Meet two poets,collectively known as Saint Flashlight, who are dedicated to releasing poetry to run free among us, . Molly Gross and Drew Pisarra, longtime friends, bring people on the street face to face with poetry. Before they even know what's happened to them...they are suddenly confronted with free poems. And people love it. Even some people who didn't know they liked poetry. Read our interview with these partners in verse. (And then call to listen to a lost poem. Trust me.)
SC: What are some of the responses to your public poetry? I know I personally love the idea of poetry in the wild, undomesticated and running free. I’ve programmed the number for lost poems into my phone.
Molly: Last year Saint Flashlight participated in the wonderful, annual O, Miami Poetry Festival for which we created our Lost Poem flyer series. During the festival, I flew down to experience it and to help hang our flyers that drove to a phone bank of poems. As I walked into Altamira, a Spanish-language bookstore, to post a Lost Poem notice for Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, I was told that the poet worked there! This kind of serendipity is fun and encouraging.
On Instagram (@saintflashlight) we post documentation of our projects and keep an eye out for when we’re tagged by the public. During the Movie Marque Project we noted that a rap singer had used the Movie Marquee Poems poster as a backdrop for his music video. And a Mean Girlshaiku was used later in a fashion photo shoot. We love this type of cross-pollination.
An all-time highlight was when my She’s Gotta Have It haiku was photographed for an article in the New York Post. Subsequently Spike Lee’s office got in touch with us to say he liked it! Yowza!
SC: How did the marquee poems come about? That’s a wonderful idea.
Drew: Sometimes the size of the paper dictates the idea. In this instance, each panel of Nitehawk Cinema’s three-sided marquee has space for five lines of text -- perfect for a haiku: The first line’s the title, the second’s a breather space, then the final three lines are for poetry. Given Nitehawk’s adventurous movie programming, we figured they might be game for a marquee takeover during the year they were undergoing renovations. What’s been a delightful surprise is that they’ve invited us back to continue this project after reopening. Initially we focused on haiku about Brooklyn movies fromThe Warriorsto Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. but to avoid confusion for potential moviegoers, we’ve shifted to haiku on movies genres as well as playfully puzzling rhymed couplets on iconic films.
SC: How can other poets either help out with your project or learn to set their own poetry free in public?
Molly: We are thrilled when other people find a creative impulse in our projects. Earlier this year, poet TC Tolbert reached out to us via Facebook to ask about the call-in aspect for our Lost Poem flyers in order to apply it to a new, unique project. Social media’s been key to finding partners repeatedly: poet Marcus Amaker invited us to be involved in his Free Verse Festival in South Carolina after seeing our work for O, Miami.
Drew: We’ve really looked at the surrounding communities for each project too. For O, Miami, we had poems in Spanish and Creole as well as English. For Free Verse, we unearthed some dead poets from South Carolina’s past: DuBose Heyward and Lizelia Augusta Jenkins Moorer. We also did a contest on Twitter to get submissions so I’d definitely encourage people to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram via @saintflashlight. You don’t need to be a poet either. Our contributors have included visual artist Nina Katchadourian, theater publicist Jennifer Lam, and documentary archivist Christine Fall among others.
SC: Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves? Who are you? When did you realize that poetry was important?
Molly: In my core, I want to create space for playful interactions, the kind I experience within our Saint Flashlight project and, ideally, others experience when they see the poetry in the world. Outside of Drew’s and my project, I also formally support poetry by being on the board of the Poetry Project, a 50-plus year old institution based in St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, which serves as an incubator for poets and is an amazing place to hear work read multiple times a month. In another arena of my work, every few months, I convene colleagues who run the social media platforms for cultural institutions in New York City. Bringing people together is a drive of mine!
Drew: On some level, I think I’ve associated poetry with politics for a long time. Poets are truth-tellers after all. When I was in college, I spent a summer going door-to-door on behalf of US PIRG, a Naderesque advocacy organization. There were two poets/activists in that group who especially opened my mind to the power of poetry: one turned me on to Anne Sexton, the other to Walt Whitman. I think around this same time both Molly and I had both fallen under the unbreakable spell of Pablo Neruda too. Quite a summer! I started writing poetry earnestly (maybe too earnestly) around then too but it’s become much more of an obsession in the last eight years, culminating in Infinity Standing Up, my first book of sonnets.
SC: What do you think poetry is? Why public poetry?
Drew: Utter the word “poetry” and some people flinch while others smirk. Really. For some reason, we’re taught to think of this artform as snooty, dry, inaccessible, confounding, academic, boring... But just the opposite can be true. There’s nothing impenetrable or elitist about Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43.” In the case of our Movie Marquee Poems, we seized the opportunity to get whimsical haiku about popular films in people’s faces before they had time to think “I don’t like poetry.”
Molly: Drew and I have long been interested in how to meet and greet the public outside of cultural institutions, which, while they play such an important role, can be intimidating or hard to find; you need to be “in the know.” The spontaneous nature of discovering words found in the wild hopefully engages the readers’ curiosity.
Drew: For each project we come up against new challenges and opportunities. For the Lost Poem project at Free Verse, for instance, we chose to use actors instead of poets as readers since two of the writers were deceased. Our sense of silliness came out in our image choices sometimes too: My favorite photo was the one of poet Joan Larkin shoving a sandwich in her mouth.
Molly: Also whether you are reading the poem in giant letters on a marquee or listening to it on your phone, we are keenly aware that this is a very different experience than that provided by a book. When working with the writers, we make sure our guidelines have them thinking in different terms without squelching their creative processes.
SC: How would you describe the entity that is Saint Flashlight?
Drew: In some ways Saint Flashlight is an extension of our friendship. Molly and I have had an creative partnership dating back to junior high when we used to sketch portraits in my family’s basement or paint sets for a children’s theater production. The roots of Saint Flashlight specifically date back to an installation we did at Crest Hardware in Williamsburg where we wrote haiku about tools in electric tape on the walls. I confess I had one syllable too many in one of my lines but Molly’s was perfect.
Molly: Echoing what Drew said above, Saint Flashlight has evolved into a public and formal way for us to share our private, playful conversations and creative exchanges. Even the way we came up with the name is an example of our dialogue, with Drew choosing “Saint” and me picking “Flashlight’ to create a word collage that is both mysterious and odd. Having a creative partner who both makes me laugh until I cry and challenges my assumptions about what we can do, has been a beautiful foundation for our Saint Flashlight projects.