Poetry in a Box

Author Maxine Hong Kigston's poetry box
Author Maxine Hong Kigston's poetry box in the Oakland hills. Photograph ©Jessica Acevedo.

Serendipitous boxes spread joy and turn strangers into friends.

The little box on the little pole fooled me at first. It looked like the ones real estate agents plant in front yards. But then I realized this pole said “Poetry” on it, and behind the box’s clear plastic door stood copies of “Blessings,” a poem by Ronald Wallace. “Please take one,” said writing on the door. I did. The poem was upbeat and funny and just what I needed. I smiled at the yellow ranch house behind the box and silently thanked the person who lived there for making my day.

Serendipity by the side of the road

Such moments, I soon learned, have been happening all over the country. Poetry boxes—also known as poetry poles or posts—first popped up in yards, parks and other spots about 20 years ago. Now there are at least 500 of them nationwide, according to David Cooke, a landscaper who has a poetry box outside his home in Portland, Oregon, and also builds them as a side business. The boxes cluster in such places as Portland and St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, and range from prefab plastic to hand-hewn mahogany.

“It’s kind of like an un-virtual Facebook page,” David says. Like other owners, he finds that poetry boxes boost a sense of community. “They’re a really good focal point, a conversation starter.”

“To me it’s like putting out a bird feeder,” says author Maxine Hong Kingston. Through her windows in Oakland, California, she watches passers-by read poems from the box that’s screwed onto her purple rain birch tree. “That makes me really happy. Sometimes there are several people and one will read aloud to another one.” What attracts such readers? “The poems I put out there are about enjoying the world and loving life, so to me that kind of inspiration is food.”

A little lift when you need it

Indeed, Maxine’s neighbor Alice Friedemann finds visiting Oakland’s poetry boxes “a treat to look forward to, like a candy bar.” And as a science writer who blogs about dwindling natural resources and other woes, she often needs that treat. Take a foggy morning last fall. Alice, in a grim mood, stopped by a poetry box containing “This Splendid Speck” by Paul Boswell. There are no peacocks on Venus, the poem begins. No oak trees or water lilies on Jupiter.…Instantly, she felt better. “It reminded me of what a miracle this planet really is and how lucky we are to live here,” she says. Now she keeps that poem on her desk to nosh on whenever she gets gloomy. Poetry boxes are “a way to inject joy into somebody’s life,” she says.

Kathie Smith-Hetterich, a retired school psychologist, feels equally sustained by a neighbor’s box in Rochester, New York. “It’s a way to touch something spiritual as opposed to all the day-to-day stuff,” she says. As it happens, the box Kathie visits is the one I stumbled upon during a walk. Its owner, I learned months later when I found her mowing her lawn, is an English professor named Cathy Smith. One recent evening she invited me inside the yellow ranch house.

A shared neighborhood asset

Her poetry box is a great way to connect with neighbors, she said as we chatted at her kitchen table. Like many owners, she discovers gifts tucked inside her box: poems, book reviews and once even a $20 bill. People eagerly remind her when it’s time to put in a new poem, and the
little girl next door loves telling her what color paper to use. I left Cathy’s home that night with her words etched in my memory: “Poetry connects us to ourselves and to each other. It awakens what we don’t take time to nourish because we’re so busy.”

Visitors to poetry boxes often pay the joy forward with boxes of their own or other things. Artist and teacher Martha Schermerhorn, for instance, says Cathy’s box inspired her to launch a local “round robin” writing club: one person starts a short story, emails it to another who adds to it, and so on: “The point is just to be creative, expressive.

The neighbors just embraced it.” And now it’s my turn. The other day, Cathy emailed to say that her sister no longer has a spot for her own poetry box. Would I like it?

Would I ever.

Read more: Does Reading Fiction Make Us Nicer?

Read more: 10 Ways to Build Community


Melissa Balmain is a humorist, journalist and teacher. She is also the author of Walking in on People, a full-length collection of poetry.

From the February 2017 issue of Live Happy magazine.

 

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