The morning was  overcast. My friend, the artist Dan Sheets,  was at my door at around 9 am with his daughter in a stroller. “I’ve been up all night cause she was having a hard time sleeping, so I made 17 of these magpies,” he said, surprising me a plastic bag full of  these gorgeous magpies.

 

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He said that he probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the event today because he and his wife were suppose to look at houses,  but he said that he’d try his best. I assured him that it would be no problem and that his birds would catch a good price: lots of trash would be picked up for each bird. “I cannot do the same thing twice,” said Dan, explaing why each bird was unique. He had to head out because he didn’t want his daughter to wake up, keeping her in motion tended to help her sleep.

 

I had lots of expectations for the day, which is usually a sign that things won’t go as I planned.  I’ve been keeping the following  poem close to me since the event:

 

To Paint the Portrait of a Bird

    for Elsa Henriquez

 

First of all paint a cage

Its door standing open

then paint

something appealing

something shining

something beautiful

something tasty

for the bird

then lean the canvas up against a tree

in a garden

in a forest

or in the woods

find another tree and hid yourself behind it

silently

without moving a muscle…

Sometimes the bird will come right away

but it could also take many long years

before it decides to.

Don’t become discouraged

but wait

wait if you have to year after year after year

the earliness or lateness of its arrival has no relation

to the success of the work

When the bird appears

if he appears

maintain the most total silence

while you wait for for the bird to enter the cage

and once he’s in

softly shut the door with a quick stroke of your paintbrush

then

one by one blot out all the bars of the cage

taking care not to touch the bird’s feathers

Then paint the tree’s portrait

choosing the most beautiful of all its branches

for the bird

also paint the green foliage and the freshness of the breeze

the dust afloat in the sunlight

and the noises of the insects in the grass in the intense heat of summer

and then wait for the bird to sing

If the bird does not sing

it’s a bad sign

a sign that the picture is bad

but if it does sing that’s a good sign

that is to say a sign that you can sign

then you reach out and gently pluck

one of the feathers of the bird

and you write your name over in one corner of the picture.

 

Translated from the French 

by Michael Benedikt

 

While Dan was up all night painting his birds, I was up all night painting the new sign, which had three little birds performing the poetry for trash steps. 

So I clipped one of Dan’s magpies to the sign and hoped that it would sing, attracting lots of people to take home poems, pick up trash, and deposit poems.  Today was suppose to be a Potluck,  and luckily, my roommate Alex and his brother Adam were strong enough to carry the heavy amount of goods that I bought at the grocery store for all the hungry people I’d hope would  come to the event.

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I wanted to be at Belle Isle about an hour early to put up the signs, but as we drove down Laurel street a police officer told us that the road to Belle Isle was closed for a marathon training event!  Adam and Alex had faith that we’d find a way through the south side entrance. “It will take a miracle for us to get there on time,” I said and almost right after I said that, one of the people who was re-directing traffic for the marathon run allowed us to cross over to the exit ramp to the river entrance. We got there ten minutes early.

 

The first place we set up was at the rock climbing cliff that overlooks the large rocky area where people like to sun bathe–but there would be none of that today, too many clouds in the sky.

 

IMG_6035 The sign had descent success. Four bags of trash were collected within a couple hours and some people were willing to have their photo taken with the sign.

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Fewer people than usual were willing to engage the project or even willing to listen to me when I invited them to the reading or to eat some of the food. I understand not everyone feels connected to poetry but who turns down free food? Some people seemed to be trying to ignore me. I couldn’t figure it out. At other events people were very interested in the project and I was constantly selling out of poems, and I often had people writing and depositing new poems.

 

I calmed myself and set my mind into the landscape to figure out why my bird sign wasn’t singing like usual. After being still for a little,  I started to think and feel that something bad had happened in this place where we had the sign and that it was looming a negative atmosphere here.  I told my roommate Ryan about my concern and he suggested that we move next to the other sign I had posted near the north side entrance because said he saw lots of people checking it out.

 

As we approached, we saw that the old sign was receiving frequent attention:

 

 

CIMG1057       CIMG1053

 

So we set up the new sign about thirty yards away and it started to get more frequent use.

 

IMG_6071 IMG_6057Along with the Magpies

 

I had some poems made that contained the Poetry for Trash instructions on the back:

 

IMG_6028  My fiancé sent me some beautiful poems that she photo copied by Anne Carson: IMG_6030

 

People loved it when I told them that the poems  were made by my fiancé, and they often congratulated me. Although “the gift is given in silence” it does start a conversation (Hyde pg.19).  Though “the sellers” of the poems didn’t know who would buy their poems, poetry is inherently personal and creates a relationship.

 

IMG_6046   IMG_6062

 

I was expecting quite a few people to read some poems for the event, but most of them cancelled because they started getting sick. I had a sense when I woke up that many people were not feeling well, the sky’s gloom seemed foreboding, and I have been battling to keep my immune system above the weather.  Even with all the cancellations and inclement weather, we were able to pick up lots of trash and have a great time:

 

 

industrialsizedtrashbagThen Greg Donovan, my friend and teacher, showed up to read a poem about Belle Isle.  IMG_6052

 

Greg  first told us a story.   Nearby where we had placed the sign initially, Greg said, he always felt a cold haunting presence.

 

           “…I walk on Belle Isle, and there
is a cold spot I step into each time, and something
inhabits me there…”

 

He later discovered that the “cold spot” was where the Confederates would fire a canister shot, which is a cannon loaded with scraps of metal, upon any one who tried to escape from Libby Prison, one of the most notorious Confederate prison camps of the Civil War.  In this sense, Greg’s poem is “the articulation of rights we all have as individuals (as do all living things) of place with community, with ecologies, and also with the “unseen” qualities of a given space” (Kinsella pg. 76).  After Greg told this story and read his beautiful poem, I felt a mixed sense of sorrow and affirmation: I knew that something bad had happened near the first  location we placed the sign, but I hadn’t a clue how bad it had been.

 

Belle Isle has gone through many changes in its history. Originally it was home to the indigenous people, the Powhatan, who suffered severely from the colonizers. It was exploited by the fishing industry in the 18th century,  by 1814  it was the site of the Old Dominion nail factory, and during the Civil War, it was the site of Libby Prison, which was over crowded, unsanitary, and extremely cruel.I believe that poetry  has the power to heal the past, or at least to reconcile us to the past because poetry weaves us into the fabric of our landscape, ecologically and historically. If the dead want anything from the living, I’d guess they want their story to be told, to be remembered and buried, not discarded like a pieces of trash in the stream.

 

One the the things that Poetry for Trash hopes to do is protect “public property,” which connects individuals to the community,  the environment, and history. Someone might own a house and even be able to pass on that house to their family, but ownership of anything is temporary, and ownership of land especially–no one will out live the land. We say Belle Isle  belongs to Richmond, and Richmond to Virginia, and Virginia to the United States, but then to whom does the United States belong? No one owns North America or the World, but without a doubt, we belong to the word. We will be buried or have our ashes scattered here.

 

One of the sad things to me is when people kill each other  over this illusion of possession, such as they did during the Civil War. Poetry itself is a form of public property doing the same work as a public park: connecting us to each other,  the environment,  and history.  In the same way,  poetic “possession shift[s] due to social and environmental circumstances, but the sense of “property” remains” (Kinsella pg. 77).   People author poems  but only so that the poems can be added  to the general public’s cultural wealth.

 

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One of my favorite quotes from T.S. Elliot is  “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better.”   I agree with  John Kinsella that the “nature of such theft” is “understanding the implications of surveying, gifting, selling , claiming” (Kinsella pg. 78).  To author a poem is to distribute a gift and to pick up trash is to preserve the nature of the gift: public enjoyment. This is the difference between something like these two pictures

 

IMG_6020 contridiction

 

and Poetry for Trash. These two are vandalism, a form of pollution. The heart in the first photo does not communicate respect or love, but signature and ego.  The statement on the floor boards is contradicting its message: “take out what you bring.”  One of my chief concerns with Poetry for Trash was that it would only create more litter, or that it would be mistaken for vandalism. Thankfully, the community of Richmond has had the exact opposite response.

 

Poetry for Trash hopes to receive the city’s blessing in the future to become a permanent instillation that will encourage  “environmental literacy, by which I mean a capacity for reading connections between the environment and its inhabitants. . . promoted by poetic literacy; maybe poetic literacy will be deepened through environmental literacy” (Redstart, pg. 3). The more we  learn to read and enjoy the natural environment through our public parks, the better we will be able to read our internal landscape and vice versa. This is the power of economic engagement through gift giving:  poetry removes trash.

 

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“Money is a kind of poetry” Wallace Stevens says, but for years, my dyslexic brain remembered it as “Poetry is a kind of money,” and that misquote motivated me to believe that poetry could inspire a economic life , which Perroux says “is like a fabric in which individual behaviors are interwoven with mass behaviors” (qtd. in Panoff). So when anyone picks up trash for a poem  or contributes a poem to be picked up for trash, they are creating an economy that connects with the larger body of Richmond, the country, and the world. This economy creates unity, not division. Poetry is a kind of public property. One of the great things about poetry is that it is able to function well in the gift economy. Someone can write a poem that can be “owned” by millions of people simultaneously. Likewise, this project belongs to the public.

 

Tied with a desire to protect our environment, Poetry for Trash also hopes to make not only the reading of poetry accessible, but also the writing of it, to assert that we are all poets  (from the Greek meaning Maker) involved in the process of building history and forming the environment of the human consciousness. I believe that we all possess the “creative genius,” as William Blake says.   Poetry for Trash is one the easiest ways to get “paid” and published. Our criteria for a good poem is one that picks up trash.  Everyone feels better after picking up trash and likewise, I hope  people will feel empowered knowing that they can write poetry and that other people are reading their poetry and “paying” them for it by keeping our public land clean.

 

 

IMG_6069The sign ultimately did sing once we moved it

 

to a better location.  Many people picked poems and we gathered at least two full trash bins, maybe half a dumpster or so, of trash.  I was also approached by Stefani Zenteno from VCU insight, who wants to do a story on Poetry for Trash. So, next Tuesday, she’ll be asking me some questions about Poetry for Trash.  The interview will be aired on Virginia’s PBS station next Friday. I’ll send out an update to you all when that happens.  I am very thankful to everyone who has helped with this project. I could not have done this without you.  I  hope that this  continues to benefit people through making poetry accessible and keeping our parks clean.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Astley, Neil. “Earth Shattering.” : Ecopoems : Neil Astley : 9781852247744. Bloodaxebooks,

             2007.Print

Gander, Forrest, and John Kinsella. “Redstart.” : An Ecological Poetics :  Forrest Gander, John

Kinsella : 9781609381196. University of Iowa Press, n.d. 2012

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Vintage, 2007

 

Panoff, Michel. “Marcel Mauss’s “The Gift” Revisited.”  Royal Anthropological Institute of Great

            Britain and Ireland. Man, New Series, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Mar., 1970), pp. 60-70,

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