I’ve always been drawn to the notion of the poet as cartographer, a maker of maps.
—Frank Sherlock, Philadelphia’s 2014-2015 Poet Laureate
What do you see when you walk out your front door? What would you like to see? What does your block mean to you? These are the questions former poet-in-chief Frank Sherlock asked of the city when he created Write Your Block as a way for Philadelphians to explore their neighborhoods via poetry, charting—and sharing—their communities through their own words. The result: A map of Philadelphia that is not rivers and parks and streets, but ideas and memories and dreams for neighborhoods through the people who know them best.
Like Simone in Mantua, in May 2015: “This place is the coldest / dampest place I’ve / ever been.” And Tiana A., in Germantown: “My block is nice, more than twice. / I see wires. What do I admire?” And Gianna, in North Philly: “Plants people rocks playgrounds wood Robert’s mobile car / Swigs vans steps sun money trees clouds chips and bars / Church leaves grass lights buildings benches lights poles / Baby gates paper pants coats flowers stores rope from a roof.”
Write Your Block was originally inspired by The City Real and Imagined (Heretical Texts/Factory School, 2010), a collaborative work from Sherlock and CAConrad, in which the two poets wandered the city, using poetry to map their path and articulate their interaction with urban space. In Sherlock’s two years as Poet Laureate, he led poetry workshops and inspired others, in Mantua and North Philly and Germantown.
Originally a project with the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Write Your Block lives on at The Citizen. We invite you to submit your own poem about your own neighborhood, and to read the portraits of the communities around you, from the people who live there. View the printed collection of some poems from Write Your Block; some will be posted on The Citizen in the weeks to come.
You can also download a toolkit for organizing your own neighborhood workshop.
Write Your Block Poems
Write Your Block
Along our fence at the end of the row, facing
toward the Acme parking lot, they come and
drink. Six or eight men, drunk all day, standing
at nobody’s idea of attention or lounging
on concrete parking barriers. They play the dozens
in increasing volume and crudeness as the 40s
decrease, and that is when our telephone rings.
“How’s the language?” asks Mrs. Powhattan.
From around the bend I watch her come, a speck
of eighty years old and her head eye-level with a
a man’s belly button. She needs her cane,
her arthritis curls her, but to me she is storming
forward. At her approach the men stand up, shift
from foot to foot, wary and bleary. Her words
knife through their mumbled protests and apologies.
“This is a decent neighborhood with children
in it,” and on and on until they persuade her they
will mind their tongues–and they do–or they stumble
up the alley to grace another spot or, at last, they retreat
home, fall into bed, and dream of dragons.
I am from fresh air and trees swaying
In the wind.
I am from birds chirping their happy song.
I am from scurrying squirrels and children
I am from cool air and sun mixing like
The sweet silence and happy noise.
I am from my dog pulling me along with
Laughter all the way
I am from the few cars turning into traffic
Almost as fast as lightning.
I am from Philly
Moms grilled cheese is as soft as a pillow.
I hear birds chirping in the trees
Kids playing in the street as the
Cars drive by. The sweet air smells
Better. The cold air makes me feel
I am at Linwood Park! I smell flowers.
I am at Linwood Park! I taste gold fish.
I am at Linwood Park! I feel chalk.
I am at Linwood Park! I hear bees.
I am at Linwood Park! I see the red wall &
My secret hideout (and people playing)
I’m from green trees with
Leaves, from warm air and peaceful bees.
The traffic light that changes too fast
For many cars to pass.
I’m from the scent of fresh brown
Mulch and growing grass. The spring
Air and flowers and the different plants.
Some have great yellow blossoms with
Strong scents, some pink ones with a
I’m from the buzz of
Bumble bees and blue birds covered
In bright feathers. I can hear the
Cheers of children playing in the park
I’m from the warm grass and
Sunshine. From the share bushes and
Rough concrete. I am from soft air.
I’m from Ardmore!
I’m from dark chocolate smoother then sweet
I’m from Federal donuts sweet as
I’m from my mom’s clean car clean
As my clean room
I’m from the kids playing on the
Sidewalk laughing like a hyena
I’m from a yellow door and skinny short trees.
I’m from a quit house, with nice smelling food.
I’m from sweet and chewy candy on a soft
I’m from many stores, selling food and clothing
With their doors open to welcome people
I’m from people talking about what they’re
Going to do that day
I’m from food stores, with many pizzerias,
Sandwich shops, and Starbucks
I’m from a place where there is always
Something fun happenings
I’m from a smelly and great place
Where there is the horrible
Smell of gasoline, and great
smell of pizza from Stella’s.
I live in Francisville.
Where I’m not allowed after dark
I taste pizza
The cold day
Once in a town it was very cold there.
The Coolor family had a sun named Mat.
Mat felt cold, it was too windy. He had
A frost bite on his leg. He felt the frost
On his lips. It tasted very salty. The
Smell of the hot Cocoa stand next door
Made him feel just a bit better. He bumped
Into a steamy hole but he helped
Himself. Finally he went inside in his
Warm house. The end.
I’m from Little lands
Dogs barking. Stone. Flowers.
I am from squirrels and birds climbing trees,
From fire burning on a cold day,
From the wind and the sun,
From dogs big and small, doors shutting and cars moving like
As loud as thunder on a rainy day.
I am from neighbors and friends,
And the best neighborhood ever!
I’m from cracked sidewalks, landscaping lots, highway and stores. I‘m from
Fried chicken, pine trees and beautiful flowers, from cold railing and red, rough
Bricks. I’m from water, candy, Italian hoagies and granola. From people talking,
To birds chirping and loud jack hammers.
Pollo: 43rd and Chestnut, July to October, 2015 (West Philadelphia)
by Jane-Rebecca Cannarella
Behind the Dialysis Center
in the lawn – across from the Shoppin’ Bag
my boyfriend told me he saw a chicken. Just wandering.
It was Fourth of July
and he had smoked a bowl
so I thought he meant those big turkeys that come back every summer.
You mean one of those turkeys?
No. A chicken.
I went to the laundromat near the Chinese food place I never go to
and there was a rooster – his gate a clipped strut.
Stopping. Peck. Peck. Peck.
Then more strides
walking toward the back of the Restaurant School.
Like a challenge. Like a rooster with a dare, tail feathers swinging like popular girls’ ponytails in middle school.
We told our neighbors about him, the summer everyone sat on the stoop
drinking Scotch from coffee cups filled with ice.
We called him Pollo
a name we pulled from a comic we picked up from Locust Moon.
Sometimes he was in the lot near the mural
– the one that has mosaic tiles
on the building that caught fire in 2012.
We listened for him when he went missing.
Swore we heard him hiding in the bushes.
Mourned when we thought one of the feral cats got him.
He reappeared a day in early October.
running triumphantly across the seeded lawn of the same Dialysis Center.
His tail feathers streaming behind him.
It was the last we saw of him.
Someone swore he entered the opened door to the crumbling Christ Memorial Church.
And Pollo made us believe in transmogrification.
Projects to College in North Philly
by Ameenah Hankins
Running for the C reminds me
of the days when the 23 was built on
cobblestones, pretty rocks,
and Richard Allen.
At the tip, the Divine Lorraine Hotel
bore my name.
I learned to spell it perfectly
before I was was 4..
I could see my alma mater outside the windows
of Mary Channing Wister Elementary School.
It now hosts significant legacies and space
between the C and the 23
which makes it awesome and
a very special place.
A landmark -
All over the world.
People call it Temple.
Jasper & Venango: Summer Evening
by Leonard Kress
Next block a man bullhorns his Rosaries,
Hail Mary, full of grace crackles through
the alleyway. Drenched in their own sweet dew
the neighbors sit on stoops, await the breeze
that never stirs. And from the boarded store,
huge boxes blare Break on through, as shirtless
boys exchanging taunts without success
slurp, then stack by the gutter cans of beer.
The boredom grows more great along the block.
The toxic stench from Bridesburg incinerates
the air, now fully marbleized from pig stock-
yards. A child’s punished cry lacerates
the frail gardenia stem my wife just potted.
Before I sleep I hear Pray for the Brokenhearted.
NORTH PHILLY YEAH!
by Angela Hankins
‘Know Who You Are: A North Philly Don
(written to inspire and uplift residents in N. Philadelphia)
As long as you know who you are
You’ll be a step ahead!
Being you is the only path
you really have to tread!
Dealing with your loved ones,
co-workers, friends or lover.
Just be you and you’ll be sure
to more than just get over.
Never need you hover
below your expectations -
Underneath your dreams!
Your unique self it seems
and gives you a sense of strength –
Power like a King -
Confidence immense –
Be who you are!
Baby please -
Do not change a thing!
You will love results of
what being yourself can bring.
If our roads are altered
by some circumstance of living -
that we cannot control or change -
or makes us just stop giving
Our best –
Our honest heartfelt best
effort to possess success.
Know who you are!
Just be you -
and you will do that best!
‘North Philly Diva’
North Philly Diva!
I’ve got my education!
Dangerous as can be
With Master Certification
in dealing with issues
I need to correct
My Ancestors’ legacy
Get their respect.
North Philly Diva
going though stuff
that let’s a Diva know
that her game is not enough–
So I step it up -
Pep it up –
Look at me –
I kept it up –
My Head, My crown,
My Pain around my tears
is what my north Philly song’s made of
That’s what North Philly’s made of!
Divas like Me!
North Philly Diva!
Smart as can be!
‘School House Celebration’
(written for students and families in N. Philadelphia to encourage improvement and positive changes: grades, attendance, being involved…).
CHARACTER: Little D (short for Diva) or Baby Cool (male) - a brilliant student that wears sunglasses, has a cool book bag, excellent diction, is confident, well groomed, smooth and classy.
This poetry is rhythmic, feels like a song.
Deep down inside I know I can compete
All I’ve got to do is keep my mind off of the streets.
Hyped, feeling educated
Hearty, a real smarty!
Plus it’s a new year so - Let’s have a party!
Let’s celebrate new teachers – new classes!
New books, new pencils and effort that passes
Me! Excellent! Studying! Ready!
progress noticeable and steady!
Let’s celebrate science and reading
Writing, math… and me leading
My parents helping me – No TV
Is gonna come between my education and me!
I’m making changes – I’m a real smarty
So educated – my school house party
It starts with me, my parents and home
Got some new stuff.. so Let’s get it on!
This party starts with me!
untitled (Whitman-South Philly)
by Jasmin Romero
Southern hospitality and sweet tea
Lawns of real green grass and the smell of the air right before a thunderstorm
Distant memories as flat boots pound pavement. No place to put bare feet.
Harsh and hard accents all at midnight.
Trash day fills the air.
TUESDAY NIGHT DARTS AT O'JUNGS (Pennsport)
by John Cassidy
Hank Henry sat on his beach chair,
parked near the street curb,
unthreading a tie.
Squinting, a Pall Mall stuck to his lip,
he watched the ambulance creep by.
“That’s the third time this month,
that new apartment complex,
had someone go bottom up,”
Hank Henry thought to himself
and took a thick swig of whiskey
(he’d mixed with diet pepsi
swirled in a big gulp
he filled at the 7-11 by the bus stop
and combined in the bathroom
a bottle produced from his pocket
He felt stealthy.
Hank Henry harrumphed and let his mind wander to darts.
“In just a few hours, the B-Team championship starts.”
1100 Spruce Street
by Katie Martin
A transient block of students, revelers, patients, and healers;
A golden path strewn by silent sentries who have stood vigil since gas lamps flickered;
A lonely, stifling night where prostitutes and celebrators mingle while the others sleep.
Each morning, two-wheeled urban enthusiast hoards travel west; millennial dogs in sweater vests travel east. The wafting coffee and chess through our Greenstreet (meeting place) and breakfast sandwiches at our Rana (meeting place) divide old and new, young and aged, wealthy and eager.
Center City both discourages and invites neighbors. Know self and community but don’t look into their eyes. Have strong opinions while flying through and never staying. This block is home but temporary. Will the next see the decaying rot underneath the charade of wine bar living rooms?
by Ernest Hilbert
The men sift the ash of an incinerated Victorian
For the clink of coin or cufflink,
Some remnant in the wreckage
One might don or exchange once more.
Embers of dandelion
Are dimmed as the slow breeze spreads
Soot along the block, to porches, sills,
Soft gray clovers of cats’ paws.
Run-on #5 (Northbound, Route 23 - 11th & Mifflin)
by Angelo Colavita
The bus stops
Heroines (Kensington Sapphic)
by Angelo Colavita
Come cold July, fronted bundles lack the legs
they once had a month ago, taken in vein
back in June - back when you could still draw some blood
without much effort.
The streetcorners lousy with merchants and dead
-faced, angel-eyed, ghosts of our loved and young
Blind for poison pin-prick needle-beetles
crawling just beneath.
Just beyond reach and veiled before reason
Well into August we will carry the chill
Below warmer suns and down darker alleys,
My neighborhood/writeyourblock (Kensington)
my neighborhoods in transition but nonone can see it that way
where with mundane & content or where inebriated & free
just down the street gentrifucation procalls the
the art and the business draw me but my pockets falt me & i go back to kensington
my neigborhoods in transition but were to boxed in to see we cant make a move when no one chooses to see
i just moved here & im happy to be
but i know in 2 years this will no longer be heavy populated by spanish decent bc the people the powers can be who want it can write a check that we cant cash so displacement & desolance will be our last meal
of our last night @ our family table
the one where my neighbors children grown from fist to navel they now attend school and soon to will move on bc we all share time but not the power to see it wrong or right bc this battle wont have a fight
bc we cant stand a chance my neighborhood is in his hands
& he wants it
Seventh and Mifflin
by Anthony Glassman
A half-dozen languages
spoken all at once
Spiked Asian hair
in black, brown,
blonde, purple, blue.
Dreadlocks and braids
Children playing together
crossing colors and countries.
A crowded market,
fresh fruit and meat.
Juice and yogurt,
cheese and candy.
The smells of cooking
in a panoply of styles
from a myriad of countries
just like the people
walking down the street.