Words in Place aims to interrupt passive cultural attitudes towards public space by activating specific spaces with poems referencing those spaces. The project affirms that words not only reflect, but actually create the world around us, and that poetry (and art in general) can and should have social agency.
W.H. Auden said, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” reflecting the idea that one of art’s defining features, according to many contemporary theorists, is its very uselessness, its lack of practical or political utility. One consequence of this understanding of art is its sequestration within galleries, museums, and books, buffered from the world and its mess of causation.
The educator and activist Paulo Freire asserted, “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis [practice informed by theory]. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Freire believed strongly that language does not simply reflect the world — it creates the world. How can language’s capacity for transformation interrupt our cultural understanding of poetry’s futility?
“What if, rather than in a book, a poem were lodged in public space?” Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand pose this question in their book Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry and Public Space. What if, indeed? How might it impact that space? How would the value of the poem shift? How would the value of the space shift? Might the poem become a praxis, a union of idea and action? Might it interrupt our notion of the uses and impacts of art? Might it interrupt the passivity of our commercialized, surveilled, and individually atomized public spaces? Might it, as Boykoff and Sand state, “wrest public space from the hegemony of exchange value … [while installing] a certain spatial use value”?
For each participating poet in this project, there are several steps:
1 – A poet chooses a public place.
2 – I interview the poet in the chosen place. You can see the questions we discuss here.
3 – The poet writes a poem in response to the chosen place.
4 – The poem is worked into a visual/verbal piece to be placed in the chosen place.
It is clear that place influences poetry. This project investigates how that equation might be upended — how poetry might influence place, and what physical forms that influence might take.
You will find on this website interviews with poets, photographs of visual interventions, and, of course, poems.
This is one of Daniela Molnar’s many projects. You can learn more about her and see more of her work at danielamolnar.com
I am deeply grateful to all of the poets who participated in this project. I am also indebted to my husband, Bradley Cohen, for his unflagging emotional support, keen editing eye and technical expertise, and to my talented friend Liliya Drubetskaya for her help transcribing interviews.