Write Your Block relates poetry and place in Philadelphia

Philadelphia has a rich heritage of poetry reflected in a diversity of poets and a vibrant poetry culture that includes respected institutions like the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and events like the Harvest Open Mic, the largest open mic night in Philadelphia that draws in a variety of performers, from spoken word artists and poetry slammers to musicians and stand-up comedians.

When Mayor Michael Nutter saw poet Sonia Sanchez perform at a City Hall Presents event, he wondered why the City of Philadelphia didn’t have a Poet Laureate of its own, and decided to appoint her to the role. Now there is a formal process and a growing interest in the title, which is helping to elevate the significance of poetry in Philadelphia.

Write Your Block is a citywide poetry project from Philadelphia’s current Poet Laureate, Sanchez’s successor Frank Sherlock. The idea started with his application for Poet Laureate based on his collaborative collection of poems called The City Real & Imagined, a re-visioning of public spaces conducted with poet CAConrad as a self-guided psychogeographical wandering through “the City of Otherly Love.”

“The idea was to create psychic poems, to write walking paths of citywide landmarks or personal landmarks, and [for people] to create a poem about Philadelphia as they see it,” says Lindsay Tucker So, Research and Public Policy Associate with Creative Philadelphia, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, which oversees the Poet Laureate program. “He mentioned it in his interview and application and we thought it was an interesting way to elevate the role of poetry in Philadelphia, and that’s the role of the Poet Laureate – to make poetry a more visible art form and make it incredibly accessible.”

So, an Americans for the Arts Emerging Arts Leader, manages the Mayor’s Poet Laureate and Youth Poet Laureate programs and facilitates projects like Write Your Block, a project of the Poet Laureate. She also manages CultureBlocks, the City of Philadelphia’s free online mapping tool that visualizes the city’s cultural assets and activity alongside local geographic, social, economic, and demographic data. The different branches of her work seem to dovetail nicely with Write Your Block, a project that is as geographically-minded as it is literary.

“The goal of Write Your Block is to activate people of different demographic experiences with poetry to write about Philadelphia as they see it,” she explains.

Write Your Block is sort of a literary exploration of place and identity, a collection of personal reflections from different neighborhoods throughout the city examining the writers’ relationships to place and the identity that relationship informs. The ever-growing collection forms a kind of psychosocial map of the city.

For this arts experiment to work, people need to be engaged. To do that, So, Sherlock, and Creative Philadelphia are working with program partners that include libraries with after school committees, community organizations, and teachers and arts education organizations to incorporate this project into their programming. One valuable partner has been the Village of Arts & Humanities’ People’s Paper Co-op, a collaborative art and activism project that brings together artists, civil rights lawyers, and returning citizens to clear barriers for thousands of Philadelphia residents.

Sherlock is also leading extended workshops in key neighborhoods to get students interested in poetry and have them do their own Write Your Block activities, including getting out and walking around their city. His workshops end in April – National Poetry Month – after which Creative Philadelphia will release a print collection of selected works along with a Write Your Block map to visualize these works in a different way.

While Sherlock’s tenure as Poet Laureate ends in December 2015, So says they hope to keep Write Your Block going as a long-term project of her office. “We think it’s really interesting and that it will gain more momentum over the years to involve other poets bringing it to their own communities and in their own style of poetry, and expanding on it to make it more fluid based on their personal styles, whether they are Poet Laureates or not.”

The Write Your Block submissions can all be read here, where you can also submit your own. There is also a toolkit and map to get people started. In an effort to reach a larger and more demographically diverse audience, Creative Philadelphia has delivered print pieces to community partners to eliminate the digital divide and ensure all members of the public are able to participate via physical submissions.