A wall of words, a burst of verse

On the Penn campus, impromptu poets are composing with magnets

The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 3, 1998

A wall of words, a burst of verse

JoAnna Turner was strolling across the sun-splashed University of Pennsylvania campus, a warm breeze coaxing the lacy shawl off her shoulders, when inspiration struck. Suddenly, she just had to stop and write a poem.

sun wind and song

Next came Hema Sarangapani, similarly moved to create.

on a falling
winter moon

"I'm from Boston," said the 19-year-old English major, explaining that "a nice winter image" seemed appropriate on such an unseasonably warm day. Everyone had the chance to be a poet yesterday on Locust Walk in the middle of campus, where a series of magnetic panels sprinkled with thousands of word tiles has been set up by Penn's Kelly Writers House. It will be up throughout April to celebrate National Poetry Month. Philadelphia is one of 15 cities taking part in the Magnetic Poetry Wall Project. The idea is to grab words -- even if you have to wreck someone else's masterpiece -- and arrange them into verse. The wall changes by the minute:

in my sad summer dreams
she fed me hot dogs

suddenly morphs into

she fed me love

as poets pinch words they need to complete their works.

Mike Taylor and his friend Maria del Pilar Freire walked up and cribbed from Turner's verse for their collaboration.

imagine pink rain
like silent screams of lazy sky light
stop slowly and soar

"I think everyone attempts something bizarre," said Freire, a senior marketing major from Panama.

How else to explain this one, by an unknown author:

dad worships sausage
like tiny sad blue
fingers and the cows cried

"'Dad worships sausage!' I love this!" exclaimed Turner, who works in clinical research at Presbyterian Medical Center. "Look how many different ways people are thinking."

"It's all about having a good time," Taylor said. "It exposes that writer within all of us."

Sophomore Jeong Youn Cho

Many who stopped at the 8-by-20-foot metal-mesh wall were veterans of the medium known as magnetic poetry, which came into vogue in late 1993. It was invented by Minneapolis songwriter Dave Kapell, who started out pasting printed words on magnets to stimulate his creative juices. The magnets ended up on his refrigerator and became so in-demand among friends and acquaintances that he started Magnetic Poetry Inc., one of the sponsors of the first-ever Penn wall.

Last year's six-city Magnetic Poetry Wall Project led to publication of the Magnetic Poetry Book of Poetry. This year's anthology will be The Kids' Book of Magnetic Poetry. The kits by Magnetic Poetry and its competitors have turned many a refrigerator into a vehicle for free verse. They come in German, Spanish, Italian, French and Yiddish and are sold in Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand. There are magnetic poetry coffee mugs and lunch boxes, as well as themed kits for children, cooks, lovers, gardeners, philosophers and fans of Shakespeare.

That last one would appeal to Jack Cannal, 78, of Glenside. As he and his wife Charlotte -- on campus to take a Greek history class -- observed the poetry in motion, Cannal felt moved to quote from one of his favorite works, Shakespeare's 30th sonnet:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Pelopidas Nicolaides, sipping a guava nectar and munching on a falafel sandwich, had friendship on his mind, too. He's a junior from Cyprus, and his poem read:

who are you
friend once

It wasn't until he finished that he realized he'd written about the fleeting nature of relationships. He'd wanted the second line to read "once a friend", but couldn't find an "a" on the board.

"Being a foreign student, I can excuse myself with bad language," he joked.

Some poets were quick, like the woman in the baseball cap and her pal who stopped by just long enough to post:

I ache
to be

One man in a tweed jacket and tie scanned the wall and walked off. "They don't have turgid," he cracked. "I can't work without it."

Others, like Alison Farber, an anthropology major from Silver Spring, MD, took their time, searching the panels for just the right sentiment. "We had this on our fridge sophomore year and I miss it," Farber said. "We were in our romantic phase then."

Now, she said, she's a reflective senior. She wrote:

luscious moon glows
she whispers to the sun
cool urges my friend

"Very nice, very nice," urged a long-haired passerby, twirling a tennis racket as he looked over her shoulder.

Not all the poetry was so ethereal. There was this titillating ditty:

put the
on his
rusty fly

By dusk last night, all the poetry -- from lewd to lovely -- was gone, and the wall was empty.

Kerry Sherin, resident coordinator at the Kelly Writers House, explained that the temptation to walk off with a favorite word would be too great, especially under cover of night.

So she and other from the Writers House will take the tiles down each evening and put them back up the next morning

Even with that precaution, tiles seemed to be vanishing. "There are fewer words than yesterday," she said. "We think they're all over refrigerators in West Philadelphia."