Poetry is best read aloud. That's a known fact of literary nature. But what becomes of it when it’s stamped into a concrete sidewalk?
Miami-based artist Agustina Woodgate devised a scheme to see how that would play out after she won a Knight Arts Challenge grant about three years ago. This month, her plan came to fruition in a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of deepest West Kendall, not far from Krome Avenue. "Concrete Poetry" is the first in what will be an ongoing series of projects in conjunction with O, Miami and Miami-Dade County's Department of Transportation and Public Works.
Stretching about two blocks are four poems by four local poets: Javmar Perez-Contreras, Jabez Bell, Carmella de los Angeles Guiol, and Angelina Frias. Each ode has been stamped in bold capital letters in concrete sidewalks. Woodgate says the letters, contained by one-by-one-foot squares, were inspired by Scrabble tiles and are laid out in a network of words that read either horizontally or vertically, much like a Scrabble board. It’s up to the reader to decipher the poetic lines within these concrete stanzas.
Between them are many long breaks of plain concrete. There's something special about the empty and silent spaces created in the distance between the portions of sidewalk with words. It forces the reader to pause, consider, anticipate, and move forward to be surprised by what lies ahead.
At SW 139th Street along SW 149th Avenue, readers will find the first poem, by Javmar Perez-Contreras. Walking alongside the lines, spectators will notice varied context with each phrase. Woodgate’s choice of beginning with the line "I could start" means something personal to her and the Miami-Dade County workers who poured the concrete: It captures the first real, physical step in realizing the project, Woodgate says, which started when she began tangling with the bureaucracy of the county government to keep the work up to code.
During a speech before a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday morning along the block, Woodgate explained, "It was very interesting as an artist, for me, to have to fit the standards, the very strict, challenging standards that sidewalks have. And I guess that was really the artistic approach on how to transform these poems into this five-foot-wide — no wider than that — sidewalk. That was really a fun, puzzling moment."
After walking several feet of blank concrete, readers arrive at the second line of Perez-Contreras’ poem: "To work out." It again speaks to the process, but also, one can't help but think about some local suburban resident jogging out of her house to begin a workout routine, possibly motivated by what the next line might be. After several blank spaces comes the final line. The reader must work a bit harder to untangle the words, which run both across and down and are written in Spanglish. It takes a moment to make out the punch line: "Pero back home abuelita tiene tamales."
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Back at the ribbon-cutting, where children scream and play somewhere nearby, O, Miami's founder/director, P. Scott Cunningham, says, "The mission of O, Miami is for every single person in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem, and so it's projects like this that really make that happen. We can find organic, creative ways to integrate poetry into the city's actual infrastructure."
Antolin Ruiz — the county's Road, Bridge, and Canal Maintenance Division chief for the Department of Transportation and Public Works, gives credit to Woodgate and her creativity for reaching out to pitch the idea. At first, he was caught off-guard by the idea. "When they first came to us and said, 'We're going to put poetry on the sidewalk,' we were like, 'Uh, what?'"
There's a sense of excitement to Ruiz's statement that speaks to the power behind the art, even if it’s just disrupting his routine. Woodgate recalls supervising the project and the enthusiasm of the workers who made the sidewalks. "Working with your crew was incredibly inspiring,” she told Ruiz at the ceremony. “They were blown away by this project and by having something different being incorporated in their everyday job. They're probably out there right now laying more concrete. This is what they do every single day, and so for them to now have this extra layer was really making their day a complete new experience, and that was very, very nice also. They were like, 'Oh my God! This is art, Agustina! This is art!'" she said, gesturing to the concrete below her feet, to laughter from the group, which also included Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez.
This is only the first of what Ruiz, Cunningham, and Woodgate hope is a series of spaces that will cover other portions of the county, wherever a sidewalk might need to be laid or repaired, not to mention wherever people might need a little inspiration. And as the sidewalks grow worn with use, the poetry, by design, Woodgate says, will become more pronounced.