Last week, two longtime Spokane residents walking with their teenage grandchild in Kendall Yards were stopped in their tracks by this snatch of poetry spray-painted on the sidewalk under their feet: “Headlamps of the midnight train / search the rotting trestles, / the vanished bridges / of Kendall Yards.”
Marilyn Laugen read the verse by Catherine Grainger aloud. Laugen used the opportunity to explain to her young visitor from Chicago that not so long ago, the spot where they were standing was home to deserted railroads and mounds of dirt, desolate and unwelcoming to walkers.
“Few people ever got to enjoy these views before Kendall Yards was developed,” Laugen said. “It’s one of the best things to happen in Spokane.”
In a dozen more spots throughout the city, passers-by can come across fragments from other poems about Spokane places, matched to the particular locations to which the poems refer. The public arts project, called “I am a Town,” was conceived by former Spokane poet laureate Laura Read, in partnership with Spokane Arts.
In 2016 Read, a Spokane Falls Community College professor, held free workshops to encourage people to write about Spokane places significant to them. More poetry submissions were solicited from the local community online. Of the 60 submissions, 12 were chosen for inclusion in the public arts portion of the project. The authors are novelists, teachers, librarians, and radio hosts.
Getting the neon-colored poetry chalked onto cement was not easy. Spokane Arts Executive Director Melissa Huggins hired a local artist to design the stencils, but she had to master the art of laser cutting large slabs of plywood to create the stencils herself. “If a piece of a letter got askew or caught on the laser, it would turn the whole thing and I’d have to start all over,” Huggins said.
Read is thrilled with how the project finally turned out. “Each poem is so different, and the various colors and the cool font add to the surprise and pleasure of encountering them,” she said.
A stroll down Summit Parkway from Grainger’s poem in Kendall Yards to the Monroe Street Bridge brings pedestrians to an excerpt by Maya Jewell Zeller. On the sidewalk near the bridge’s rededication plaque it reads: “On Monroe Street, the sky outside our windows / was always most lovely in the evenings, / pink like the inside of a body.”
People who follow the social media #spraypainted at the site to the entire poem will learn that the verse refers to car trips taken to and from the neonatal intensive care unit to visit a sick baby. Despite the breathtaking sunsets, there was no pulling over the car to enjoy the beauty.
With only a line or two of larger poems at the 13 sites around the city, interpretation is left for the reader to decide at that moment. Accessing the full texts later online is like a special reward.
Some “I am a Town” poetry sites bring readers back to a different time. Children of the ’80s will relate to the poignant lines authored by Sheri Boggs on the sidewalk outside Chase Bank downtown: “I’m sitting outside La Chapina / with my brand new copy of The Empire Strikes Back. / To my left is the skywalk / roofed in yellow scallops. / I hold the book in my hand / just like Han Solo holds Leia’s face. / This is love.”
Anyone who has lived in Spokane long enough will stand at this spot in front of a Harold Balasz sculpture, still overlooking the yellow scallops of the skywalk, and be able to conjure images of the former dress boutique La Chapina, now overtaken by new development.
Mike Prim has two poems set at places forever changed, one at The Otis Hotel, the other at the Elk Drug store. Carol Dahmen’s verses referring to traditional holiday storefronts from her poem “The Crescent” are etched on the sidewalk in front of what is now a T-Mobile store: “In his seventies now, he still comes, / fogs up my bay windows marveling at the mechanics / of Christmas, and longs for chocolate malts.”
Changed places can be positive or negative, depending on the viewer. Grainger’s Kendall Yards poem talks of “urban hipsters, lattes in hand…ghosts of box car riders…haunted Indian eyes…traitor traders…”
The places that define Spokane are different for everyone. From West Central to Manito Park, poetry is out there in the neighborhoods right now. Go to www.spokanearts.org for map and the full poems.