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Bringing poetry to the people with The Wall Poems of Charlotte

By Tyler Ferneyhough
CAJA
The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

Above the Dandelion Market in Uptown Charlotte towers a poem painted white on a black brick wall in foot-high font. “Salute,” it’s titled, by A.R. Ammons, wishing only that happiness pursue you. Whether you’re a slick-haired banker or a blue-collared worker, the mural’s hard to miss. And for Amy Bagwell, director of The Wall Poems of Charlotte project, that’s the whole point.

Between teaching classes, producing art by day, and writing poetry by night, Bagwell stays busy. The completion of “Salute” this past April marks the WPC project’s first official mural, one that features a North Carolina poet – the first, they hope, of many. For Amy, the project embodies her core philosophy: bring poetry to as many people as possible through accessible and democratic presentation.

“It’s a choice,” she says, “but it’s there if you want it. It’s the same thing as presenting them in a gallery. If you start reading one and you’re not interested, you can move on to the next one. But if you like one, you can re-read it again and again, which you can’t do at a poetry reading.”

Kenn Compton, who works on the project’s advisory board, says via email, “The most exciting aspect of this project is to see the students connect with poetry, with working on a large scale, with working on something that is both very real and so much bigger than themselves.”

Poetry infuses Bagwell’s life. She got her undergraduate degree in English at the University of Georgia, where she met her husband, Brent, a musician. Together they had a son, Charlie, who they home-school. After graduating, she worked in publishing in New York City and then as a freelance writer for years before going back to graduate school at Queens University in Charlotte in 2007. In August 2010, she started teaching at CPCC and has been there since.

Her new exhibit, “The Factories Don’t Install Emotion Tapes,” fuses words with sculpture to make poetry more accessible. One poem is labeled on a glass jar filled with blue light bulbs; another undulates across an old wooden radio like sound waves; another hides in a wooden chest, visible only through a peephole on the edge. One piece that catches the eye is “Down to a Whisper,” an open chest with a map across the bottom. A metal tornado twists along the map’s top ridge, and on the bottom left a ballerina doll lies stiffly next to Columbus, Ohio, Amy’s home town. There’s a mirror on the lid’s underside, and beside it a poem narrates a tornado chasing a woman.

One thing this piece has in common with the others is accessibility. “Poetry is way too rarified,” she says. Like jazz, it started out as the people’s art form, but now academia has co-opted it, reserving it for people with advanced degrees. “Everyone deserves access to it,” she says, “so wherever poetry can be, I think that we should put it because we can change people’s lives and we can give them a sense that we’re not alone in the world.”

Currently housed in Ross Gallery I on the CPCC campus, the exhibit runs through June 13. Not surprisingly, it’s been a long time coming.

Bagwell wrote her first poem when she was in the third grade, “and I kinda just got bitten,” she says. “I mean, I think I tried to deny it a lot. I was going to be a lawyer, but I just kept coming back to English classes in college and that was all I wanted to do.” She’s tried writing fiction in the past, but found her mind doesn’t work that way. She prefers language at its most condensed. One of her favorite poets is Robert Creeley, who she loves for his “minimal” and “tight” poems. “I’m kind of obsessed with him,” she admits, and applies this minimalist approach to her own writing. “It’s a process that you just keep at until you feel like it’s as tight as it can be, you know what I mean? So, I guess my goal with poems is to get as close to these sort of ‘moon rocks’ as possible because they have this density and right shape.”

But these “moon rocks” don’t have to exist only on paper. Amy says they can also exist on film as movie trailers, and that the best ones almost make watching the actual movie unnecessary. “You’ve gotten these perfect ideas about the people and the places and the interactions and the feelings, and the music has this particular feel,” she says. “Those trailers are like really great poems. They give you this impression and they give [you this] sense of the story, and it’s almost better if you don’t see the movie because the trailers do such a good job of capturing it.” She says though you don’t get every detail or the full story, you get snapshots that tell the story. “Looking at 10 great pictures from someone’s vacation is almost better than hearing them talk about it for an hour and a half, you know?” she says. “And that’s part of what poetry can do, is to give these wonderful glimpses that [provide] you a wonderful perspective on what the whole story is in this very distilled, reduced form.”

For Amy, a poem always starts with an image. She recalls one of her former teachers who told her that poetry started with “an abiding image, something that’s been in your head that won’t go away that’s sort of clawing at you.” As a poet whose work is so boldly visual, she believes in the importance of imagery to convey meaning. But is it the only way? “Do I think that [imagery] is the only way meaning is conveyed? I don’t think so. I mean, you can have a wonderful narrative poem potentially without any imagery at all. But, what I think imagery does is it creates a connection for the reader.” She mentions her favorite writer Flannery O’Conner, who said that the writer tries to connect two points: one that’s very close to the reader and one that’s very distant. “And an image can do that really quickly,” she says.

But beyond a poem’s images, there’s its structure as well. Compton remembers when Bagwell came to one of his topography classes to discuss the latest wall poetry project. He says one of his students was having trouble understanding the poem they were working with, then Bagwell came in. “As usual, she brought doughnuts.” he says, “She always brings doughnuts.”

She showed the class the music video for the rap group N.W.A.’s “Straight Out of Compton” to demonstrate how poets use structure to create meaning. She used a video, not a poem. “We were mesmerized,” says Compton, “and ever since the students have been finding examples of enjambment on their own to bring to class. In that one short lesson she turned visual communicators into visual poets. It was a thing to behold.”

What does the future hold for Amy? The thought raises her lips to a soft smile and she looks away as if into a dream, nodding. “More of this,” she says, “More teaching, more art, more poems, more wall poems. That’s as far as I see right now. Just more of what I’m doing right now, I hope.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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