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Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Students' Writing on Motel Sign
By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
Most people probably don't know where the poetry is coming from.
On a sign at the southeast corner of Central and San Mateo that once advertised the Tradewinds motel, poems have been appearing periodically over the past year, staying up for a few weeks before they are traded for new verse.
At first, the word "closed" was in the center of the board, so the poetry was built around it: "The bus is never closed to crazy," it read at one time. Another time it said, "Forget closed dreams wanted," with one word on each line. And another time it said, "The eyes are never closed just the mind that refuses to see."
The poems are contributed by the slam poetry club at Highland High School, a group of teenagers who get together weekly to write and share poetry, critique one another and prepare for spoken poetry competitions. The teens also write poetry for the sign, in collaboration with Friends of the Orphan Signs, a group started by University of New Mexico professor Ellen Babcock.
As part of the project, Babcock has a two-year lease for the Tradewinds sign.
Lilly Lawrence-Metzler, 17, is the president of the poetry club, and she said putting poems on the sign is a good motivator for the club. She said it was especially exciting when her own words were on display.
"I'm driving down the street and I'm like, 'I wrote that. It's up there,' " she said. "It's definitely cool."
But she also said the format can be scary for younger students.
"I think it's kind of a double-edged sword," she said. "Some of the less-experienced writers are intimidated by the fact that it's so public."
Heather McGuire, the teacher who sponsors the poetry club, said the students' work is seen by a lot of their peers, especially since the sign is near a bus stop many Highland students use. The unsigned nature of the poetry lets the students be heard but not individually identified.
"I don't think they all know where it comes from," McGuire said. "That's part of the reason our students are able to feel so free."
She said Babcock has urged the students to be more artistic than preachy, but in their poems for the sign they gravitate toward verses with a message, like "Where you are from does not determine who you are."
"It gives them a chance to interact with their community in a kind of low-pressure way," McGuire said.
Babcock said she reached out to the students because she wanted the words on the sign to represent the nearby community, not the perspective of an outside artist.
"It was this idea that it's a new model of public art," she said. "Rather than putting up my own text, I wanted to come to a community and have it be from them."
The Orphan Sign Project will collaborate with student artists at Highland later this year to design a two-sided, lit sign to refurbish the skeletal former sign for the El Sarape restaurant on East Central. This sign will eventually be professionally produced and purchased by the city as a permanent public artwork, Babcock said.