Water-activated poems showcase work of local students

poems germantown
Dawn Frisby-Byers, of PA Humanities, reveals a poem near the entrance to the Center in the Park at Germantown’s Vernon Park.
Jack Tomczuk

Earlier this year, David Jones stepped into a classroom at East Mount Airy’s Emlen Elementary School to lead a poetry workshop for fourth and fifth grade students.

The young people were tasked with writing a haiku based on the prompt, “What helps you keep growing?”

“A lot of people wanted to talk about plants, but I tried my best to push them past plants,” said Jones, who served as the 2015-16 Philadelphia youth poet laureate while attending Cristo Rey High School.

Now, some of those poems are on display outside the Center in the Park in nearby Germantown’s Vernon Park, thanks to a partnership between PA Humanities and the city’s poet laureate community.

While several haiku are visible on sidewalk decals, some are water-activated, meaning they can only be read in the rain or when the cement is wet.

Tiny WPA, a West Philadelphia-based nonprofit, set up the installation last week with a chemical that repels water. As rain makes the rest of the pavement darker, the words of the poem remain light in color.

The installation includes poems that only become visible when wet.Jack Tomczuk

“I used to be weak / I can do 14 push ups / I can stay humble,” Tristan H., an Emlen fifth grader wrote.

Another haiku, authored by fellow fifth grader Kay G., said, “Nature is so great / Makes me want to / Eat outside / Just the worms and me.”

Yolanda Wisher, who is helping to lead the project, said haiku was chosen as a nod to Sonia Sanchez, Philadelphia’s first poet laureate and a noted master of the style.

“It’s short. It’s really accessible,” added Wisher, herself a former city poet laureate and chair of the local poet laureate governing committee. “It’s easy to write and easy to teach, so it felt like a great container for the themes of this project.”

Jones and other former youth laureates received training before leading sessions with the students.

“Teachers did a great job of making me feel like a celebrity,” Jones said. “I think it’s always refreshing for students to have male presence, especially Black male presence, in the classroom.”

Former Philadelphia Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher (left), Dawn Frisby-Byers, of PA Humanities, and David Jones, who was the city’s 2015-16 youth poet laureate, are part of the team that organized the Rain Poetry project.Jack Tomczuk

Dawn Frisby-Byers, senior director of content and engagement for PA Humanities, said the theme was aimed at making a “connection between water, which makes everything grow, and then things that are intangible that make people grow.”

The students went in a variety of directions, writing about hair growth, changes in their lives, nature and other topics.

Water-activated poetry has previously been done in Boston, and the technique was also used last year in Germantown as part of a Philadelphia Water Department project spotlighting flooding in the neighborhood.

Frisby-Byers said PA Humanities, an independent nonprofit affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities, went with the idea after being approached by the initiative’s funder, the William Penn Foundation.

As part of the project, known as Rain Poetry, similar displays with local student poems will be set up on a rolling basis in the coming months in Kensington and North, West and South Philadelphia. Workshops have been held at Lillian Marrero Library, Samuel Powel Elementary, Chester A. Arthur School and Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy.

The West Philadelphia poems will go up next month at Carroll Park. Dates and locations for the other neighborhoods are pending, though all will be completed by September, said Dawn Frisby-Byers.

Prior to each installation, there will be a kickoff event for community members, and the poems will remain visible for around three months, she added.