Chalking Poetry for Change

What do Jalabad Afghanastan, Kikinda Serbia, Fez Morocco, and Richmond Virginia have in common? All were among the sites for 700 events in 550 cities and 95 countries for 100 Thousand Poets for Change which took place on September 24.

Cathy Magill, Cheryl Pallant, Michael Noyes, & Cheryl Vosberg

As organizer for the Richmond site, I decided upon Chalking Poetry for Change because it was easy to pull together with limited resources and time, and the ephemerality and colorfulness of chalk appealed to me. The parking lot of Café Ole and adjacent sidewalk in Carytown was ideally suited to taking advantage of passersby who could choose to join in.

Polly Lazaron used original work. Her poem  “Soil,” reads: “A complexity/ of disintegrating/ growth,/ your chemistry stains/ my fingers,/ composed of the same elements,/ we are kin.”

Polly Lazaron poem

Cathy Magill, Michael Noyes, Cheryl Vosberg, and I collaborated on two poems using exquisite corpse techniques, alternating turns at creating a phrase or single word. I copied a section from “Leaves of Grass” where Whitman opens his home to a runaway slave in need of food, shelter, and a salve for a wound. The stanza seemed particularly appropriate given Richmond’s grim history as the city where more slaves were sold than in any of part of the country.

Jason Tesauro wrote a few acronym poems with the assistance of his two children who embellished with a flower or design.

Jason Tesauro poem

Several passersby got down on their knees to contribute a text to the expanding canvas of the sidewalk. Others stopped to talk and read. A mother, who recently moved to the city, used the event to prove to her eighth grade daughter that Richmond is cool. “I told you there’s creative expression in this town,” she said to her visibly relieved daughter who read the sidewalk poems wide-eyed. “Too deep for me,” complained one woman who urged her two children to quickly walk past, as if threatened by contemplation or chalk dust sticking to their shoes.

One of my favorite exchanges involved a fourth grade teacher. I explained the purpose of the event and told her about the website that listed what poets were doing in so many regions of the world. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, ” she blurted. “You just gave me my lesson plan for Monday. I need an exercise for teaching geography. This is perfect.”

The human spirit frequently struggles with looming darkness. These days we struggle with the fear or actuality of losing our house to foreclosure, losing our job, and failing health. Recession woes along with recent natural disasters like a 5.8 earthquake, Hurricane Irene, flooding, and fire have disrupted or destroyed many comfortable lives here in Richmond. Poetry gives voice to hurt and joy and establishes authentic connection with self and others. Word and phrase celebrate life, calling up our place in the universe. Chalking poetry transformed the rough surface of a city into a meeting place for mixing the dust of imagination, breath, and reality.

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