How one VCU student is using poetry to clean up the James River

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A Virginia Commonwealth University student is asking Richmond residents to pick up trash along the James River in exchange for poetry.

John-Michael Bloomquist, who is pursuing an MFA in poetry and creative nonfiction from the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is the founder of "Poetry for Trash," a movement that aims to keep Richmond's river and parks clean by offering poetry to those who pick up garbage.

"Step one, you pick a poem. Step two, you pick up as much trash as you think the poem's worth. Step three, you can give your own poems," Bloomquist said.

At spots like Belle Isle and Texas Beach and at events like the Richmond Folk Festival, Bloomquist has placed a sign holding a jar filled with poems, which asks people to take part in the poetry-in-exchange-for-trash transaction. "Luckily, the sign is beginning work on its own," he said. "I really enjoy watching people read the sign and figure it out for themselves."

"As I would walk by the river, I would always see a lot of trash and it made me really sad. So I started thinking about how we could make trash valuable," he said. "That prompted kind of a weird question: How much trash is poetry worth? That's when I came up with the idea of Poetry for Trash. You could 'pay' for a poem by picking up trash."

At the recent Richmond Folk Festival, the Poetry for Trash installation offered poems in exchange for picking up litter.
At the recent Richmond Folk Festival, the Poetry for Trash installation offered poems in exchange for picking up litter.

On Saturday, Poetry for Trash will host a "Pick Up 'Potluck' Reading Party" at Belle Isle to raise awareness of the project. Attendees are encouraged to bring poems to exchange for trash, as well as food and drinks to share if they can. It will be free and open to the public.

As part of the party, participants will pick up trash from noon to 3 p.m., followed by poetry readings by VCU professors, alumni and attendees from 3 to 6 p.m.

The idea for Poetry for Trash originated in a course taught by John Freyer, assistant professor of cross­ disciplinary media in the Department of Photography and Film in the School of the Arts, called "The Gift Economy – Art, Objects and Systems of Exchange."

The course, Bloomquist said, got him thinking about different kinds of gift economies, such as the "little libraries" that have sprung up in cities, including Richmond, that allow people to take and leave books from neighborhood boxes for free.

"The hope is that these Poetry for Trash signs will eventually be able to stand alone at rivers and public parks, and work kind of like a little library," Bloomquist said. "People can just come up to them, take a poem, pick up trash, and leave their own poems."

This semester, Bloomquist is doing an independent study with Freyer to develop the Poetry for Trash idea.

"The primary goal of the independent study is for Bloomquist to develop a pilot project that could be replicated in different communities around the country and the world," Freyer said. "His project is a hybrid creative writing and social practice art piece that actively engages a variety of audiences and encourages dialogue about art, poetry and sustainability. I am excited to see where John-Michael takes this."

Many of the poems Bloomquist has been leaving in exchange for trash have been printed in VCU literary publications, such as Amendment and Poictesme, as well as from Open Minds, a program sponsored by the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and VCU that offers dual enrollment classes – such as Poetry and Social Change – held at the Richmond City Jail.

None of the poems are authored by Bloomquist, as he does not want to give the impression that the project is about self-promotion. "I don't want people to confuse it with a vanity project," he said.

Looking ahead, Bloomquist hopes to build more Poetry for Trash signs, and hopes to eventually win the city's blessing to place permanent Poetry for Trash installations in public parks and by the river.

"[Poetry for Trash] has been very enriching so far and I'm grateful to be doing it," he said, adding that he estimates that participants have "picked up at least a dumpster's worth of trash so far."


Feature image at top: Poetry for Trash has been offering people poems in exchange for picking up trash at spots such as Belle Isle and Texas Beach.