Poetry Fence Makes Good Neighbors
Woman shares love of poetry with children and adults
When Renee Adams' two boys were young, she sent them to elementary school with poems tucked inside their lunch boxes.
A lifelong reader and poetry fan, Adams packed works by contemporary American poets, Romantics and mystics in with the apple slices and PB&J sandwiches.
Two years ago, while searching for a recipe in her kitchen, Adams stumbled upon an old envelope filled with the poems her sons, now grown, once read aloud to their classmates and decided it was time to share them again with a new audience.
In the spring of 2009, she stapled a few of the poems to the long, tall fence outside her home at the corner of Windsor and Dewitt avenues and the poetry fence was born.
"It's not the wall of Facebook, not communication on a cell phone," she writes in a poem entitled "Poetry Fence" that hangs by way of explanation. "It does what all good poetry does: asks them, in their solitude, to pause, to read, to think, to question and to feel."
Sheltered beneath the canopy of a row of holly trees, the poetry fence has become a sacred place for many, a go-to spot for inspiration and solace, entertainment and bonding. Mothers and babysitters stop to read to children. Pedestrians reflect. Young kids get off their bikes to look. Neighbors take their friends by to see or snap photos of provocative poems and share them on social network sites.
"She's got an audience that goes well beyond Del Ray," said Marilyn Finnemore, the owner of Mind and Media on Mt. Vernon Avenue who wrote about the fence on her blog, Importance of Place, and has shared a number of poems she found on the fence with Facebook friends throughout the country.
Finnemore lives in Del Ray but didn't discover the fence until this summer when she left the office for a quick break and spin around the block. Now, she makes a point of walking past a couple times a week.
"You just don't see poetry around that much and I think it's really important," she said.
Finnemore earned a doctorate in English and studied poets like John Keats, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But she credits Adams with introducing her to modern poets like Mary Oliver, dubbed America's best-selling poet by the New York Times.
Months after first reading Oliver's poem, "The Summer Day," Finnemore recounts from memory the final line of a poem that details the minute movements of a grasshopper, and celebrates nature, observation and idleness.
"Tell me, what it is that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Finnemore said, still enraptured by the words.
"It's the true essence of poetry which is to make you stop and pay attention to that very moment and not kind of breeze by," she said, linking Oliver's poem and Adams' fence. When neighbors stop to read the works tacked on the board, they hear children playing in nearby yards, see Adams' extensive garden, smell her tomatoes in the summer months.
"The whole neighborhood is alive in that spot," she said.
The poems hang on two simple cork boards positioned about 20 feet from each other. One board features poetry geared toward adults; the other Adams designed for children. It's what got her started, in fact. The day she rediscovered the poems she once carefully copied and sent to school with her sons, she realized how much she missed her children, their curiosity and openness to the world and what she shared with them.
"I wanted so much to be able to continue sharing those poems with them, and I thought how I wished more parents would share poems with their children," she later said.
She stapled copies of poems to the fence, encouraged neighbors to take them home and envisioned families snuggled together at night reading as she once did with her boys.
But the painstaking practice of removing staples from the fence quickly grew tiresome and within weeks she introduced the cork boards, as well as adult poetry.
A retired systems analyst at the Library of Congress, Adams takes her role as curator seriously. She changes the poems weekly and tries to time the new selections to premiere for the Saturday crowds heading to the Del Ray Farmers' Market. She uses poems from collections that fill the numerous bookshelves in her house, finds others online and even shares some of her own. She groups the works by theme: mother and child, for instance, at Mother's Day; dogs; Halloween; season.
Adams brings the signs in when it rains and most nights too. For a time, she removed the boards every day when school let out because she suspected schoolchildren of several small acts of vandalism: a beetle ignominiously tacked to the board, lewd comments scrawled on poems and, once, one of the boards was ripped down and chucked into a neighbor's yard.
"I felt so discouraged that I just wanted to stop doing it and so I didn't put things out for a while," she said.
There were encouraging signs too, though, handwritten notes left on the poems with a pen she fastened to the board: "I needed to see this today. It gives me hope;" "Our family loves the poetry fence;" "Please keep it up! Was just walking by—can't wait to see more;" "Thank you so much for this lovely respite;" "Truly healing."
Adams keeps the notes on her refrigerator to remind herself that what she's doing matters, that people care about the poems and her fence.
She's had more intimate reminders that the poetry fence affects passersby. A middle-aged man once knocked on her door and asked for a copy of "A Blanket of Mother Love," a poem Adams wrote about a mother's unyielding love over time. The man confided that because of his run-ins with the law, he felt ostracized by everyone in his family, except his mother. The poem reminded him of his own mother who had recently had a stroke, he told Adams. Later, the man stopped to tell her that he read the poem at his mother's grave site after she died.
The same poem moved Claire Voelker to tears. A mother of four, Voelker routinely stops at the poetry fence to read aloud to her children, ages 7, 6, 4 and 2. And she once left a ream of printer paper on Adams' porch to show how much she appreciates her work.
"If I knew what kind of printer cartridge she used, I'd actually buy her one of those," she said.
Voelker said Adams' poem about motherhood struck an emotional chord. "That killed me," she said. "I stood there and cried in front of my kids."
A voracious reader herself, Voelker said that beyond popular children's poet Shel Silverstein, she never would have thought to share poetry with her children. "But being outside with no distractions, other than my four distractions, we just take a minute to pause and read the poems," she said. "You know, 10 minutes later we're off at the playground, but it's like standing there, we have a quiet family moment."
"I don't want her to stop doing it," Voelker said.
It's safe to say a number of people in Del Ray and beyond agree.