My friend Ahmed came up with the original idea for a poetry-themed bonus checkpoint at the Riverwest 24, an annual 24-hour bicycle race intended to build community in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood and beyond.
500+ participants race on a loop that runs through trails and city streets. Some compete individually, while others relay in teams. Cyclists receive a point each time they pass the starting line and can raise their rank through participating in creative checkpoints.
I’d seen Ahmed early in the summer pulling weeds and planting peppers at Concordia Gardens in Harambee. He invited me to be part of this project. Over the next month, Ahmed convened a rotating crew of poets to build what came to be called “The Poetry Factory, Home of the Poetron.”
Poetry is one of those things that anyone can do, but many people feel they cannot. This is true of the arts: music, drawing, dancing, acting. We are afraid to let free, to let go, so we say we can’t do it, control the situation, keep ourselves in.
A project like the Poetry Factory is what poets who write papers might call “social practice.” It is what followers of the inimitable June Jordan might call “poetry for [of/with/in] the people.” It is what some of us call “community poetics.”
Here’s what happened when a cyclist rolled up to the Poetry Factory: a volunteer poet pushed a pedal to get a suspended bicycle wheel going. The cyclist hit the hand break, causing a florescent pink marker on the wheel to land on a poetic form on the wheel of fortune positioned behind it. Depending on where the wheel of fortune landed, the cyclist had to write that poem—haiku, free verse, limerick, erasure, tanka, ghazal, and the special 53212 form (a poem where the number of syllables in each line matches 53212—the zip code of Riverwest and Harambee).
The cyclist grabbed a clipboard set up with paper and carbon paper to write her poem. She wrote through the carbon paper to create two copies: one for our fence line gallery, and one to tuck into her sports bra or sock or wheel rack as a souvenir.
The race started at 7:00 on a Friday evening and continued until 7:00 pm the next day. People were grilling out, porch sitting, drinking iced tea or a beer with friends or lounging with their dogs as their neighbors pedaled past. Cowbells and DJs and garage bands and children cheered for every cyclist. The Riverwest 24 is grassroots, homegrown, non-commercial.
We opened up the Poetry Factory for six hours, 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. When all was said and written, the cyclists wrote 322 poems. That’s nearly a poem a minute.
Aside from a bicycle race, what does the word “checkpoint” bring to mind? Borders, oppression, barbed wire, bombs. I think of the Berlin Wall and I think about the stories my Palestinian friends bring back after visiting home. I think of traffic stops, police brutality, deportations. I think of segregation, the disparate value of homes depending on whether they are on the west side of Holton Street in Harambee or on the east side in Riverwest, and how to society—in some ways—that value parallels how much a person’s life and livelihood matters.
I wrote a version of this article shortly after the bicycle race and saved it on a USB drive. And as happens sometime with technology, much of the article was lost. In the meantime, Sherman Park happened—what some call riots, what some call unrest, what some call a dam bursting, some what call a ritual, what some call violence, what some call a response, what some call “what did you expect?”
The police killed a man named Sylville and then the gas station, bank, and beauty store burned.
This is a different article now because we are in a different summer. But we are also living in the way this city has always.
A week after Sylville Smith died, I ended up walking Center Street from 37th to Riverwest on a Sunday afternoon. It’s about four miles. I’d gotten on the bus, but my M-Card was out of money. It was a long walk; my feet got sore. Nothing happened on that walk, really, and that’s the thing. Perhaps we need to remember more forgettable stories about our city. People walking out of church. People filling up at the gas station. A piano soundboard leaned up against a dumpster on 18th Street, waiting for some lucky person with a truck. It was a beautiful day.
I crossed Holton Street and the way things looked changed. When I got to the Riverwest Farmer’s Market, I bought some tomatoes.
A lot of news recently has been about building walls, even though walls have never worked, never permanently. Sherriff Clarke has closed down Sherman Park with SUVs and orange plastic, instead of creating space for something beautiful to grow out of the ashes that community volunteers swept up.
We are afraid to be creative, to make art, to leave our neighborhoods and comfort zones. The impulse that prevents us from living as creative adults is the same impulse that disallows empathy and compassion. Tell those in power that the only walls that work are internal.
Whose grief do the powerful allow to make an impression? Whose grief do we call criminal? Whose burning grief is punished? Whose grief do we push out?
There may be ways to examine and reimagine words like “checkpoint.” What do community art projects mean when inevitably they mirror the geography of segregation? How can we get free?
I want to live in a city where we celebrate and encourage each other to play at the park. I want to live in a city where we recognize the fact that neighbors are cheering for neighbors, and not just at the Riverwest 24.
I want to live in a city where we write a poem a minute.
The organizers of the Poetry Factory went through the 322 poems and selected 48 pieces that we feel embody the momentum that was created that day. Stay tuned for a digital chapbook to appear on Relevant Milwaukee in a few weeks.