Poetry on the Pavement
Auckland CBD, 7 February – 26 March 2005
‘Poetry on the Pavement’ formed part of The Living Room, a pilot series of events instigated by Pitsch Leiser and sponsored by the Auckland City Council. My task as poetry curator was to select about twenty poems along with corresponding locations within Auckland’s Central Business District. I set off in search of writing that would not only reflect the cultural diversity of our city but that would make an assortment of demands on a new reader: the pedestrian. Armed with a dualistic goal, I was eager to refresh the way we read both the city and the poem.
As pedestrians, we move through the city in a variety of ways: we stroll, we dawdle, we speed, we stride, we wait, and we get lost. Moreover, we view the very city that we move through in the light of overlapping definitions. The city is both a geographical and cultural location, yet the city also represents diverse states of mind, networks of relationships, and a mass of conflicting experience. As a site of decay, refurbishment and movement, the city promotes an oxymoronic effect; we undergo connections that become disconnections. We experience location that houses dislocation.
Nonetheless, in our daily movement through the city we are at risk of developing immunity to the city’s organic detail. The destination, and conversely, the point of departure, may override or render the passage blind to itself. By placing the poems on the pavement, the pedestrian may break the course of his or her movement and contemplate the poem or aspects of the city that the poem flags. At times, the word on the path is revered and the pedestrian moves around rather than strides over the poem. The pedestrian collects phrases, adverbs, nouns, or even whole poems en route to his or her destination. In contrast to the intimacy of a poetry book read in a private space, the poems on the pavement trigger a more public reading. Necks crane. Bodies twist and stretch to read upside down or in a narrow setting.
Yet at other times, the poem leaks into the everyday day life of the city. Motorbikes and cars park on the words. People eat their lunches on poetic lines. Leaves and chewing gum fragment the poem with traces of city life. The words fade. While one kind of pleasure may be obtained from a memorial walk where the poems are set in concrete like a time-honoured canon, I love the slow erosion of the temporary poem at the hand of the weather and foot traffic.
In this project, the city masquerades as a temporary poetry library, yet the selected font is at odds with current reading practice. The poems were hand-painted on the path by sign-writer Gordon Clifton; his handwriting moves the text away from the mass-produced font of the published book, from the mass-circulated font of the digital message, from the commercial and graphic font of the city sign, and from the illegitimate font of the graffiti artist. Instead, the font returns us to the personal touch of a private letter, to a first draft, or to a one-off.
In my selection process, I became a pedestrian. I strolled, dawdled, sped, strode, paused, and got lost in the numerous volumes of poetry published in New Zealand. In order to make some limits, I chose to make this a trail of living poets (but felt happy to curate a ghost walk at a future date). I sought poems that made direct links to specific places (David Eggleton’s ‘Karangahape Road Celebrates,’ Kevin Ireland’s ‘Paderewski’s Hands,’ Trixie Te Arama Menzies’s ‘Heaven Was In Our Eyes’) and to experiences associated with the city (Robert Sullivan’s ‘Te ao marama I,’ Hone Tuwhare’s ‘LP Blues,’ Jill Chan’s ‘The Conversation 2’). I sought poems that used Auckland as their point of origin or springboard (C.K. Stead’s ‘Auckland,’ Bob Orr’s ‘Once I Felt the Summer Breeze,’ Arthur Baysting’s ‘Auckland, April’ and Konai Helu Thaman’s ‘Weekend in Auckland’). I sought poems that had the ability to haunt and draw us back into the city in unexpected ways (Michele Leggott’s extract from ‘Circle’ and Murray Edmond’s extract from A Piece of Work). Finally, I sought poems that reflected the idea of passage itself (Anne Kennedy’s ‘First and last times’).
Painting poems on the footpath refreshes the way we inhabit both the city and the poem. How and where and when and why we are able to make poems of the city and to make the city into poems is an infinite passage of possibilities. In my view, we are hungry for it.
Auckland, 31 March 2005