Write For Your City

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“I guess when you're a poet laureate you're a poet for a particular group of people,” said Paul Willis. “It makes you think of the whole community, and how poetry can be part of their lives.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing poet Paul Willis recently. Paul is the current poet laureate of Santa Barbara, California, the city in which I grew up. We will run the interview later this week, but I wanted to share this quote because it reveals an opportunity for writers.

What if you wrote for your city? To your city? How would that change your voice?

City by Michael Shane

Poets once were the servants of kings and princes. They wrote the histories of the people, speeches for the great events, and sometimes, when the occasion called for it, a good ol' fashioned drinking song.

In a way, their words were food for the community.

I once wrote a prose poem to a group of friends. Sitting around a table full of Italian food, I read it to them. Never has anyone listened so intently to anything I've written. Since they knew it was for them, for them alone, they engaged with it more deeply than if it were written to some abstract audience.

What if you made yourself the unofficial poet laureate for your city? What would you write?

You could write about love, betrayal, joy, fear, peace, anger.

But most of all, your words would be a gift for the community, food for their lives. “Life isn't a support system for art,” said Stephen King. “It's the other way around.”

What if your writing could support the life of your community?

PRACTICE

Write something for your city. What will you say?

How will you support the life of your community?

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, we'd love to read what you've written in the comments.

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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17 Comments

  1. Guest

    Like the two mighty rivers that converge on her banks, Saint Louis runs through me. Two powerful, muddy rivers have given her life and yet sought to kill her, but she has endured both flood and drought. St. Louis is the aging queen afloat in the middle of the Mississippi, waving to the shore. Is she waving to her subjects or is she signaling a call for help? Is she emerging from the waters as the phoenix from the fire, or is she slowly descended into the depths totally unaware?
    My hometown is proud. Her past is grand. Westward adventures and world expositions have been the foundation in which she plants her deep roots. Yet, I fear perhaps her sense of denial has kept her from looking far enough down the river to see what is yet to come. Does she see the decay and the rust that bobs along the river’s edge? Does she see the poverty that has bred pirates and slaves? Is she equipped to deal with such blight, or will she turn her face away, unable to recognize the truth?
    Only time will tell if she sinks or swims. But for now, her passengers continue to work and play. They find the joy in simple gifts, like baseball and beer. They enjoy their summer evenings with frozen treats and dogs on leash. They experience family and community in the midst of the struggle to stay afloat and buoyant. Her subjects are good people with a fine proud history, but they also are beginning to recognize the need to plan for their arrival to a future destination.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      “Saint Louis runs through me.” I love that LINE tdub. Man it’s so good. I also like your reference to “baseball and beer,” mostly because I’ve seen Saint Louis kill my Dodgers way too many times.

      I would have liked you to get into the specifics a little more. You have these beautiful metaphors, but I would like to see you develop those metaphors with concrete visuals. What do the two rivers look like, for example? Does trash bob along their banks? Are they brown or blue? Show me a boat or two that slide along its surface. What, in other words, is beautiful about them? What is ugly?

      One thing Paul told me as I interviewed him, the more he gets into the specifics of his own life, somehow the more universal the poem becomes.

      Reply
      • Charlotte Hyatt

        I thought that was tremendous for 15 minutes of writing.

        Reply
    • Kiki Stamatiou

      Captivating imagery within this well crafted piece of prose. There is a strong emotional connection between the narrator and the readers particularly when it the piece it asks the question of the city seeing her own decay, and asking other profound questions. This what truly brings out the human side of the overall piece. Beautifully mastered, overall. Well Done.

      Reply
  2. tdub

    Like the two mighty rivers that converge on her banks, Saint Louis runs through me. Two powerful, muddy rivers have given her life and yet sought to kill her, but she has endured both flood and drought. St. Louis is the aging queen afloat in the middle of the Mississippi, waving to the shore. Is she waving to her subjects or is she signaling a call for help? Is she emerging from the waters as the phoenix from the fire, or is she slowly descended into the depths totally unaware?
    My hometown is proud. Her past is grand. Westward adventures and world expositions have been the foundation in which she plants her deep roots. Yet, I fear perhaps her sense of denial has kept her from looking far enough down the river to see what is yet to come. Does she see the decay and the rust that bobs along the river’s edge? Does she see the poverty that has bred pirates and slaves? Is she equipped to deal with such blight, or will she turn her face away, unable to recognize the truth?
    Only time will tell if she sinks or swims. But for now, her passengers continue to work and play. They find the joy in simple gifts, like baseball and beer. They enjoy their summer evenings with frozen treats and dogs on leash. They experience family and community in the midst of the struggle to stay afloat and buoyant. Her subjects are good people with a fine proud history, but they also are beginning to recognize the need to plan for their arrival to a future destination.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      “Saint Louis runs through me.” I love that LINE tdub. Man it’s so good. I also like your reference to “baseball and beer,” mostly because I’ve seen Saint Louis kill my Dodgers way too many times.

      I would have liked you to get into the specifics a little more. You have these beautiful metaphors, but I would like to see you develop those metaphors with concrete visuals. What do the two rivers look like, for example? Does trash bob along their banks? Are they brown or blue? Show me a boat or two that slide along its surface. What, in other words, is beautiful about them? What is ugly?

      One thing Paul told me as I interviewed him, the more he gets into the specifics of his own life, somehow the more universal the poem becomes.

      Reply
  3. Joe Bunting

    Okay, I wrote this today reflecting on this idea. What do you think?

    I’m not much of a poet. Please be gentle with it.

    Where are you, Gainesville?

    Do you see the white bird
    in the red branches of the shrub
    I don’t know the name of?

    Or the pile of dead leaves pushed
    down the hill, sprinkled
    with orange soda cans?

    And do you see the hill quilted
    with yellow flowers—if you look
    closely at each flower, the size
    of an ant, the shape of a stretched-long bell—
    did you see the millions of them?
    Where are your eyes?

    Where are your eyes and where are your feet?
    Do you see God playing the flute in those red branches?
    Do you see God singing a dirge in the pile of dead leaves?

    And Gainesville, do you see the old man dressed in a gown?
    Do you see the old woman sitting in a wheelchair?
    Do they line the halls? Do they cover their faces with dead stares?
    Do they watch television? Do they wait to die?

    Old man of Gainesville, will you teach us to dance?
    Old woman of Gainesville, will you teach us to see
    the white bird in the red branches of the shrub I don’t know the name of?

    Will teaching teach you to see for yourselves?

    Reply
  4. Joe Bunting

    Okay, I wrote this today reflecting on this idea. What do you think?

    I’m not much of a poet. Please be gentle with it.

    Where are you, Gainesville?

    Do you see the white bird
    in the red branches of the shrub
    I don’t know the name of?

    Or the pile of dead leaves pushed
    down the hill, sprinkled
    with orange soda cans?

    And do you see the hill quilted
    with yellow flowers—if you look
    closely at each flower, the size
    of an ant, the shape of a stretched-long bell—
    did you see the millions of them?
    Where are your eyes?

    Where are your eyes and where are your feet?
    Do you see God playing the flute in those red branches?
    Do you see God singing a dirge in the pile of dead leaves?

    And Gainesville, do you see the old man dressed in a gown?
    Do you see the old woman sitting in a wheelchair?
    Do they line the halls? Do they cover their faces with dead stares?
    Do they watch television? Do they wait to die?

    Old man of Gainesville, will you teach us to dance?
    Old woman of Gainesville, will you teach us to see
    the white bird in the red branches of the shrub I don’t know the name of?

    Will teaching teach you to see for yourselves?

    Reply
  5. Kiki Stamatiou

    Prompt #12: Kalamazoo, Michigan (My City And Home Town)
    By Kiki Stamatiou a. k. a. Joanna Maharis

    It was the spring of 1980. I had a Girl Scout meeting to attend in the evening. I was on the top floor of Old Kalamazoo Central, in a room with my two leaders and a group of 30 other girls. We were discussing our upcoming camping trip, and making sit-upons, when the siren buzzed through our ears. It was the alarm for tornado alert.

    The leaders gathered all of us girls into the hallway with textbooks we took out of our nap sacks, so we could place them over our heads and necks. Our meeting was scheduled to take place directly after school, so we had our textbooks with us.

    Some of the girls needed to be calmed down, because they were screaming and crying. Although tears filled my eyes, I didn’t dare make a sound, for fear I wouldn’t be able to control my emotions. Like those girls, I was so scared. I was living a nightmare.

    The building shook.

    I saw my aunt and my mother running down the hallway. They grabbed a hold of me with my belongings and hauled me out of there.

    “You’re coming directly home with us, Kiki. I don’t know why you two women didn’t cancel the meeting tonight. Don’t you know there is a tornado going on out there,” my mother shouted to the leaders while hauling me away with my aunt.

    “I can’t let any of you go out there right now, Mrs. Stamatiou. You’re safer here, indoors than you are outside,” one of the leaders told my mother in a stern manner.

    My mother and my aunt ignored the woman, and took me down the stairs with them.

    When we got outside of the building, the winds were strong. I thought for sure we were going to either fall down or be carried away with the winds.

    We hurried into my mother’s car, and my mother drove us home.

    Luckily, we lived only three or four blocks away.

    We went directly into the basement where my grandmother, great-grandfather, and father waited for us with my brothers. They listened intently to the radio.

    The Kalamazoo Center Holiday Hilton Hotel was badly damaged. Many homes in the downtown area were destroyed. Trees were uplifted. But our house and my grandmother’s home went unscathed. Many of the other homes further into the downtown area weren’t so lucky.

    I remember praying so hard that night we would all be safe and sound, and that our loved ones would survive and not lose their lives.

    The only damage down to our property was to some of our plants, shrubbery and bushes.

    My father said it was okay. We could always be new plants to put into the ground, as long as our home was still standing and went unscathed.

    One family who was one of our dearest friend’s said one of there trees was badly damaged. The man cried, because limbs were broken off of his favorite tree. His wife told him he should get down on his hands and knees and thank God the tree was the only thing to be destroyed. She said at least they themselves were alright and survived the tornado, and still had a roof over there heads. She was thankful also about their home going unscathed.

    © Copyright, Kiki Stamatiou, 2015

    Reply
  6. Ashley Doza

    Ok – be gentle, I am no poet!

    The shape of our state can be found in so many forms
    Here and there on a necklace, on a shirt
    A string of buckeyes lying on the bright green grass
    As the sun rises, bringing a wind cooler than it should be

    The aftermath of a football game shows itself
    In the form of red cups and a can of beer
    And here and there a student, loyally picking the trash up
    Displaying a big block “O” on her sweater
    And shielding herself from that unexpected cold

    Further south, into downtown, lights come on in galleries
    Patrons abound flock to coffee shops
    The city beginning to awaken even now
    Quietly talking, in bright clothes and with brighter eyes
    They somehow seem to be trying to remain unnoticed

    The cold wind warms as the sun comes up
    Sweaters falling to the ground reveal summer clothes beneath
    Though a foreign man eyes the distant clouds suspiciously
    Wondering what the weather will bring next

    A stray cat eyes what little trash she can find
    But skitters away as a group comes around the corner
    Bustling into the hole-in-the-wall, they wave to a waitress they know
    She smiles as she prepares to serve brunch

    Reply
  7. grantburkhardt

    Yeeks, yikes, poetry punctuation kills me. So please ignore my wild attempts to get it right. This is called “Pittsburgh.”

    Here, tradition is justification
    for illiteracy,
    for color,
    for everything

    Here, the history is one of
    black smoke filling lungs
    suffocating streetlights
    soot-caked faces of dim people

    We remember then with fondness
    because still now
    under the smog
    our collars are blue

    It’s no matter to many how
    bright the bridges or
    clean the rivers or
    stunning the skyline or
    the buildings

    It’s not known that here, our
    fresh art is hidden by the
    monstrous and incessant stadia,
    Out of sight unless you incline

    Here, our pride is housed in
    a word, existing nowhere else;
    a contraction
    meaning you and meaning all.
    I dare not even write it here
    for fear of scorn and
    having to cut out my own tongue

    That word
    that dumbing word
    is weaved into our strands
    trickling down, down below
    to the kids, who then seem
    older than they really are,
    unstoppable,
    a comet

    Here, I am
    home, though,
    gliding through the dim tunnel and
    out into a bursting humanity

    Up above, on the mount
    looking down, its shine
    glistens off three rivers
    and endless gold bridges

    Here, the sky is blue
    and has always been blue

    Reply
    • Christine Marcoux Bingham

      the contrast is fantastic. Kept me reading to the end to find out the opposites of your world that need each other to survive. Well done.

      Reply
  8. Nadia

    In the northern part of New York, I lived a distant life. In the cold weather, I shoveled the snow off my front step. I thought to myself, about my home. The one-o-one on my town was that there were probably 100 people living here. Everyone knew everyone’s faces, everyone’s names. Recently, the mayor, a small, old man, had decided to put the first traffic light on our main street. It was a run down thing, the yellow light not working and the other lights dimmed. There was an old dairy queen too, a place where all he kids hung out after school. I pushed some murky brown hair out of my face, feeling as if I was in Florida summer from all the shoveling I had done. I looked at my work. I was sure everyone today was shoveling the walks, trying to get rid of the damned snow while kids ran around in the streets because of the snow day. Mrs. Wright walked by the gate, waving with the old, frail that she has. I waved back, smiling. Sure, Manhattan was just an hour drive away, yet I liked my old town a whole lot better.

    Reply
  9. Will

    This old city lies on the curve of a shoreline. Its limbs wade lazily with the swell of the ocean. Sea breeze runs through every street: the people here are its children, fishmongers, boat-builders, bridge-crossers. They live in a great port.

    The city’s physical charms fade with its advanced age: old churches decay, elaborate frescoes peel off, every trace of abundance or wealth vanishes with time. Yet it still seduces foreign boats, and they enter it with lustful passion for the ancient rite of commerce. It is a power only seen in ports, those cities who can shed every one of the in-land’s notions of cleanliness, riches and propriety, and still claim loudly that they are grand. However poor they may be, this city’s old organs still breathe.

    Misery, which wrecks the world, is to be found here too. How many families have been split by the unpredictable tides, or bad trade, or by the criminals who prowl the streets? How many women have packed themselves into the sealed off garden hedges or the alleyways leading from the dock, hoping to lure some sailors? How many times have we not gone to the street to scream our protest? That God has forsaken us, that the boats have forgotten us, that money has escaped us. How much blood has been spilled on our streets?

    It is a city too old to say anything. Far too many things, good and bad, have happened here. The children who are born are destined to stay poor, or leave the land of their ancestors. It is a city whose seeds have sailed all across the world.

    Reply
  10. Lele Lele

    It wasn’t really a city. Less urban, more rural. Only the commercial area had concrete roads. And lots of trash. People also I guess.

    The mayor’s probably corrupt. He and he’s cronies are running the city from the moment he wore a diaper. It’s okay I guess. We’re not living in dirt. Well, not me I suppose. Who cares about other people?

    The schools are pretty subpar. Colleges here will land you a job serving burgers. Would you like fries with that. People here, they work in farms. But we’re not really good at that, aren’t we?

    I don’t feel a sense of community. There’s no tradition. No legends or myths. Maybe there is. It’s just not as cool. It’s a hodgepodge of people who migrated, wanting to find work and make lives for themselves.

    We should keep fighting. One thing I learned from all these failures. Don’t give up. Just don’t. I can’t promise it would get better but it would keep things from getting worse. Who cares if other places look down on us? They may have better schools, roads and prettier politicians but we’re still here right?

    It might get better. But it definitely wouldn’t be if we just stop trying and not give a damn. The schools, the schools, they’re important. We should improve our education. Let’s help each other help ourselves. The morrow will be dark but let’s stock up on candles or if you have money flashlights and batteries.

    I see children dirty on the streets playing in the dirt. It’s not really that bad. Boys and Girls and allowed to be Boys and Girls. We should still help them grow them to be their best. It might be too late for you and me but it’s still not for them.

    Will our city/town be great? Will it be written in the history books lauded by critics for decades? Will we erect large statues that you can see from the Moon? I mean, it might be cool. But who cares?

    Let’s be our best, work our best, try our hardest. We’ll write our own history books. We’ll mold miniature statues that best represents ourselves. We’ll hold beauty contests to elect our stupid politicians.

    I mean, don’t chase greatness. Just do your best, work your best. Put in 110% and we’ll be our better selves and the city would rise after us. Greatness may or may not follow. Who cares?

    Reply
  11. Bex

    Hi everyone, I’ve never tried to write anything and I’m not really much of a writer but I’ll try my best :>
    I’m a Vietnamese student and I’m living in Ho Chi Minh City. You can look it up on Wiki but I bet all you can find are some long, tiring histories about Vietnam. I’ve never really thought of writing for my city or how will I support it, but now that I think about it, I love my city so much that I think I’ll be homesick for it after 3 weeks away.
    There are a lot of things about Ho Chi Minh city that I want to write about, but one of the things I like about this city, are the Mohur flowers. When summer comes and you can find the crickets making that cheerful cricking songs, loud enough to wake up the whole city. That’s when the Mohur flowers bloom. Each and every lops of the tree are filled with red flowers, it’s like the branch is filled with little red flame which make the weather feels even hotter. I can still feel the heat and that salty sweats on my face even when I’m siting here in the air-condition writing this peace. But that’s not the best part. You can also use its petals to make a decoration. I can still remember myself trying to get the most beautiful Mahur petals to stick it in my notebooks. Pretty fun if you ask me. It’s really sad that I don’t do it anymore. Probably none of my friends are doing it, or perhaps I’m too old for that now.

    Reply
  12. Christine Marcoux Bingham

    My City
    by Christine Bingham

    We stood in the drizzle,
    Talked of dear friends,
    Long time friends.
    Twenty years plus.
    Healing hearts.

    She headed home,
    I turned into the store.
    Rushed my purchases,
    Conscious of the time:
    Almost five.

    Stepped out and looked up and down:
    Spa, Zen, Olive’s; Deli, Bagels.
    Crossed over to the alley,
    Into the quiet,
    The calm.

    The late September rain,
    All those backyards,
    Their green foliage,
    Muddy patches,
    Memories.

    Many times have these alleys, with all their majestic importance,
    concealed me as I passed through the streets of this city.
    Many a Saturday morning was spent seeking their solitude
    as they governed my travels to precious destinations.
    The museums, the market, the library: from past to present,
    this city has always been here for the taking.

    Finally, back at home,
    Dinner is ready.
    Turning on the local news:
    AAHHH the stadium debate.

    Here we go again…

    Reply

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