A trail of poetry to be engraved on Middlebury sidewalks

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County’s poetic legacy is etched in its soul.
Its impressive roll call of literary luminaries includes Robert Frost, Julia Alvarez, Ruth Stone and Jay Parini. You’ll find their work in virtually any bookshop or library.
Middlebury will soon showcase the work of a new crop of poets who will find their evocative sonnets and verses literally making a mark — on the town’s sidewalks.
It’s called “Word on the Street,” made possible through a $15,000 grant from the Vermont Arts Council and the combined efforts of local planner Dave Hohenschau and the Middlebury Underground (MUD) group. Organizers will invite area poets of all ages and abilities to submit works that will be vetted by a panel of jurists, who will select five submissions that will be engraved in downtown locations during the next two years.
The project will include events, pop-up art, and celebrations all tied to poetry and the downtown.
Middlebury will become the first Vermont community to adopt a “Word on the Street” program, which has been successfully executed in other parts of the country, beginning around 10 years ago in St. Paul, Minn., according to Hohenschau.
“It seemed like such a good fit for Middlebury,” said Hohenschau, whose runs the Community Workshop business with Rebecca Sanborn Stone. Community Workshop has helped town and cities throughout North America build special senses of place through creative planning and public engagement.
“We’re constantly looking for neat ideas,” Hohenschau said.
He reasoned sidewalk poetry displays would be emblematic of Middlebury’s creative past and present, and they could serve as a way to beautify and unify the community during the major construction project that will unfold in the downtown during the next two years.
“We’ve got a history of notable poets, and a number of poetry clubs,” Hohenschau said. “It seemed like a perfect match to do something poetry-related.”
He pitched the idea to folks at MUD, a nonprofit that organizes a variety of creative and culinary events — such as the annual Foodaroo. Lisa Mitchell, co-leader of MUD, liked the idea, and that group will serve as the fiscal agent for “Word on the Street.”
“As an arts and culture non-profit, Middlebury Underground is proud to support Word on the Street, a poetry trail around Middlebury,” Mitchell said. “We hope the poetry trail will not only become a source of pride in downtown Middlebury, but also attract the interest of visitors for years to come.”
Hohenschau is now hunting down jurists to evaluate poetry submissions. He has no shortage of prospects, given the number of poetry enthusiasts in Middlebury. Middlebury College and Middlebury Union High School have their share of capable talent evaluators.
But organizers don’t want this effort to be confined to established writers; they want original compositions from people who’ve tried their hand at poetry and wouldn’t mind seeing it publicly displayed. Local clubs, businesses, community organizations, individuals, and schools are invited to get involved.
An entrant can submit a previously published work. The key is to get something unencumbered by copyright restrictions and to have a piece that speaks to the spot in which it will be displayed.
With that in mind, Hohenschau wants to first pin down specific sidewalk spots, and then invite poems that speak directly to those locations. For example, a sidewalk in Frog Hollow would seem appropriate for a poem evoking craftsmanship. A sidewalk near the Town Hall Theater might conjure a poem about drama and showmanship. An education theme would seem a propos for a poem at Mary Hogan Elementary School.
Middlebury Public Works officials have endorsed “Word on the Street”and want to pilot the idea in low-traffic locations, organizers said.
Hohenschau is working with a local concrete specialist, Nathan Christner, to determine the best way to permanently commit the poems to sidewalk surface. For existing sidewalks not in line for repairs, an engraving process is likely to be used, he said. The engraving depth would be done to approximately an eighth of an inch to ensure durability and safety to those who tread on the poems.
“It’s pretty intricate,” he said of the process.
A less involved “stamping process” could be appropriate for newer sidewalks, according to Hohenschau.
Stencils of the verses will be used to guide the engraving and/or stamping.
The jury will set limits on length of the poems to ensure the program doesn’t run out of finances and available sidewalk.
While the state grant will likely limit “Word on the Street” to five poems, organizers noted future donations and grants could lead to more sidewalk entries to lengthen the poetry trail — if the program proves popular.
It should be noted the current $15,000 budget also includes small financial awards for winning poets and honoraria for jury members.
“If we had a few (poems) every year, in a few years we could have like a dozen poems, and people would come from all over to follow the trail and read all the poems,” Hohenschau said.
This will be a year of planning and organizing “Word on the Street.” Poems should start appearing on local sidewalks beginning next spring.
How long the poems will adorn the concrete sidewalks is anyone’s guess. Vermont winters, pedestrian use and sidewalk plowing will take their toll.
“Maybe we’ll re-color them every once in a while, or recut the edges,” Hohenschau said of longevity measures. “There’s a lot of ways in which the poems will get degraded.”
Still, a little wear and tear might add character to the artistic expressions, he noted.
“I think there’ll be a certain beauty to seeing them fade over time,” Hohenschau said. “I don’t think we can be too precious about it, since public sidewalks take a beating.”
Anyone who would like to suggest a downtown Middlebury sidewalk for a poem should contact Hohenschau at [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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