Parita Patel hadn’t planned on writing poetry Wednesday evening. Patel was walking on Lancaster Avenue after work, as she regularly does, when she saw the pop-up booth outside La Pearl Beauty Emporium where passersby could request to have a poem written on the spot and write their own.
Artist Marshall James Kavanaugh, the poet who created the project, had installed a tall, heart-shaped structure holding a large scroll, which fed into a typewriter open for anyone who had the inspiration. That scroll is a “West Philly Community Poem,” where visitors are welcome to share words on the history and future of the neighborhood.
Patel, 28, a research coordinator for Penn Medicine, typed onto the grand scroll that she hoped to see unity among people, to see people loving and helping one another, since it doesn’t seem like the pandemic will soon end.
“It is actually very touching that everybody is literally writing something that they wish, or something that they dream,” Patel said of the scene after she rose from the typewriter. “It’s very thoughtful.”
This pop-up, which will be returning outside La Pearl Beauty Emporium on Aug. 29, is one of five of the Everyday Places Artists Partnerships, an initiative that seeks to bring art to community spaces in West Philly. Barnes West, a collaboration between the Barnes Foundation, the People’s Emergency Center, and PEC Community Development Corporation, supports the five partnerships, which each pair a neighborhood artist with a West Philly business or center. Beyond Kavanaugh bringing poetry pop-ups to La Pearl, Everyday Places includes:
Andrea Walls of the Museum of Black Joy at The Center for Carceral Communities, 4020 Market St.
Jahwula Seapoe with yoga/creative writing hybrid workshops, over Zoom and in person at Clara Muhammad Square, 4700 Lancaster Ave., and One Imperial Caribbean & Seafood, 725 N. 42nd St.
Karen Smith with art workshops including crafts, poetry, and percussion at the Silk Tent, 3860 Lancaster Ave.
Keyonna Butler with workshops on how to upcycle old fashions at Kanvas Event Center, 3870 Lancaster Ave.
Pearl Bailey-Anderson, who co-owns her beauty salon La Pearl with her daughter, Knekeya Payne, is excited to be partnering on the project. Both Payne and Bailey-Anderson hope it provides an outlet.
“Because of the violence going on right now, it must be something that these young people feel they need to express themselves — they need to assert themselves, they need to know that they have power, and they’re doing it in the wrong way,” Bailey-Anderson said. “A lot of times, people don’t think their voice counts. And so with this, it actually lets them know their voice does count.”
Kavanaugh has been doing his version of “poetry on demand” for roughly eight years, in Philly and in other cities. Here, he often sets up a typewriter in Clark Park and Rittenhouse Square. Doing poetry in public, he’s learned, can be a “healing medium” that gives people space to “work things through, through poetry.”
With emotions that can be difficult to express, he explained, poetry offers a chance to find language for them. As the words reach deep within ourselves, poetry can touch without touch, he continued.
“In our times, right now, we’re in the experience of being really disconnected from each other,” Kavanaugh said. “Poetry has the capability of putting all those experiences into words, and then also connecting us to those senses, those sensations, the sensual side of the human experience in a way that is safe. You can read … and feel better and feel more connected.”
Over the course of two hours at the booth on Wednesday, roughly 30 to 40 people stopped by, some adding thoughts to the scroll, others asking for poems from spoken-word artist Lindo Yes and Philadelphia youth poet laureate Cydney Brown. Yes, who was the sole writer working on a laptop, paused and looked up, hearing the typewriters ring.
“I don’t even know what my keys sound like,” he reflected. “It’s refreshing.”
Friends Gerald Pinga and Miguel Maquiran, both Drexel students, came inside the booth for a poem from Brown. Pinga requested the poem for Maquiran because it was Maquiran’s 21st birthday. Brown listened as the two shared prompts, the last one coming from Maquiran, who asked for “happiness.”
“OK, give me five minutes,” Brown said. Brown wrote in a notebook first, then slowly typed out a poem called “BIRTHDAY.”
Maquiran said the experience allowed him to reminisce: “When I was a kid, I never really did poems or anything like that, but I used to write songs,” he said. “It’s kind of nice, now that I’m 21, being a full adult, walking past and seeing stuff that I kind of used to do.”
Makonnen Kenya spotted the pop-up from across the street. He came over and soon was trying to work through writer’s block, considering what to add to the community scroll. Kenya first wrote on a card with a red pen, taking moments to pause and sit back, then leaning in again to write some more. Then he transitioned to typing.
“I have not lived in Philly for thirteen years, but it is always home. The city is radically different from what I remember, but again, it is where my roots are,” he wrote.
“Even with things like gentrification,” explained Kenya, 23, who is based in Toronto but was visiting family in town, “the community at large still exists and it’s always so cool to just, you know, be able to come back and just always be a part of it.”
With so much change, the archival aspect of the West Philly Community Poem matters to Kenya, who lived in the neighborhood as a child.
“Obviously, the community, we’ve got so many people from different walks of life, people of different generations and things like that,” he said. “I think it’s really important to record and preserve as much history as possible so that people in the future can get to know how things used to be.”
From the West Philly Community Poem at La Pearl, Kavanaugh is planning to produce a zine.
“The ultimate idea,” the artist explained to a passerby, “is to submit this as a neighborhood plan … Like this is our poetic plan for the neighborhood.”
After small lines of everyday poets had subsided and only a few people were left at the booth, Mai’Angel Dennis, 10, continued to write on the typewriter. She had something to say. Her mom was inside the salon getting her hair done, and Dennis was typing as if she was on a mission.
“I’ve been writing about the city, and how dirty it is, and how it needs to be changed, and what you see on Kensington,” Dennis said.
“If you keep putting dirt on the ground instead of taking care of your neighborhood, it’s going to be dirty,” she said. “People need to change that, because if not, people could suffocate from the dirt.”