The Red Brick Poetry box is both an actual place and a virtual one. If you live near Crafton, Pennsylvania, you can drop by and grab a poem. If you live far away, you can drop in online. The featured poem might feel random to the reader, but it is chosen with intention.
Season Ciechanowski is the curator of Red Brick Poetry, a project that began with one box at her home, outside Pittsburgh. She lives in an area with lots of foot traffic and thought it might be the perfect location for sharing poetry with passersby.
“I was aware of the Little Free Library movement and the poetry boxes on the West Coast. I designed one and gave it to a guy in my church who builds stuff for people in his spare time. We mounted it on a post and put in an old flowerpot and filled it with gravel and found a stop sign that I attached to the post and had an artist decorate the box,” Ciechanowski said.
She hopes poetry lovers will buy or build poetry boxes of their own, wherever they live.
The idea is to get people to stop for poetry.
The Red Brick name is based on an actual brick Ciechanowski originally used to hold down the poems so they wouldn’t blow away. She included a pen in the box, and people signed the brick. Some wrote, “Thanks for the poetry.”
Ciechanowski’s box is bigger than the ones on the West Coast, with room for loose leaf poems, poetry books, and issues of Poetry from the Poetry Foundation.
The poetry box was not an instant success. Before installing the permanent box, Ciechanowski said, “I had a bunch of boxes stolen, a chair stolen, all kinds of vandalism, coffee poured in the box, but I kept going because I felt it was something that needed to be done.”
She was first exposed to good literature at the private school she attended and later, in college, when she was an English major. But she didn’t begin to connect with poetry on a personal level until after her grandmother died.
“The poems of Robert Frost truly saved me.”
Ciechanowski wrote those words about Frost in a post titled Building a Love of Poetry from the Ground Up. Frost is so important to her that she launched Red Brick Poetry on his birthday.
“I found myself in a weird place, where I was raised very Christian and that was not connecting with me at all. I found myself drawn to the Robert Frost book my husband gave me before we were married,” she said. “I found myself being unbelievably relieved by the idea that he’s been through grief, walked through it so many times, wrote about it almost perfectly, expressed it so succinctly.”
Frost lost his father when he was 11 and his mother when he was 26. Two of his children died very young, a third died by suicide, and a fourth died shortly after giving birth. He also lost his wife.
“All of these very difficult things, and he was able to take it and distill it into a moment,” Ciechanowski said. “Frost was about form and not a fan of free verse. He said, ‘Free verse is like tennis without a net.’ You can almost find a rhythm in everything he wrote because he constrained himself. He was forced to use a lot of the literary tool kit that people don’t use right now or don’t use well. In Frost, even if it doesn’t seem like it’s rhyming, there’s an overlay of beats in every poem.”
Frost’s poem Birches was an early inspiration for the original Red Brick Poetry box, and the line “So was I once myself a swinger of birches” is painted on one side.
Emily Dickinson — a good poet to memorize
Ciechanowski has also connected with Emily Dickinson’s poetry in a personal way. Following surgery, she turned to Dickinson, whom she’d studied in college.
“I spent the whole time on the porch, reading Dickinson. I’ve come back to her lately because her poetry is easy to memorize,” she said. “I love her juxtapositions. She’ll add things that seem to be in opposition to each other and seamlessly weave them into a poem.”
Ciechanowski enjoyed reciting Dickinson’s “Hope” is the thing with feathers (314) for kids.
“I recited ‘314’ because I knew that would get their attention,” she said. “For second-graders, I did hand motions so they’d pay attention.”
Why read poetry? Because we’re alive.
Ciechanowski’s approach with Red Brick Poetry is to make poems accessible — not to focus on something that might alienate newbies, like iambic pentameter.
“I’m not into the poem to cut it apart. I’m not making anyone write a paper on it,” she said. “Poetry is taking something very difficult, writing it down, and at the end there should be a part that you can relate to. That’s one reason we study poetry is because we’re all alive. We all suffer, and we all laugh.”
A new Red Brick Poetry box will be installed in the courtyard at The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. Ciechanowski’s husband, Thad, is a film director and producer. The Raven received three Mid-Atlantic Emmy nominations, and The Cask of Amontillado won. He’s currently working on The Tell-Tale Heart. Ciechanowski writes lesson plans for the films so they are classroom-ready. She hopes her husband will tackle Poe’s other poems, including Annabel Lee and A Dream Within a Dream.
After that, she hopes to get permission to install another poetry box.
“The Dickinson Museum, my eyes are set there next,” she said.
Poetry that’s not so random
Every day Ciechanowski sees a range of human emotion at the Red Brick Poetry box, inspired by the poems she has chosen, whether for grownups or for kids.
“If you had a bad day or had a fight with somebody, poetry transcends that because it meets you right where you are — just the right poet, just the right poem, and you’re transformed for a second,” she said. “Some kids, their teacher told me it was their reward to stop at the poetry box. She told me, ‘We stop and get a poem if they’ve been good.’”
Ciechanowski takes advantage of any excuse to share poetry. People drop by around Mother’s Day or Father’s Day and find something to give to a family member. If they happen by on National Donut Day, they receive a donut in a baggie with a poem attached.
“My project promotes poetry. My goal is I want more and more and more poetry,” she said.
When Ciechanowski travels, she takes poetry with her, pulling from her library of loose leaf poems.
“I’ll leave poems on tables. You’re sitting down to eat a hot dog, and there’s a poem right there. Or I give them to waitresses,” she said. “People really like it. They either think you’re kooky, or they like it. I’m only trying to convert you to poetry.”
Throughout the year Ciechanowski reads poetry in schools. She puts out Tweetspeak Poetry’s cut-out, colorable poets for Take Your Poet to Work Day, and she plans to work with her children’s elementary school for next year’s Take Your Poet to School Week. For last year’s Random Acts of Poetry Day, she coordinated with the school principal.
“I chalked poems all over the school. The Crafton police stopped me because I was doing this at night. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m just chalking some poetry, Officer.’”
Random Acts of Poetry Day is celebrated the first Wednesday in October. That’s October 3, next week! Get a free book of celebration ideas now.
Browse more Random Acts of Poetry
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro