Anecdotal Spores: Walking on Words
by Matt Hughesds
A poet named Randall Byrd writes verses with thick felt-tip pens and black lumber crayons on sidewalks in his neighborhood, thinking of the sidewalk panels as pages, and cherishing their durability, along with their inescapable visibility, for pedestrians cannot ignore such poems and their progress is like the compulsive turning of leaves in a book.
Although possessed of a poet’s sensitivity, and living a rather lonely existence, Randall is a healthy, husky young man, a weightlifter, who earns his living as a bouncer in a nightclub called “Walt’s Hollow.”
One of his reasons for writing sidewalk poems is the promise it gives of an expanded audience. There are many more people who are unable to resist reading sidewalk poems than will ever actually choose to read poems printed in books or magazines.
But Randall is faced with two problems: first, how to make pedestrians slow down so that they can take in the poems intelligently. An essential part of his great project derives from his understanding that all poetry is locked in its medium and begins in the problematical. Therefore, he sees his medium as a formal problem that will radically affect what he writes—the size and shape of stanzas, for example. So when he isn’t working at Walt’s Hollow or writing his poems or reading, he is watching people from his second-floor apartment as they pass on the sidewalk. This is usually late in the morning, since he works at night; and at such times he shares a secret intimacy with them, for they are his readers.
Gradually he puts fewer and fewer words on each sidewalk panel, intent that pedestrians in a hurry not miss the least part of what he has written. It is only natural, then, that his language should become distilled to its finest essence and that the words he writes should begin to loom larger and larger in his consciousness, as well as on the cement slabs, so that he eventually thinks of a poem whose every word occupies its own square. He writes several poems this way, but isn’t satisfied with the result, and returns to the more conventional format, with several lines to a panel, thereby honoring the rhetoric of the line.
Randall’s second problem is that of making his poems equally accessible to pedestrians coming and going. For a while he tries printing the words parallel to the street, but that only makes things worse. He thinks of writing each word twice, tying the two together at their base, so that they can be read by all who walk by; but he finds that too distracting.
Eventually he decides to alternate his poems, so that, from either direction, half of the poems are immediately legible.
Wherever he walks, now, he walks with his head down, always looking and thinking. In this, he is like most people, though for a different reason. Still, the essential point is that we should all learn to watch where we step.
He is not greatly troubled by the dark realization that pedestrians and audiences for poetry have diminished coordinately. Who his readers are, and how many they number, is of little consequence.
Thus he lives in a spirit of great contentment, for he has taken it upon himself to supply what he is convinced are profoundly necessary words for the people who pass by.
Nothing, he has decided, could be more important. And he realizes that he could never have arrived at this ultimate satisfaction without sidewalks.
Matt Hughes lives in the country in the wooded Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. The Theatre Studio in Manhattan recently produced four of his one-act plays, the latest being Inside the Outside, or the Mobius Trip. He collects old and rare books and, with his wife of many years, antiques. He likes to go yard saleing.