Can a poem still change anything?

On January 22, 2013, the day Alexandra Petri asked this question in an article titled “Is poetry dead?,” seven people in Lexington, Ky., were tattooed with words of their choice from a poem Bianca Spriggs had written as a love letter to, about, and for Lexington.

On the pages of the Washington Post, Petri responded to her own question without skipping a beat: “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” In Lexington, Andreea McClintock and Sonya Sisk showed up at Charmed Life Tattoo at 3 p.m. after carefully rearranging their work schedules in the ER. Because they are friends, they wanted to get their poetic tattoos together.

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Can a poem change anything?

Titled “The _______ of the Universe: A Love Story,” Bianca’s poem challenges the belief that poetry is outdated, irrelevant, and useless, that you might as well put it out of its misery by donating the whole genre to a book drive to be shipped some place where no one speaks its language.

Bianca started her poem by inviting everyone to write with her on her Facebook page. Asking people to fill in the blank of “Lexington is the ______ of the Universe” was like offering free tickets to the opening day of Keeneland, take the grandstand seats and remember the sunscreen!  (“the opening day of Keeneland” became part of the poem when Bianca asked folks to tell her their most beloved places in Lexington.)

At 496 words, including the title, Bianca’s poem is already spread across 247 bodies, soon to be 249. Each day, Bianca’s words stretch, go for a brisk morning run in the dark, carry a newborn, bake chocolate-bacon cookies, drink buttered-rum flavored coffee, and do all the things that make up our daily lives. On January 22 at 2 p.m., Kate Hadfield got tattooed with “and were so busy,” a phrase that reminds her of her ever-busy life as a poet and dancer. When Kate dances, Bianca’s words refuse to sit still; they absolutely refuse to die.

Reading Bianca’s poem is, more often than not, a public act: one that takes place in public and makes it necessary to look at skin, ink, and hair, not yellowing pages. “Hello, fried delicacies!” we shout to Hampton Fisher whose tattoo might just be the funniest. At 8 p.m. on January 22, Mikey Wells got “from” — a word he chose to remind him of where he comes from. Like many others who received Bianca’s words as tattoos, Mikey does not hesitate to take his right shoe off, revealing his part of the whole. His tattoo makes you wonder, “from where?” Mikey is from Lexington.

Can a poem still change anything?

Bianca’s poem—spread like a city-wide mural over 249 bodies—changes our ideas about poetry, tattoos, art and love. “The ________ of the Universe” changes our ideas about a city large enough to adopt so many willing to sink deep roots in Bluegrass soil.

Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova

****Note: This blog entry is 496 words long, the same length as Bianca’s poem. Reading “The ________ of the Universe” after this blog entry should make it clear that poetry can get a lot more mileage per word than prose.

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One thought on “Can a poem still change anything?

  1. Chuck

    It intrigues me that when people talk about this project, they only talk about the PROJECT and not the POEM. Frankly, I think the poem is poorly written … it has no heart, no music. But for some reason, the project (which isn’t something I’m interested in, but I get the idea) overrides the actual poetics. Why? Why should we allow that? It’s my major problem with Lexington’s writing scene. There’s no enough criticism. It’s TOO supportive for its own good (which is not to say that being supportive is a bad thing).

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