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Update: Snow Didn't Stop Poetree Project In Forest Park

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 12, 2013 - Updated Dec. 15: New snow did affect Poetree. It brought in some people who might otherwise have not visited the installation. About 400 poems were submitted and another 600 were installed in a grove between the Art Museum and Zoo, including original works submitted to the project. 

At photographer Tom Nagel’s suggestion, historic preservationist Michael Allen mailed "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden to the mayor.

But sledders discovered the project. Goldkamp said, "They were shy. They would approach the outer boundary of poems. Then it was like a whip of the poems on ropes pulled them in! Once they got to the tent, they were entranced. That's when we'd say 'sign here!'"

Each poem was stamped and signed by the sender, many of whom used a phone book and sent poems to someone random. The organizers are talking about doing a spring edition. (Note: An earlier version of the article misstated the total installed.)

Original article: Visitors to Forest Park this Saturday in the neighborhood of the Art Museum or the Zoo will notice something very different happening on the slope of land that gently descends from the new wing of the Art Museum to the northern edge of the Zoo.

A grove of trees on that slope will be transformed – with a thousand poems on sheets of paper dangling from the tree branches.

Poetree logo/ barren tree with poem hanging
Credit Kristen O'Loughlin

This one-day installation is all part of a citywide public art effort called the Poetree Project created by Mallory Nezam and Henry Goldkamp.

Those who visit the trees bearing the poems on Saturday will be invited to pluck a poem and mail it to a friend or even a complete stranger – using pre-stamped envelopes provided at the event.

Nezam, founder and director of STL Improv Anywhere, has brought global happenings such as the, “No Pants Subway Ride” to MetroLink and “International Pillow Fight Day” to St. Louis in 2012 and made them annual events.

Goldkamp, profiled previously for his work as the creator of Fresh Poetry, Ink as well as his recent project, “What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking?” is a steadfast believer in the power that poetry and words can bring to everyday life – and especially in building community.

Nezam and Goldkamp recently talked about coming together to make the project a reality, as well as their underlying belief in community art.

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve been interested in all kinds of art forms,” Nezam said. “And I know I have an entrepreneur aspect in my personality as well -- in terms of sharing art. I love people and I love community art.”

St. Louis is Nezam’s hometown, but she attended Occidental College in California, and a 2006 research grant took her to El Salvador, where she began working on community art projects.

“I did a research project studying how art can heal,” she said. “The civil war in El Salvador had broken the communities there; and through a photography project, I learned the explicit power of art, especially when people in the community are involved in its creation.”

Nezam came up with the concept of the Poetree Project several years ago, but knew that the scope of the event she envisioned demanded a partner to make it happen. As it turned out, Goldkamp was the ideal candidate – and he jumped at the opportunity.

“I’ve had the idea in the back of my head for three years in pretty full form,” Nezam said. “I wanted to have people send in their own poems or choose their favorites, then collect them, then have a ‘harvest’ – have people come to a location to choose them then share them with others.”

Selling a concept

Nezam knew of Goldkamp’s community art efforts involving poetry and set up a meeting to discuss the possibility of working together on the Poetree Project.

photo fo mallory nezam and henry goldkamp
Credit Carly Hilo
Mallory Nezam and Henry Goldkamp presided over a kickoff for the Poetree Project at Sasha's on Shaw.

“We started with a simple meeting this past June,”   Goldkamp said during a conversation at a South Grand coffee house. “Mallory saw that we could probably work well together. We’re both very much into public art and participatory projects that make arts more accessible. And we both want to create ways so that you don’t have to seek art out; it will come to you.

“When she explained the concept, I was blown away. I was hooked immediately by the imagery of snow on the ground and poems hanging from trees. So I said ‘Let’s do it!’ But we had to put it on the back burner after that initial meeting. I had to wrap up my ‘What the Hell’ project before we started working on this.”

The Poetree Project fit ideally into Goldkamp’s deep-seated love of poetry – and his commitment to the printed word, especially in terms of letter writing.

“I’ve loved poetry since I was a little kid,” he said. “And I ended up doing Fresh Poetry, Ink because I lived in New Orleans for a couple years and saw people on the street in Jackson Square and the Quarter writing flash fiction erotica. So I decided to do something similar by writing poetry on the spot on the street.

“I want to spend my days reading and writing poetry. Compared to other art forms, it’s like heroin to me! I can’t stop, and I can’t think of anything more beautiful. The written word is the medium for me, and I want to keep the art of letter writing alive, too. So this is a great project for me.”

Building support

Once Nezam and Goldkamp decided to combine their efforts to make the Poetree Project a reality, they worked to gain funding from community businesses – and support from the city.

The fact that the Poetree Project was designed to happen in a public park in winter made it even more appealing to city officials according to Nezam.

“In a meeting at City Hall about art programming in public spaces, I mentioned it as a possibility,” Nezam said. “There was a lot of excitement about it because it involved getting people out for an event during the winter.”

“Catherine Werner of the mayor’s office was very excited when we told her about the idea,” Goldkamp said. “She contacted the Forestry Department,” and its workers will install the poems in the trees.”

Nezam also used her community connections to reach out to local businesses to help sponsor the project and serve as locations for fundraisers. A kick-off fundraiser at Sasha’s on Shaw in November was a key part of getting the word out in collecting poems for the project.

“We’re really happy with response,” says Goldkamp. “We have 300 poems so far through post and email, and they’re still coming in. I have to say I prefer getting the poems through the post –the written word is just more beautiful to me.

“We’ll be installing 1,000 poems total, and we’ll even have a kid’s poem tree too with about 50 to 100 poems that will be hung lower so they’ll be within their reach.

One requirement

Goldkamp said the only stipulation regarding people selecting a poem is that they must mail it to someone while they are at the tree grove that day.

“If you pluck a poem and remove it from installation, then and there is only time you have alone with the poem,” he said. We’ll have a mailing station with custom stamps and envelopes designed by Kirsten O'Loughlin – who also designed the Poetree Project logo. You can decide whom you want to send the poem to. Or we’ll also have telephone books there for random sending. You can run your finger down the page and say, ‘I think Wyatt in Maryland Heights needs a poem.’ It’s all about sending the poems back out into the world.

“Mallory sees the project as a metaphor of poetry as fruit -- sowing the seeds and scattering them back out. And it’s also exciting that’s happening in the dead of winter. The actual installation is for the brave – those willing to take on cold weather. But I think it’s going to be beautiful. If it were just poems hanging from trees alone, that would be enough. I’d be content to watch the poems sway in the wind for eight hours!”

The Poetree Project is the first major collaboration for Nezam and Goldkamp, and both plan to work together in the future and continue their individual projects.

“We’ll be doing another project in the spring,” Nezam said. “We’ll announce it right after the Poetree Project. And I hope to continue with a new series of projects that will involve parks, carrying through that aspect of this event.”

“I’ve got a new project, but it’s a secret,” says Goldkamp with a laugh. “It came to me yesterday at 4:30 in morning. I’m constantly thinking about words, so let’s just say metaphor will be involved!”


Poetree Project Facebook page

Poetree Project blog

Mallory Nezam

Henry Goldkamp’s Fresh Poetry Ink


The Poetree Project

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.. Saturday Dec. 14.

Where: Forest Park, the tree groves between the Art Museum and the Zoo.

Cost: Free