Oh My Sod! Stephanie Barber’s Lawn Poem
Last week Stephanie Barber returned to Baltimore from The Poor Farm, an arts outpost in Waupaca, WI, where she spent more than sixty hours writing a four-line poem. How long do 4-liners take you? I can usually write a pretty good one in minutes. But Stephanie Barber worked on her four lines all day, every day for a week, taking no breaks. This is what she wrote:
Its hooves were mouse and fire
And it was angry and into counting
Also it was starstruck
Like a complicated Mexican companion cat
It’s nice — lovely, really — but what took so long? Well, whereas I write with a pen, Barber composed this poem with . . .
. . . grass.
Barber stenciled 2-foot letters from sod — Kentucky Bluegrass — and laid them into earth cut bare in the weedy yard at The Poor Farm. Barber says the lawn poem is actually something she composed before installing it, but she ended up revising it on location. It went from 169 characters to 106.
When the poem was unveiled, it was summarily trod upon. There is no place to stand and read the entire thing (or get a complete photograph); it’s so large that readers have to walk through it, which is certainly a new way to interact with poetry. Barber predicted this as both a challenge and a solution when, in “For A Lawn Poem” she wrote:
To know a poem one must live with it. One must dig their toes into its very L’s and O’s. One must watch their children and city constituents grow and raise children of their own on it. One must recognize the organic modularity of any such piece of art and see their own ability to edit and re-edit the pieces in response to the placement of their body upon the poem.
She told me that seeing people actually interact with the poem this way was exactly as she imagined it. At one point someone said, “Where’s Peter?” and someone else said, “He’s over there by ‘mouse and fire’.”
“For A Lawn Poem” is a chapbook Publishing Genius put out in 2007. Now that an actual lawn poem exists — and will continue to exist and be mowed until the snows come — re-reading the chapbook resonates anew.
Here’s an article on the whole show at The Poor Farm, organized by Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam.