The Little Poetry Library: Corner of East Lake Street and 39th Avenue South, Minneapolis
The snow has gone now and the streets are gritty from melt; it is early spring and the leaves are not yet on the trees. I lock eyes with passersby, call out to bring them to my table spread with blank books. Children in bright wool and boots; ironic college students in leather and tutus; men with wood coins in stretched earlobes, a mother with full sleeves of sailboat tattoos; stooped couples with gray hair holding hands—everyone with records under their arm. Hymie’s Vintage Records Street Festival is a yearly event with beer, live music, pottery for sale, and now The Little Poetry Library.
“How much does it cost to write a poem?,” a red-headed teen asks. She is with a friend who has similarly long and shiny hair.
“Nothing.” I spread my arms wide.
They look down at the colorful books on the table; the smallest is one inch by one inch, the largest the size of a large Hallmark card. They choose a book with a cover made from an article on kefir and the words “Wild Season,” cut out from a Walker Art Museum flier. They walk away with the book and two pens. I wonder if they will return.
The Little Poetry Library is like a small dining room cabinet, except it is set on a post about four feet tall. Names of poets cascade in appliqué with a girl walking into them like she is entering a forest: Alice Walker, Walt Whitman, Naomi Littlebear, Marge Piercy, Gloria Anzaldua, Louise Gluck. Where do our words come from?, a cloud asks, overlapping a blank library card, the kind that used to go in a pocket at the front of a book. This is one of hundreds of free libraries put up by citizens in Minneapolis to share books, but this is the only one dedicated to poetry. It sits in front of the record store and the Blue Moon Café. Inside visitors can sign a notebook and pick from a handful of skinny books as dense as cattails in a marsh. More books go out than come in, as if people only realize their thirst when they open the library door.
I made the blank books that are now spread across the table using museum fliers, an empty baking soda box, recycled wrapping paper, a 1960s sewing pattern, Nikki McClure calendars. Like a bird perpetually building a nest, I fill a desk drawer with paper treasures. For today, the book pages are a mix of white paper and old USGS maps from my PhD field sites. I stapled the spines and then smooth colored duct tape on top.
I met with the women who built the library in a living room with children and cats climbing in our laps. We plotted advertising and table layout, wrote prompts on index cards. But the actual doing of it, the soliciting of strangers, only I was excited about this. My vision was clear; I would rub writing prompts together to spark the fire of poetry in strangers. A current of lopping script on blank pages would continuously pull the crowd to my table. But once the table is set, I feel nothing but the discomfort of an oversized salesman grin on my face.
A man in red flannel with a big beard and weatherworn cheeks stops at the table; he chooses a book with a tree on the cover—one made from an outdated calendar. He goes away and sits at a café table. About fifteen minutes later he comes back, hands the book to me, and waits as if I am the teacher who will grade it.
“Please, leave it in The Library.” I lead him to the small box, “You are an author now,” I say and open the door. He blushes.
After he is gone, I pull his book from the library and read:
Dog song fleeting
with wolf songs
Dancing to hills
I hold out the basket of index cards folded in half with prompts to a mother with a sleeping baby. I woke up to the sounds of… she reads out loud before writing, “crying, babbling, laughing, tears falling, and squeals.”
An older woman with hollow cheeks and the symmetric features of a doll pushes away the prompts saying, “I have a lot to write about.” She returns an hour later, her book, 12 inches by 12 inches filled with poems, each page covered in neat tiny script:
Were a talisman metaphor for my mother –
When I was young she would lament my sure earth bound
Leaps from the nest-
In later years her own wings dipped she embroidered them on muslin sheaths-
All those years later they are still on my green walls.
I have a basket of objects to inspire poems: a glow in the dark bat, a pine cone, a gelatinous blue lizard, a shell, a ceramic crane, dice, knitting needles, a wood block with the letter “W,” a small brown book with St. Francis’s Cantico Delle Creature. A middle aged women with long grey hair tucks a book into the library, I pull it out a few minutes later. The two inch by two inch book is made from an old cat food bag,
Also great are pine cones and playing cards
They help people make important decisions
…Knitting needles are great, they help things get knit
That is what you want
The windmills in Oklahoma point in all directions
The card becomes a book in the library, something that can be taken and returned or just taken.
Some poems are instructional, letters to the self sent outward:
Lose yourself, just let go
No matter what your fourth grade teacher told you
Poetry has no rules.
This poem is titled “Last One, Really”; it is the sixth in a series by the same author, but only at the halfway-point of the book. I offer the book to an older woman who says she is intimidated by an entirely blank book. She has a grocery bag from the new market across the street in one hand. I peek when she returns the book; it now reads as a conversation between poems:
So is this a poem, who knows?
People squinting without sunglasses, yet it isnt really a sunny day
A retired librarian with a helmet of grey-blue curls popping out from a black beret tells me, “I love this idea.”
“Do you want to write a poem?” I ask.
She waves her hand at me, as if to say, get outta here sister, and walks away shaking her head.
“Hi, you want to write a poem?” I pull passersby in: A man in leather with a Mohawk shakes his head. A mother in a red trench coat rolls her eyes. A thick forty-year-old man in black with an armful of records says, “I am not a poet, I will think about it.” A sinewy man in his early twenties with ripped jeans says, “I will walk around and look for ideas.”
I want to call out after them, “Don’t look for ideas; don’t stop to think.” I want to yell that when we write on the open page we are making something that has never existed before. We all carry the weight of two hypotheses when we start a creative project:
H1: This is an interesting idea.
H2: I am not crazy.
Two men stand in front of my booth holding out a book. One has shaggy red hair and dimples, the other wears a leather jacket over thermal.
“You do this often?,” Dimples asks.
“Ummmm, no,” I laugh and look up.
“Is there a rule against standing here?,” Leather jacket asks with a serious voice and follow-up giggle.
I look up. They are cute. Suddenly the live music behind me thuds against the pavement. I think of running into the current of energy and beer. Instead, I blush and concentrate on arranging books and pens. They giggle, cough, clear their throats. A chill runs through my shoulders and I hunch them, the chill of passing as someone I am not. I don’t look up again until they are gone.
The book they leave in front of me has a crescent moon on the cover. I open it and read,
…that split second moment of connection with a complete stranger across the room.
I hadn’t considered that I too am a prompt.
Passing as young and carefree is like someone sticking a street sign up in front of me, All that is Exciting Parkway. I pick up my phone and tap out, “How are the boys napping?” A minute later my pocket buzzes, “Mac n cheese for lunch. Both sleeping now. House is peaceful. XOXO.” Mother guilt for me comes in the form of doubt over doing anything not for and with my children.
I like watching from behind the table. Dads with preteen girls wait happily while the daughters fill page after page. The dads don’t ask to be included, and they are in no rush. They have seen the future and are thankful to put anything between them and the passing of time. Parents with young children groan as if this is another task, another test where they must rein in their feral animals. Many children just want a book to take. The books are pretty. A group of three boys and two girls in layers of backpacks, denim jackets, flannel, spring dresses, red hair in black hoodies laugh and write in little books. One by one they put their books in the library; they do not pass or share their words.
The books come back faster than I can keep up and I lose track of who wrote in which. The poems are now anonymous mysteries I cannot connect to an individual.
Some poems rhyme:
No one knows I’ve got golden toes
Polished and painted and fine
In holey socks and low-soled shoes
I almost feel them shine….
The April wind picks up; I rush to cover the books from raindrops. My tent shifts in a gust. The woman selling pottery at the table next to mine grabs a tent pole and together we brace against the wind. “Would you like a book to write in?” I ask. Quarter-size marks on the pavement make plop plop sounds, the mineral and dirt smell of rain fills the air.
“Oh, I wrote a book already. I keep watching people’s reaction when they read it.” She laughs; her long curls shine with droplets.
Did she write?
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sometimes I fart on escalators
The drops fall faster and harder; we hurry to pack up the handful of blank books left on the table. A bluegrass band is playing and the crowd in the street behind us shouts and calls out, immune to rain after a long winter. I peek in the library one more time, elated about the day. I pull out a book two inches long and one inch tall made of an old cracker box with a cover that reads, “Stone ground Crackers,” it has just one word per page:
I look for signs of relief or sadness or laughter in the script of the small book and then I place it back on the shelf for the next reader.
These words stay with me long after the street fair, one of the many ghosts I collect from other people’s stories. Ghosts I call upon when my path forward is blocked, even if only to make myself cry on behalf of someone else when I don’t know how to cry for myself.