(Photo by Nick Gandolfo-Lucia)
“The proof of a poet,” writes Walt Whitman in “Leaves of Grass,” “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”
Last Wednesday, Monument Lab, a public art and history project occurring across the city until Nov. 19, invited Philadelphia’s poets bring their own proof in the form of a poetry slam-turned-monument at sunset in Shakespeare Park.
Curated by four Philadelphia poets (Lillian Dunn, Yolanda Wisher, Raquel Salas Rivera and Nicole Steinberg), the Monument to the Philadelphia Poet event gathered 15 local poets to perform original poems responding to Monument Labs’ signature prompt, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”
Paul Farber, one of Monument Lab’s lead curators, wanted an event that specifically honored poets for the role they play in drawing our attention to what otherwise remains unnoticed.
“Poets remind us of the urgent need to reflect, remember and think beyond what we can immediately see, experience and understand,” he said.
Wisher, Philadelphia’s 2016-17 poet laureate, echoed this sentiment in her “poets bill of rites/rights,” which she crowdsourced from her Facebook community and performed at the event: “Poets have the right to say the unsaid,” she declared, “to show what is hard to see through raw imagery.”
The event also aimed to show that the poetic history of Philadelphia goes deeper than the Edgar Allan Poe house on North 7th Street. Its performers were asked to select and read a poem by a different past or present local poet.
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Philadelphia has provided a home for a number of notable poets, but rarely receives the same recognition as its northeastward cousin New York. William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound met at University of Pennsylvania. Whitman allegedly spent most of his last years wandering the city. Daniel Hoffman, the 22nd Consultant in Poetry (a post now called poet laureate) to the Library of Congress, taught at Penn and wrote a long poem titled “Brotherly Love” about William Penn’s vision for the country. Activist and writer Sonia Sanchez has become the city’s de factor poetry spokesperson.
Steinberg, pulling triple duty as curator, poet and comms director at Mural Arts and Monument Lab, offered a wry take on the rough edges of desired and undesired connection in the city. Her poem “If You Were Here, I’d Be Home Now,” borrows its title from a mural on 51st and Market, which is part of a series of murals created by Mural Arts and New York artist Steve Powers.
“My cutesy Tinder knockoff matches me with a sweet trans guy who runs a bakery in Fishtown / I can dig it but I’m East Passyunk and trying to lose weight,” Steinberg recited, eliciting sympathetic laughter.
The event occurred across the street from Emeka Ogboh’s sound installation “Logan Squared: Ode to Philly” in the Parkway Central Library, which features an original poem from Ursula Rucker, another Philadelphia poet. Ogboh is a Nigerian sound installation artist who was selected by Monument Lab’s curatorial team.
“Both this event and Ogboh’s project demonstrate that poetry lives in books and libraries, but it also thrives in open air.” Steinberg said. “Poetry can and should be defined as a type of public art.”
Monument Lab’s desire to use a poetry slam as a monument to the ongoing artistic and political work of the Philadelphia poet was perhaps a more literal success than could have been anticipated. Toward the end of the night, one of Sunny’s Philadelphia Bus Tours rolled to a stop next to the stage at Shakespeare Park. The tourists, emulating another Whitmanism (“To have great poets, there must be great audiences”), lifted their cameras and documented the monument.
Ogboh’s sound installation is open to the public on Sundays from 2 to 4:30 p.m. until Monument Lab ends on Nov. 19. A full calendar of Monument Labs events can be found here.