Three Steps:



Mauss summarizes that gift giving is biased on three actions: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate, hence, the three steps of Poetry for Trash:

1. Pick a poem


2. Pick up the Trash it is worth


3. Add your own poem




Step one: Pick a poem

“Where there is no gift there is no art,” says Lewis Hyde in his introduction to The Gift.  Lets agree with him and start with the same assumption that “we rightly speak of “talent” as a “gift”” and that “we also rightly speak of intuition or inspiration as a gift” (Hyde pg. xvi).  The idea for Poetry for Trash came to me while I was walking beside the Colorado River in Austin, Texas and like many other artists and poets I felt the “uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work”;  this is the same experience that I have when I finish writing a poem, an essay, or a painting,  and I believe that “all artists feel it” (Hyde pg. xvi).   Not only does the poet or the artist experience their work as a gift, but the “work is received by us as a gift is received”  (Hyde. xvii).   We cannot be moved by a poem or a painting or a musical piece just because we paid for it; even if we had to buy the book, admission ticket, or album, the magic of the art has no price because art is a gift.




Throughout Mauss’s study on the gift,  he looks at how the gift is used to create social cohesion  across cultures and solidarity within the local community.  Key to this process is that the gift longs to return to its original recipient, it’s “birthplace, to the sanctuary of the forest” (Mauss pg. 15).  As the progenitor of generosity, “the forest’s abundance is in fact a consequence of man’s treating its wealth as a gift” (Hyde pg. 24).   The poem is a gift that comes to the poet as inspiration from the forest, river, and ocean  that abides  within their heart, the throne of generosity,  which affirms the poet’s relationship to the nature and their community.


To me, this is the great gift of poetry and art: we have always belonged here. Here is a poem by David Wagner about finding where we belong.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.


We find ourselves in poetry because it is from  nature.




These poem paintings contain poems by Dexter Booth, from his award winning book "Scratching The Ghost." Born and raised in Richmond, his poems deserved a spot by the river.

These poem paintings contain poems by Dexter Booth, from his award winning book “Scratching The Ghost.” Born and raised in Richmond, his poems deserved a spot by the river.


Soon after putting Dexter's poetry up for sale, they sold. No surprised.

Soon after putting Dexter’s poetry up for sale, they sold. No surprised.


I believe that the same logic applies to our cities: they are nature just as much as we are nature and a tremendous amount of poetry is inspired by the urban. The problem is that we and most of the cities in the world are alienated from nature and community and extremely polluted/pollutive.  Wendell Berry writes that “If we speak of a healthy  community, we cannot be speaking of a community that is merely human. We are talking about a neighborhood of humans in a place, plus the place itself: its soil, its water, its air and all the families and tribes of the nonhuman creatures that belong to it” (Berry pg. 14).  Poetry that arrises from the urban environment weaves us into the landscape as a part and parcel of our community.


Poetry for Trash in the Heart of Richmond at Monroe Park on Halloween was a huge success. We hope to see these signs in other urban environments as well.

Poetry for Trash in the Heart of Richmond at Monroe Park on Halloween was a huge success. We hope to see these signs in other urban environments as well.


One of the most sacred practices of the Greeks was called Xenia, which was the code of hosting guests and giving gifts and I believe this practice is very alive here in Richmond .  Anne Carson writes that “a gift economy likes to project its functions onto the cosmos, Mauss suggests, as if the rules of xenia represent simply the way things are for gods and men” (Carson  pg. 14).   Gift giving is the way of nature and it is how we belong to the cosmos.




In the Odyssey, Odysseus makes his living through visiting people and telling the tale of his travels; likewise, “poets from ancient times participated in the gift economy of their communities as xenoi of the people who enjoyed their poetry”  (Carson pg. 14).  Patrons would pay poets not just to read their poetry but to write it.  Most poets today still make their living by means of gifts (fellowships/grants /residencies etc…)  because poetry is still received as a gift.  How does one receive the gift of the poem? Reading it, memorizing it, studying it, writing a poem inspired by it? I think there are many ways to receive the gift of poetry,  here at Poetry for Trash the gift is seeing poetry in your heart, the nature and the neighborhood.


Step two, Pick up the trash it is worth




Mauss asks an important question: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”  ( Mauss pg. 4).   When an object is experienced  as a gift it is endowed with personality and a magical power that causes reciprocation. When an object is bought or sold, it  becomes lifeless, its value determined, and in short, reduced to a commodity, which will eventually become waste.   When  the Poetry for Trash sign is “placed on display before being offered . . .  [it is] termed pari.” which means “presentation goods,” with no obligation to partake–you cannot force someone to receive a gift   (Mauss pg. 35, 132).  However, once curiosity causes a person to reach into the nest to take a poem,  there is an obligation to receive the gift: pick up trash.  Mauss constantly reminds us that there is no such thing as a free gift because the gift has a magic which compels reciprocation.




Alice Oswald says that the ecological illiteracy and enervation “can only be countered by a kind of porousness or sorcery that brings living things unmediated into the text” (Oswald pg. x).   The Maori people of New Zealand have an interesting philosophy about gifts that might help us understand the magical power of a gift, which has  brought poetry to so many people.  For the Maori, there are two parts to every gift, the object (taonga) and then its spirit, its Hau, which wishes to return to its birthplace, to the sanctuary of the forest and the clan, and to the owner” (Mauss pg. 15). The Hau is considered alive with a magical power that should be revered and feared; the reciprocation of a gift creates the blessing of the Hau, while to treat a gift poorly, will cause the Hau to bestow misfortune.

These gifts are not ” [pieces] broken off from the interior life of the giver and lost into the exchange, but rather an extension of the interior of the giver, both in space and in time, into the interior of the receiver” (Carson, pg. 18).  Just as the poem’s meaning  is not lost as its is given but increases, so the heart of a gift economy  is not lost as it  extends to others.




On the other hand, a market and money driven economy “denies such extension, ruptures continuity and stalls objects at the borders of themselves. Abstracted from space and time as bits of saleable value, they become commodities and lose their life as objects” ( Carson pg. 18).  Market economy says “getting rather than giving is the mark of a substantial person, and the hero is “self-possessed,” “self-made”” (Hyde xix). Conversely, the poem  is an object with a personality and belongs to a community, it is not marketing, advertisement, or  trying to sell anything, except we might be convinced to buy the book the poem comes in–even then, is the poem worth the price of the book?


I think that there is something very advanced about the notion that our objects have personality, a soul, or consciousness. As children we all knew that this was true.  Our dolls would cry, our G.I. Joes would fight wars, and our Legos would build cities, but then we began to believe this was childish and unrealistic.  I think it simply feels better to give things and the world becomes more magical in the process. If we believed “that mixture of spiritual ties between things that to some degree appertain to the soul, and individuals, and groups” then we would inherit a more personal, welcoming, and communal world, and I think that because we’ve pretended to grow up from these beliefs “that to some extent [we] treat one another as things. (Mauss pg. 18).  Children have been quick to interact with Poetry for Trash stations.




Poetry for Trash relies on the belief that poetry is nature and so are we,  and that there is a magical power within gifts as objects of personality which create reciprocation. Poetry for Trash is about returning the hau of poetry and community to the forest, and removing the commodity, the things only money can buy—waste: wrappers, cans, bottles, cigaret butts, etc…

When someone picks up the trash they believe a poem is worth, they are enacting an  external and internal phenomena. The environment has less litter and is therefore restored to its original purity. The internal work is to look at the beauty that the poem presents and see how it removes the filth of confusion and alienation to show the purity that was inherently there within the person and the community. To recover from our addiction to consumerism, which makes everything and everyone a commodity, we have to stop looking to outside sources for our happiness and look within our hearts and the community that connects us like  veins to the collective body.


Step three: Add your own poem

This is a link between generosity and creativity: the more you create for others the more you will create, the more you take from others the more lonely and less creative you will become.





Mauss writes that “by giving one is giving oneself, and if one gives oneself, it is because one ‘owes’ oneself—one’s person and one’s goods—to others,” which I find to be the most compelling reason for solidarity within a community: we are owed to each other (Mauss pg. 59).   This reality of owing ourselves to each other is manifest when people add their own poems to the sign.


IMG_5942 IMG_5923


The magic of the gift is largely dependent upon the type of gift, as Mauss says “the sanction of magic is only possible, and is itself only the consequence of the nature and spiritual character of the thing that is given” (Mauss pg. 62). Giving someone a TV, computer, or a car is not going to have the same amount of magical power as giving someone something  personal.  There is nothing wrong with giving someone a new car, but there seems to be a correlation between how close the object is to the market economy and the diminutive magical return.  The ceramic mug that my mother gave me which belonged to my grandfather has way more magic than the computer that she bought me in high school.


These two bought the first two poems made by other local Richmonders.

These two took the first two poems made by other local Richmonders.


The poem has great mobility and can be owned by billions of people across time simultaneously.   Poetry for Trash works with  “the spirit of a gift [that]  is kept alive by its constant donation,” because a poem is able to constantly give of itself  (Hyde pg. xix). While most gifts diminish in their use, I believe that poems “exert a magical or religious hold over [us],” and that the poem’s magical power increases the more that it is given (Mauss pg. 16).   Likewise, the more people contribute their poems and art to Poetry for Trash, the greater the magical power of Poetry for Trash will become: the ultimate magic of the gift economy, to me,  is that it fosters community.


Family FunThese guys ran into me while I was carrying the sign. So I sold them poems on the go and they took some bags and did a pose


Poetry for Trash was especially well received during festivals such as Halloween and the Folk Festival, and perhaps this is because as Mauss says “our festivals are the movement of the hook that serves to bind together the various sections of the straw roofing so as to make one single roof, one single word.’  (Mauss pg.  27). There were so many people who were willing engage the sign at these events.  And that single most magical word  is love



"Hey, you can't put that sign there." "Can I tell you about my project?" "I know who you are, you're the guy that sells poems in malls." "No, I sell poems for trash..." (We talk about the project). "Oh, well, I have no problem with that, you can put your sign up wherever you like and if anyone asks, you just say I said so, I'm in charge of the event." Sweet.

“Hey, you can’t put that sign there.” Said the man in the golf cart. 
“Can I tell you about my project?” I ask.
“I know who you are, you’re the guy that sells poems in malls.”
“No, I sell poems for trash…” (We talk about the project).
“Oh, well, I have no problem with that, you can put your sign up wherever you like and if anyone asks, you just say I said so, I’m in charge of the event.”



The only way that Poetry for Trash works is through  collective effort because ” it is not individuals but collectivities that impose obligations of exchange and contract upon each other. (Mauss, pg. 6).  Without the help of so many people advising me, helping me take the sign out, picking up trash, and contributing poems, none of this would have been possible. Millions of thanks to you all, I am deeply in your debt and will continue to work as best as I can to make Poetry for Trash a permanent resident of our community, we’ll also have the blue print up soon so that you can make your own Poetry For Trash station and set it up in your community.



Works Cited

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


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

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

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

( Translated by Cohen & West)




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