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Poetry takes a walk on the wild side

AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day | 04/29/2012 12:00 AM A newly installed poetry box created by Michael Peno, a Mitchell College junior from Providence with a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow inside, stands at the entrance of Mitchell Beach, while a group moves toward the beach to install another poetry box on April 18.
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Dana Jensen | The New London Day

Artist Ana Flores isn't one to monopolize the spotlight. "I come in and build a dance floor and everyone starts dancing-that's when collaborative work is at its best," says Flores. And now the artist is sitting back and enjoying the show, as Poetry of the Wild (POW), a participatory environmental art project that Flores conceived, is taking off throughout New London. The project is built around poems that are printed inside handmade boxes, fabricated of recycled materials, and placed at sites throughout the city from the public library to public parks to school and community gardens to nature trails along the beach.
Flores, an ecological designer and sculptor, constructed two of the 17 boxes with the majority created by poets, artists, students and residents. Every box contains a journal in which the public can record their responses to the work and the site. "It's like blogging in nature, natural social networking," says Suzanne Bartels, director of library and information services at Mitchell College, which is participating in the project. Flores began the project in 2003, while she was an artist-in-residence at Rhode Island's Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association. "My mission was to find a way to use the arts to connect people to their landscape," she says. "I began walking the trails, trying to let the land tell me what to do. I saw litter on the trails and thought, how do you turn slobs into poets? How do you make them thoughtful instead of thoughtless?" Flores says she noticed bird boxes in people's yards, which made her think of merging the two ideas and creating poetry boxes using poems by published poets in birdhouse shapes. From the start, she thought of POW as a collaborative project. "I loved that so many people could come in at different levels and participate," she says. In New London, Flores decided to include poems by both famous and local poets. "Why not? People in New London really know the local landscape, the place," she says. "There's such richness with everyone's participation. Can't we all be poets in life? In our daily lives? It's about finding meaning in the simplest of things." PARTICIPANTS RESPOND Alva Greenberg is among the local poets who signed on with POW. She got to know Flores when her work was in a show at the Alva Gallery featuring Cuban artists. Flores invited Greenberg to do a poetry box. "I had a blue bird box with a bit of a nest in it and I decided to use it with a poem I'd written," Greenberg says. Since her poem is about looking in a window, she cut a hole in the side of the box and mounted the poem inside of it, to create the sense that people are looking in through a window to read it. Greenberg's box and poem are installed in Colby Park on Eugene O'Neill Drive. "I love Ana's energy and the way that she and this project bring together various factions of the community," Greenberg says. "It brings a sense of nature into the urban landscape. It makes viewing the boxes an adventure as one goes around finding them, like (being on) a treasure hunt." Jeanne Sigel, director of marketing and development at the Garde Arts Center, also made a poetry box that is located at the top of State St. She says she keeps a journal but hadn't written a poem since 1972. "It just came out of me-although I did do 24 rewrites," she laughs. In creating her box, Sigel collaborated with local artists/artisans Jim Stidfole, George Haling and Gwen Basilica-who made the stained glass door. "This has been one of the most delightful projects I've been involved in, in a long time," Sigel says. "The boxes represent what New London's all about: connection, collaboration and cooperation." The New London Public Library came onboard as a way to celebrate Poetry Month and engage the library and community in the project, according to Tara Samul, reference librarian. The library has installed two poetry boxes. One is outdoors by local residents Lana Orphanides (poem) and Dimi Orphanides (box). Indoors, Samul placed a box by Flores containing a poem by 19th-century English poet Walt Whitman on a shelf in the 811 (Dewey Decimal) section. "I'm really looking forward to our patrons' reactions," Samul says. The library also will host an audio phone tour as a special feature of the project. To listen to the audio tour of Poetry of the Wild - in which the poets read their works - dial (860) 902-5005. STUDENTS CONNECT Every April, the STEM (Science, Technology, Environmental Studies, Mathematics) department at Mitchell College holds an Earth Day event. STEM professor Victoria Brennan says, "We thought the (POW) project fit in perfectly with this year's theme: STEAM-adding an 'A' into the acronym, for 'Art.'" Tying into Jennifer O'Donnell's Artists of the Romantic Era humanities course, students connected writers with nature and created poetry boxes, with the assistance of Flores, who's an artist-in-residence at the college. The boxes have been installed on Mitchell Beach and in Mitchell Woods. Senior Jamie Wo chose "A Thing of Beauty" by John Keats, which she printed on Plexiglas and inserted into the back of a box she made herself. She decoupaged it with photographs she took in the woods and areas around Mitchell, along with pictures of nature she cut out of magazines. "It's the first construction project of my life," Wo says. "I'm very proud of it." "Students are so excited about this," Bartels says. "It developed into a wonderful, organically grown project, (revealing) how everything is connected, and helping students make these connections."