Spreading the word

Baylee Annis (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Two hundred and eighty poems, all written by local people, line storefront windows in downtown Saranac Lake. They’re hung at eye level (for adults), spaced out a few feet apart so you pass one after another as you walk by. I can’t help stopping and reading them. They’re full of revelations.

Some of these revelations are about the poems’ subject matter — the way a writer helps us see something in a way we hadn’t before — but more so, I see the writers themselves differently. I know so many of the adults and children whose names are printed below their verses, but I didn’t know they could write poetry — or WOULD write it, or would put their names on it and let it be posted in a store window for everyone in town to see. I wouldn’t do that, but I’m glad they did.

This is the second annual PoemVillage, a project of the Adirondack Center for Writing, and it’s largely Baylee Annis’ baby. This 24-year-old Saranac Lake native is better known as a star rugby player — a finalist for the U.S. World Cup squad and coach of the new Paul Smith’s College women’s team — but she’s also responsible for bringing this idea from Montpelier, Vermont, soliciting the poems, making minor edits (she said she can’t bear to print misspellings by elementary schoolers), formatting them on the pages and hanging them in storefronts. She happened to be in the ACW office when I knocked on the door, and she told me how PoemVillage came about.

After graduating from Saranac Lake High School, Annis attended Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, just as nearby Montpelier was starting its PoemCity project. Montpelier, which at 7,750 people isn’t much bigger than Saranac Lake, added a PoemCampus side project at Norwich, which she experienced. When she applied for a job with ACW, she suggested that it do the same kind of thing in Saranac Lake. Around the same time, local writer Yvona Fast suggested the same kind of thing to ACW director Nathalie Thill. Well then, let’s do it, Thill said.

They decided not to cap the number of poems allowed, as Montpelier had done. For last year’s launch, Annis said they hoped to get 50 poems and thought 100 would be amazing. Instead they got 460, which Annis admitted was a little overwhelming for their small staff and budget. This year they got some sponsors to help pay for the labor.

St. Bernard’s School fifth-grader Lucy Thill’s “White vs. Black” is one of 280 poems hanging in downtown Saranac Lake storefronts this month for PoemVillage. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

The poems will be in the storefront windows for the whole month of April, which in literary circles is National Poetry Month. Also, each poem was printed in two pocket-sized versions which local merchants will distribute in creative ways. Banks might give customers poems with their teller strips; pharmacies might do the same with prescriptions, or cafes with coffee or cookies.

“It hugely meets a lot of our goals of community connection,” Annis said.

No kidding. ACW’s workshops help writers, and its school presentations help students, but this helps everyone. It provides a wonderful, safe opportunity for local amateur writers, puts their work in front of everyone in town, and puts Saranac Lake in a positive light to the surrounding area — the kind of creative place that does things like this.

For Annis personally, the biggest goal is to rekindle an interest in poetry among townies who haven’t thought about it much since high school — people like her father, “who has probably never read a poem in his life.” She understands how poetry can be intimidating, scary, “highbrow.” That’s the challenge.

“If I can get some poetry into the lives of people who would never buy a book of poetry, that’s a win,” she said.

These poems, however, are relatively accessible. They aren’t too long — often as short as three lines, and no longer than a page with lots of white space. Many are written by kids, so they’re easy to understand. They’re a real mix: small-child odes to animals, teenage comparisons of feelings to objects — e.g., “Boredom is a long beige wall” — limericks, haikus, seasonal descriptions and memories recalled. You can really feel the writers challenging themselves and yet feeling a sense of freedom at the same time.

I only read a few dozen, and while the quality of many was no more than I’d expect from students and small-town strivers, there were also a bunch I really liked — including kids’ works. One compared younger siblings to video games. Another was about an un-erased dot on a classroom whiteboard. In one, a maple syrup maker upgraded his technology after 50 years. I wish I could print them all for you here, but instead I encourage you to hunt them down on your own.

I also enjoyed Annis’ contribution, “Digestable,” in the window of Main Street Exchange on Broadway. In it she wrestles with how people of her generation absorbed what they felt was expected of them, and yet now feel like they didn’t dig deep enough, that they used “the right punctuation but the wrong intentions.”

The poems Annis seemed most excited about came from sources that surprised her: a Paul Smith’s student on her rugby team (“She’s not in any writing classes”), a man who works at a local fuel company and “friends of siblings who I never would have pegged for writing a poem.”

For people who have never had poetry published, “This is a great step one,” Annis said. One has safety in numbers but also reaches a mass audience.

“It’s a really supportive feeling to know that there are 280 other people doing this right now,” she said.

Even so, some of the storefront poems are signed “Anonymous,” and that’s OK, too.

Another thing about PoemVillage: As it continues, the people who submit their work year after year will get better. Annis said she thinks the quality of the students’ poems improved a great deal just since last year. This project will make a large swath of the population here better — not only more skilled at writing but more observant, more contemplative, more willing to accept the challenge of turning their thoughts into art.

It’s quite a service. I strongly encourage you to linger over these poems the next time you’re downtown — or better yet, go out of your way and make a trip to downtown Saranac Lake sometime this month. April being a slow time of year is all the more reason for PoemVillage to give the business district some added appeal.