus is “an amazing artist” and the “poem itself is extremely powerful,” but she couldn’t approve it for a busy street frequented by everyone from the homeless to business executives and international visitors.
“The content is very sexual, and to have really sexual content on a retail strip on the city where families hang out, where families go into Macy’s to look at the Christmas displays, it just didn’t feel to me to be appropriate,” Altman said. “In another place in the city, another context, it might be.”
The way Hancock’s lanterns work, some words are bigger than others and they don’t flow the way they do on the page, instead running in circles around the lantern. Some of the lanterns, which will be 4 feet in diameter, will be held 10 feet off the ground. Others will hang from trees. Passersby are meant to experience the poetry over months and years, though the poems will also be published on the city’s website.
Hancock told Altman that she thought Petrus’ poem could be controversial, and she didn’t want to be the one to have to defend it, Altman said. Rather than ask Petrus to alter what she thought was an excellent work of art, Altman decided to ask her for another poem.
Three of Petrus’ poems will still be memorialized in lanterns on Nicollet Mall, as will those of three other poets, and she will be paid $2,000 for her work.
Altman said this was the first time in 15 years she has asked an artist to change their content. The episode should be a learning experience for the city, she said, which is good at reviewing visual art but less experienced at reviewing the text that can be part of a public art installation.
“We as a city need to work on our review process of the written word. We haven’t really thought that through carefully,” she said. “This is a good catalyst for us to do that.”
Petrus said she sympathized with Altman’s dilemma and knew there would likely be pushback to the poem, but wanted to spark a conversation, which is why she wrote an open letter to the city of Minneapolis the day after Christmas.
“It really is a kick in the gut and the womb to have somebody who has this attitude towards women holding the highest office,” Petrus said of Trump. “I could have written a piece that was something the city would have thought was cool, but that would have been a problem for the legacy of what this moment is.”
The rejection of Petrus’ poem attracted the attention of Alondra Cano, the south Minneapolis City Council member, who said she disagreed with the decision because it “did not honor the artistic process or value the artist’s voice” and “failed to understand that her poem enhances community identity and place for women of color and that it creates community vitality for women.”
Petrus, who was recently named one of the Twin Cities’ artists of the year by City Pages and is working on a feature-length film set in Minneapolis, said it’s key for her that her poem be a bold proclamation. While Trump’s statement was recorded behind the closed door of a bus and said in private to another man, she wants her statement to be public.
“I’m not trying to hide it on the low-key. I want that illuminated in downtown Minneapolis, how I feel about women,” Petrus said. “He did that when he thought nobody was paying attention. I’m making sure everybody’s paying attention.”