A Box Upon All Your Houses: The Spread of Poetry Boxes and How You Can Get Involved

Where do you get your daily dose of poetry? If you live in certain communities around the country – Portland, Oregon,  or St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, for instance – you might just find your next favorite poem out walking the dog or strolling downtown, thanks to the proliferation of “poetry boxes,” also called “poetry posts” or “poetry poles.” Think of the “little free libraries” that popped up in recent years – they’re like those, but contain poetry instead of books. Passersby are encouraged to read included poems and perhaps take copies, or leave new poems in return.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we’ll establish some poetry-box basics, using the communities of Portland and St. Tammany Parish as examples for how you might bring poetry-boxes  to your area. We had the opportunity to ask Portland-resident David Cooke some questions regarding this process. Cooke is, among other things, a poet and an active proponent of the poetry-box phenomenon, building custom boxes for individuals and running the Poetry Box website and Facebook page.

Part 2 of this series  presents a Q & A session with Ida Galash, a Portland educator who spearheaded the idea of bringing a poetry box into her Portland school. In particular, she recounts her experiences with this process and provides suggestions for other educators who’d like to follow suit.

Let’s begin!

Poetry Boxes: A Primer

Poetry Box made from Ipe (Ironwood)

Photo credit David Cooke
Built by David Cooke
Curator: Gary Lisman
Location: 5030 Firwood Rd. Lake Oswego, Oregon 97035

Basic poetry boxes include a container – similar to the sort housing real estate fliers – mounted atop a pole. A handful of Portland residents specialize in building poetry boxes – namely Cooke, Doug Trotter, and John Milliken – who sell their work for $100-$200, depending on style and materials. Participants often opt for less expensive options, though. Indeed, one of the beauties of the poetry box phenomenon is its simplicity. As Cooke points out, many “poetry lovers built boxes for themselves or purchased real estate flyer boxes and got right to it.”

Sometimes residents play with the design, decorating the exterior. They might paint the poles, or cover them with mosaic tiles, as in the example below. Cooke tells of one “with an Edgar Allen Poe theme complete with raven and skull,” and his own favorite involves “an elaborate awning with what looks like Indian or South Asian symbols and decorations.”

Urban Poetry Box With Tile Ornamentation

Photo credit David Cooke

Locations for poetry boxes run the gamut. For the most part, residents install boxes in their yards. Some local governments and arts organizations have also put boxes on public land, selecting curators to maintain them and displaying works by local artists. This is the case in  St. Tammany Parish, where residents recently began installing boxes in various locations, some on public land, with the support of local officials.  As we’ll discuss more fully in Part 2 of this series, educators are also getting involved. In particular, Cooke, a “former middle school teacher,” is collaborating with Ida Galash and Portland schools to bring poetry boxes to campuses across the city: “I am building Poetry Boxes for each of the schools. Madeleine Parish and School will be the first. It is made from reclaimed century old Indian Rosewood.”

What people put in their poetry boxes is strictly a matter of preference, and, ultimately, boxes can include more than poetry. Cooke mentions one Portland box labelled the “Inspiration Box”- specifically at the Convention Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard –  which displays “photographs, poems, and other artwork which submits to the tyranny of the 8 ½ by 11.” Indeed, Cooke’s personal box currently contains a Billy Collins poem and one of his father’s watercolors. So, display what interests and inspires you, regardless of genre or medium, be it photography, drawings, flash fiction, letters, or poems.

What To Consider When Installing Your Poetry Box

Poetry boxes are pretty low maintenance, but you might need to perform upkeep periodically to make them last. As Cooke makes clear, “Mother Nature is the most destructive vandal of Poetry Boxes.” He also reports some boxes being “knocked over” or “bashed,” but these incidents are rare.

Putting a poetry box in one’s yard is a straightforward process, but getting boxes approved for schools and civic spaces involves a little more planning.  Some controversy ensued, for instance, regarding the placement of one box in St. Tammany Parish – specifically in a public park – with certain public officials questioning the location and design. Cooke points to a similar issue: “St. Johns Booksellers has wanted to put one in the tree well in front of the shop but the City of Portland won’t allow it.” More often than not, though, officials are supportive of plans to install boxes, working with arts organizations and citizens rather than against them.

Urban Poetry Post

Photo credit David Cooke
Built by David Cooke
Curator: Nancy Cheverton
Location: Corner of NW 27th and NW Upshur St. Portland, Oregon 97210

Participants also need to  make sure they have permission to display a poet’s work. Many poems are in the public domain; so, no one’s going to hassle you for putting out a Shakespeare sonnet. If you want to display more recent work, though, be sure to get permission. “99.999% of the time the poets or publisher welcomes the use of their work in Poetry Boxes,” Cooke explains, but it’s best to check. “For example John Updike’s estate wants an honorarium for use of ‘Dog’s Death’ while Cooper Canyon allows us to use any of their published poems as long as they are cited.”

(Update: Cooke further clarified his thoughts regarding permission: “I just wanted to note that ‘personal use’ generally applies to displaying poems in Poetry Boxes. Curators shouldn’t be anxious about posting their favorite poems. Out of courtesy, I try to contact the poets, which has led to many great conversations. But, especially if you purchased a collection where the poem appears, cite the poet and publisher, and preserve the look of the poem, I see no problems. Check http://poetryboxes.com/poets for a list of poets and publishers who invite you to use their poems.” )

Getting the Word Out

We can look to Portland and St. Tammany Parish as two models of how poetry boxes take root in particular communities.

Portland has been home to poetry boxes for years, with hundreds dotting the city. Indeed, residents can find individual boxes and even go on poetry box walking tours thanks to an online map and smartphone app – developed by programmer Matt Blair –  pinpointing specific locations.

Here’s a video introducing the concept of poetry posts and explaining Blair’s app:

Portland’s Poetry Posts from Gus Bendinelli on Vimeo.

Interest in Portland poetry boxes seems to have spread organically,  by word of mouth and from one neighbor to another. John Milliken, a Portland poet and box builder, explains in a 2010 Star News article that he initially installed a box to share his poetry “beyond family, immediate friends and cease paying for some mighty fine rejection letters from publications that did not share a mutual admiration” for his work. “What began in self-interest,” notes Milliken, “has blossomed into a loose community of readers and writers whose main interest is engaging with neighbors and passersby.” And, as the article illustrates, simply putting a pole in one’s yard has a sort of multiplying effect. One pole goes up, then another, then another, each acting as advertisement for the rest.

The local poetry scene also played a vital role in popularizing the trend. Most people point to Jim Bodeen’s poetry pole, installed in 1995 in Yamica, Washington, as the trend’s genesis. In the years that followed, Portland poets built upon his example. Cooke promoted poetry boxes at “readings and panels” he attended: “I used those occasions to tell people about Poetry Boxes. Often I would bring the Poetry Box I was currently constructing.” Other poets, such as two-time Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen, have been active participants in the trend. As a recent profile of Petersen in The Oregonian makes clear, “[Her post] is the tent pole that anchors her life and allows her to take poetry to every corner of Oregon and bring it home.” Such associations with prominent writers helped poetry boxes take root in Portland’s cultural and creative fabric.

Newly installed poetry boxes in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, are the brainchild of Robin Hurston, a gardening expert who moved to Oregon before returning to south Louisiana. As the profile of Hurston in The New Orleans Advocate indicates, Hurston became aware of poetry boxes while visiting Washington state, and that trip became “the spark that enticed [her] to bring the written word to her” town in Oregon. Now, Hurston is continuing the trend back in Louisiana, collaborating with residents in Covington, Abita Springs, and Mandeville to rally public support. Furthermore, she’s enlisting local businesses to participate, planning box sites at parks, bike shops, and art galleries, for instance. Despite some minor backlash, mentioned earlier, the community has been overwhelmingly supportive of Hurston’s efforts.

What can we take from these examples? A few dedicated individuals can make a lot of progress in bringing poetry boxes to their communities. While collaborations with government representatives and local businesses go a long way in bringing boxes into public/civic spaces, the heart of the poetry-box phenomenon lives in neighborhoods, where it grows one yard at a time, one box at at time. Cooke thinks as much. When we asked what advice he had for people looking to bring poetry boxes to their communities, he had this to say: “Do it yourself. It doesn’t take a neighborhood association or a city ordinance. Just slap some fence boards together and put a poem in it.”

No better time than now, we think.

Be on the lookout for Part 2 of this series,  where we  tackle the logistics of establishing poetry boxes on campuses and in schools.



6 thoughts on “A Box Upon All Your Houses: The Spread of Poetry Boxes and How You Can Get Involved

  1. Thank you, Laura. I just wanted to note that “personal use” generally applies to displaying poems in Poetry Boxes. Curators shouldn’t be anxious about posting their favorite poems. Out of courtesy, I try to contact the poets which has lead to many great conversations. But, especially, if you purchased a collection where the poem appears, cite the poet and publisher, and preserve the look of the poem I see no problems. Check http://www.poetryboxes.com/poets for a list of poets and publishers who invite you to use their poems.

    1. My apologies for not seeing this comment earlier. Yes, it IS a marvelous idea! We’re hoping to help bring the boxes to East TN, where we’re located. Such a simple project with a large impact.

  2. They ARE wonderful. I live in St. Tammany Parish & am soon moving back to Portland. I have three poems up right now in poetry boxes around the city of Covington. For so long I have been homebound due to migraines & seizures & this allows me to reach out & interact beyond my limited, backwoods borders. Robin Hurston should be praised for her work. Her husband, Mike, builds all the boxes from scratch. Hurrah to them & to poetry!

    1. Indeed! I’d never heard of them until reading an article on Portland. Such a cool idea, which we hope will spread to other areas. Thanks for reading!

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