IMG_6086This year for halloween I decided to go to the parade on Oregon Hill and hand out some poems by Poe, Blake, Dickinson, and  Booth  that could be considered halloween themed: there were dead things in the poems. I wrapped the poems in candy. “Is the candy in the poem a metaphor?” some people would ask.   Along with celebrating the dead, the parade also wanted to raise awareness about depression, a struggle many of us can identify with, yet I think it is one that we as a society too often pretend is not real.




Around the time that I was working on the Halloween theme, I came across this quote from Charles Bowden, one of my favorite non-fiction writers, “Somehow the United States has become a nation with a permanent air of unreality and yet, by law, custom, or magic, has managed to severely restrict the choice of fantastic roles available to players in this unreality. Halloween is the last night left” (Bowden pg. 77).   The air of unreality is one of the feelings that I associate with depression: nothing really matters, so why do anything?  Worse is a feeling of determinism: I have no choice in who I am or want to become. I am very thankful that the Halloween parade celebrated our desire to pretend we are super heroes, goblins, vampires, Jedi, etc,  while also being a reality check: depression is real. While there are many causes of depression from chemical imbalances, genetics,  trauma, stress and other factors, I think that pollution and lack of connection, i.e. compassion, are key contributors.


I wish I could have given this guy a poetry for trash sign to carry around.

I wish I could have given this guy a poetry for trash sign to carry around.


Defining pollution as waste or litter or global warming doesn’t seem to pierce the  source of this epidemic.nreali Defining pollution as waste or litter or global warming doesn’t seem to pierce the  source of this epidemic. I think that pollution has a lot to do with pretending, or living in unreality, and like depression, a lot of it has to do with a lack of connection, which is the basis of compassion and sustainable living. Wendell Berry  writes “as care declines, the natural supports of the human economy and community also decline, for whatever is used, is used destructively” (pg. 6). When people become separated from each other, they become more impersonal, and it is easier to be self destructive when alone.  We are creatures the need to bond, and so, if we cannot bond with each other, we will bond to materialism, substances, and other forms of consumerism.


Quite the dynamic cast of characters here!

Quite the dynamic cast of characters here!



One of the reasons I love Halloween is that not only is it a chance to “pretend,” or express our dreams or fears, but it is also one of the most generous holidays.    Halloween not only

is when people give candy to complete strangers,  IMG_6097IMG_6092 but it is also “All Hallows Eve,” hallow meaning saint, i.e. “all saints day.” It is a time when we remember our dead, those upon whom our community was built, We celebrate our dead by giving each other lots of dessert, which might hasten the time we have until joining them…


One of the reasons people started dressing up for halloween was because they were impersonating the spirits of the departed and receiving  gifts on their behalf. I came across this on Wikipedia, that  “In 19th century Britain and Ireland, there are many accounts of people going house-to-house in costume at Halloween, reciting verses in exchange for food,” (Trick-orTreat, Wikipedia). So,  handing out poems and candy is nothing new:  fine by me. Much of the poetry that I use for Poetry for Trash is from people who have been dead a long time, but their words still enrich our lives with meaning.


Halloween is also one of the only “potlucks” that we celebrate as a nation, which Mauss  said “essentially means ‘to feed’, ‘to consume,’” and he noted that it was a way that societies strengthened their bond and dependence upon one another( Mauss, pg. 7).  The gift established a contract of how people would treat each other; and one of his conclusions is that there is no such thing as a free gift. The gift requires  reciprocation of not necessarily material goods, but certainly of solidarity, a commitment to strengthen the community.


Poetry is for people of all ages.

Poetry is for people of all ages and so is candy. Though one won’t give you cavities.


Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays because I think people are very generous during this time: dressing up, giving out candy, and spending time together.  We all have loved ones who have died, all of us will die, and we all have mouths to feed: this is some solid common ground. The potluck nature of halloween is a time when everyone stocks up on the sweetest things, not just candy, but community.


While I love dressing up and seeing everyone else in a costume, I wonder if Bowden was on to something about our unreality as a community and the particularity of Halloween: are we so distanced from each other that the only time we feel able to have a communal potluck is when we are dressed up as other people, or when we think about death? Halloween is a holiday themed on death and all the subsequent fears we have I believe are an extension of our fear of death. Perhaps community, getting to know our neighbors, is one of our greatest fears. Why?




For a long time, we in the west have glorified the idea of The individual: the self made person, the independent hero, the autonomous agent as if it were the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the promise of complete freedom. The reality though is that  the process of creating individuals “is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals . . . as a calculated, but permanent economy” (Foucault, 170).  The individual needs his own house, his own car, his own books, his own food, clothing, water–things he can own, which he must buy.  There is nothing that this individual can share because if he were to do so, he’d stop being an individual, i.e. a consumer, he’d become communal.  The individual is the most essential factor of our current consumerist economy; the individual is nothing more than a self disciplined cog in the consumerist machine, and is completely bound to it. The individual has no freedom and is a totally unrealistic expectation to place upon any human being. People need people; this is a fact, not an opinion.  Babies die with out being held and isolation drives prisoners insane. We need each other, we need community. I don’t believe an individual has ever or will ever exist, and if one ever did, that person  would be the most depressed human being imaginable.

The Sheets family! Always good run into friends.

The Sheets family! Always good run into friends.


Poetry for Trash hopes to be a type of potluck station where people can  reciprocate through giving their own poems and picking up trash for the ultimate purpose of fostering solidarity, strength within  the community, which is the ultimate candy in the poem–and yes, this time, I’m making a metaphor.    Giving and receiving gifts might not seem like a scary thing, but I think that many of us are accustomed to the idea of being free individuals, and so, a gift, which requires reciprocation, creates an obligation to a community–and that can be scary.  I think that gifts challenge and change behavior by making us more indebted to one another; gifts create accountability.


I think it would be much harder to hurt your neighbors if you had dinner with them on a monthly, or weekly basis. Community is one of the best ways to treat depression, to eliminate the isolation so many of us feel.  I wish that we could have halloween every week, but even if we cannot dress up as the dead, or eat copious amounts of candy all the time (nor should we), we should care every day about our community.

Thank you Richmond for being a such wonderful community and participating in this project, which could not have happened with you. This is no individual project, this is only possible due to a beautiful community.  The following are a few more photos of how creative you all are:


She wanted lots of poems.

She wanted lots of poems.

The Devil Does Double

The Devil Does Double

"Ha! I scared you" he said!

“Ha! I scared you” he said!


IMG_6091These folks work with RVAcleansweep, an organization of volunteers that pick up trash through the city. When I asked them if they wanted some poems and some candy, Amy (the one in the pink mask), said, “Yes! And I’ve been meaning to talk to you!” She encountered Poetry for Trash at the folk festival. We’re now looking into doing some collaborative work in the near future.

I also moved the Poetry for Trash sign to Monroe Park, where I met some interesting characters:


IMG_6120Mr. and Mrs. Fox



IMG_6122 A dog and a woman with silver hair and a guy with his hands in his pockets.

IMG_6130Lumber jacks, (a shark with an ax), a Tiger, who was happy to have a William Blake poem, and a mime, who was performing the pick up trash act:  IMG_6131


The only real scary thing that I can see with Halloween is the threat of  diabetes–so  I think next year I’ll go to Halloween as a doctor handing out diabetes warning pamphlets and giving sugar free treats to people, but then maybe no one will want to hang out with me because thats too depressing.



Works Cited:


Berry, Wendell. “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community.”  Pantheon Books. New York. 1992.

Bowden, Charles. “Blues for Cannibals.” North Point Press. New York. 2002.

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.” Vintage Books. New York, 1977.

(Translated by Alan Sheridan)

Mauss, Marcel. “The Gift,”  British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data. London. 1990.

( Translated by Cohen & West)

Trick or Treat, Wikipedia




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