If Duluth's poet laureate has his way, the Free Poetry Project will gain traction - like a variation on Little Free Libraries. Gary Boelhower is a self-described romantic, after all.

"It's really a simple idea, and it doesn't cost much money," he said. "But to have free poetry available from local poets seems to be such a wonderful thing, to add to the culture of our community. So I'm thinking really big."

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Gary Boelhower
Gary Boelhower
About two months ago, Boelhower and friends began distributing original poems by local writers around coffee shops, bookstores, restaurants and meeting spots - placing dozens of double-sided sheets of cardstock paper into acrylic holders labeled "local free poetry." Eleven poets - including Boelhower, Deborah Cooper, Sheila Packa, Marie Zhuikov and Cal Benson - have contributed a total of 41 poems. The initial printing was 1,500 cards.

The Free Poetry Project is one that Boelhower proposed he was applying to be poet laureate, and it resonated with Cooper, who is on the selection committee and previously held the position.

"I loved the fact that he wanted to get poetry out there in the community," she said. "Not necessarily being read in a venue, out there where people can get their hands on it and read it."

Boelhower, who is a professor emeritus at the College of St. Scholastica and published "Naming Rites: Poems" through Holy Cow! Press in 2017, said there are a lot of regulars who attend poetry readings.

"And although I appreciate those folks very much and their interest in poetry, I wondered if there are other ways we can help other people who don't come to such events get interested a little bit in our local poets," he said.

There are 12 poem holders currently out in the world - at places like the Duluth Folk School, Amity Coffee, and Yellow Bike Coffee in Hermantown - and there are more scheduled to drop. During a recent visit to the Zeitgeist Arts Building, there was a holder with works by Boelhower ("Nesting," from his most recent book) and Deborah Rasmussen ("On Performing 'The Moldau' by Bedrich Smetana," previously published in "The Thunderbird Review.") Each card offers the author's brief bio and directs readers to the Duluth Poet Laureate Facebook page, where reflections are solicited.

This is Boelhower's first project as poet laureate, a two-year commitment that started with his inaugural reading in December. Poetry, he said, saved his life. He was struggling in elementary school until his second-grade teacher connected him with the art. That's when he started reciting poetry for his class and writing his own.

These days, his favorites include the late Mary Oliver, whose work he has been using while teaching poetry at the St. Louis County Jail.

Boelhower is also shaping plans for Walt Whitman's 200th birthday: so far it'll readings, reflections, and scholars making not-so scholarly presentations, he said.

More info

What: Free Poetry Project

Who: 11 local poets have contributed 41 poems

Where (so far): Zenith Bookstore, Amity Coffee, Beaner's Central, Duluth Folk School, Yellow Bike Coffee, Perk Place, Zeitgeist Arts Building, Snooty Fox Tea Shop, Chester Creek Cafe

What to do with it: Take it; it's free. "I imagine someone having a cup of coffee by themself, and picking it up and reading it and being companioned and having emotional resonance with what they're reading," poet Deborah Cooper said.

Online: Duluth Poet Laureate Project on Facebook