The Power of Poetry in the Parks of San Francisco

Thinking out of the box, a Park Ranger sparks creativity.

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When San Francisco Park Ranger Amanda Barrows placed a nightstand in Golden Gate Park with a note, “Take a poem, leave a poem,” she was utterly astonished by the response.

Barrows, who enrolled in City College of San Francisco’s Poetry for the People class, has discovered that since its introduction in the park in December 2022, more than 100 handwritten poems have been placed in the nightstand.  

“It’s completely unexpected,” said Barrows, according to The Washington Post. “I’m really taken aback by the outpouring of support.”

Park ranger by day and poet by night, Barrows said she had "a really beautiful time” being part of the class as it was a way “to keep the inspiration flowing and keep myself writing.” Barrows began writing and attending poetry workshops during the Corona pandemic.

Poems left, poems taken
The power of poetry to capture and communicate a message is like no other art form. Poems speak of issues everyone cares about: loss, love, and the boundless possibilities of life. It is also an art form that everyone can access or even try writing themselves.

One handwritten poem read: The wind graces this park / Like a breezy whisper / as sounds of longing / echo from the nearby piano. 

The poetry course that Barrows attended City College of San Francisco (CCSF) was founded by Leslie Simon in 1975 and also incorporates a syllabus from a course of the same name founded by acclaimed Jamaican American poet June Jordan at UC Berkeley in 1991. The class teaches empowerment through the arts and advocates for a focus on community, and the cultivation and public presentation of new poems, and is free to San Francisco residents.

As a final project, students must find a way to bring poetry into their community. For Barrows, the sudden idea that she could merge her job and her hobby by bringing poetry into parks was an inspiration. Barrows asked her friends to contribute their favorite poems to the nightstand as poems that could be taken.

Armed with a battered nightstand, Barrows filled the stand with pens and paper. An added drawer at the bottom holds the poems that people “donate.” The concept reminded her of Little Free Libraries, which are fixtures across the city.

“I was having anxiety, I had no idea what I was going to do, then it sort of just came to me,” Barrows told SFGATE. “I was inspired by the little free libraries you see in SF, where you ‘take a book, leave a book,’ and thought, ‘Maybe I could do this with poetry.’”

People need poetry
One of the teachers at the CCSF poetry course, Lauren Muller, told The Washington Post that “people need poetry now,” which she proposes as the reason for the success of Barrow’s project.

Past student projects included writing poetry on sidewalks in chalk and placing poems on the windshields of cars. “It’s thrilling to see the work that students are doing,” Muller continued. “My hope is that this will happen across city parks…elsewhere.”

With many parks in San Francisco, the nightstand has been moved to different locations to allow a variety of park visitors to participate. Barrows has also created an Instagram account where she uploads poems that are left in the nightstand. 

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According to the organization Aletia, the project hit a snag when the first nightstand was stolen, but Barrows intends to “keep this going indefinitely,” she said. “I look forward to other people contributing their creativity. People can build off it and tell me what they want to see.”

“It really is a community project,” Barrows said. “It belongs to all of us.”

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