By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
To know Renée Adams is to know her love of poetry, and in Del Ray, her name is inextricably linked with mention of her poetry fence.
This month, Adams is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the landmark poetry fence. But in the past decade, she’s done more than provide neighbors and passersby with a rotating showcase of verses and rhymes; she’s helped enrich a community.
Bordering her home on the corner of Dewitt and East Windsor avenues, the wooden fence stretches down Dewitt Avenue under the shade of Adams’ holly trees. It features everything from poetry and photography, to comic strips and motivational sayings, all laminated and tacked up for the enjoyment of those who come across it. While she does include some original pieces, the majority of the poems Adams displays are ones she’s found while reading.
“I think of the poetry fence as kind of a way station for people,” Adams said. “People have said that it’s just a place of solace, yet also a place they bring their friends and family so in that way it’s social, but it’s much more like poetry is, a sort of quiet and solitary endeavor.”
It’s Adams’ personal touches that make the fence such a charming destination. The bottoms of colorful glass wine bottles are scattered among the laminated literature, fixed into holes in the fence to create a light show when the sun hits them just right. A painted mailbox affixed with a note reading “pick a poem” is filled and regularly refilled with poetry-to-go. Beside it, a water bowl is set out for the fence’s four-legged visitors.
“My dog refreshes his thirst – I refresh my mind. Thank you!” reads a handwritten note from one of Adams’ visitors. Countless other scribbled notes of praise have adorned Adams’ poetry over the years.
Adams, 68, has lived in the little blue house behind the fence for most of her life. Born and raised in Alexandria, she only left her hometown for a brief interlude to study English in college before returning for good. She bought her house on East Windsor Avenue in 1978 for an enviable $55,000.
Like her fence, Adams’ home is colorful, comforting and brimming with creative energy. Adams’ personality pulses through the home’s brightly painted walls and wicker baskets full of crafting supplies. The smell of brewing coffee is complemented by the meow of a surprisingly social cat. Piles of poetry books and loose-leaf papers litter the kitchen table, a tightly packed bookshelf, an overwhelmed piano bench.
Adams said it was around the same time her sons, now 35 and 39, left for college that she began honing her home’s charismatic character. Shortly after, she retired from her 35-year career at the Library of Congress and decided to spend her time sharing poetry with the community.
“I loved it when my kids were little and sharing [poetry] with them, keeping the curiosity alive,” Adams said. “And then when they left, I think I just had to fill it with something.”
In 2009, Adams found an old envelope of poems that she used to put in her youngest son’s lunch boxes.
“I came across the envelope, and I thought, ‘I don’t think parents think to share poems with their children,’” Adams said. “So I thought, ‘I’ll just put some out on the fence, and then make some copies and say, “Take a copy.”’ And I did, and the copies were taken. So I did it again.”
When Adams realized her neighbors were interested in the poems she shared, she decided to turn the fence into a piece of art. She began pinning up collections of seasonal or themed poems every few weeks from the various authors that she came across in her reading. Eventually, she bought a laminating machine to weather-proof the poems.
“You just see something and you think, ‘Oh, I think I’ll put that up. That would be a nice thing to share,’” Adams said. “So the idea sort of started with a lot of things about nature and bees … and then I gradually grew and I kind of have a science area in the middle and the children’s area at the end.”
Adams said she strives to create connections in the community with the poetry she pins to her fence.
“For Women’s [History] Month, for Black History Month, for Pacific American Heritage Month, I have things that I decorate for those so that people in the community that are a part of that will feel that [the fence is] part of them,” Adams said.
“For Hannukah I really wanted to do some Hannukah decorations and I was out talking to this family, a little girl and her dad and grandmother, and they said they were Jewish and I was like, ‘Oh, would you come and decorate these dreidels?” she said.
Personal, inclusive touches like those have made Adams a community touchstone.
“She’s unifying,” Adams’ friend Elaina Palincsar said. “Renée gets a lot of ‘thank-yous’ from people and that will tell you how important it is to the community. She’s a really important part of Del Ray.”
Whether she’s gardening in her yard or switching out the poems on the fence, Adams constantly hears from her visitors.
“Through the years, I just have so many stories, sometimes I think I should write them down,” Adams said.
She said some of the most memorable people with whom she’s interacted have included a family who Adams inspired to do weekly poetry readings, a recovering alcoholic who found comfort in one of Adams’ original poems and a young woman who decided to move in with her boyfriend in Del Ray after seeing the fence.
“When I’m working on it, there are just so many times that people stop and talk and I feel like I’ve learned. I’ve talked for hours with people that are outside my bubble,” Adams said. “This is kind of this social thing for me that changes constantly.”
She met close friend Scott Knudsen, a dog walker and self-proclaimed “frustrated poet,” through the fence – literally.
“You know that hole she cut in the fence for kids to look through to the garden?” Knudsen said. “I looked through that and she was on the other side, and we started a conversation. I was intrigued by the poetry fence and was happy to get to know her.”
Knudsen said he and Adams became fast friends.
“I’ve been a regular visitor … and it’s been nice to see the fence grow, but I’ve always loved it just for the poetry,” Knudsen said. “She really curates that poetry fence really well. There’s always something new to read. … It’s nice to have some regular contact with poetry. It’s good for the soul.”
In 2015, Adams decided to stretch her love for poetry beyond the fence and to “poem-bomb” 25 public spaces along Mount Vernon Avenue with printed poems for National Poetry Month in April. Adams said she came up with the idea while reading, when certain poems reminded her of different places in Del Ray.
“My brain has this tendency to just connect, connect, connect and I think it’s partially what makes me love poetry so much and also to be what my friend calls the ‘poetry matchmaker,’” Adams said. “It’s like there’s a poem and you just make the connection in your head to the place it would be nice for.”
This April marks Adams’ third poem-bomb, and her largest yet. About a week ago, she, Knudsen and another friend staked 64 laminated poems in front of restaurants, stores, churches and dog parks in Del Ray. This weekend, Adams plans to lead a poetry walk down Mount Vernon Avenue to share her work with the community. The walk will begin at Duncan Library Saturday at 10:30 a.m.
Adams chooses personalized poems for each place she stakes them, whether she’s planting “Bleezers Ice Cream” by Jack Prelutsky in front of Dairy Godmother, “Stationary Bicycle” by Linda Pastan in front of the YMCA, a Salvadoran poet’s work in Spanish and English in front of Los Tios or a haiku in front of Kaizen.
Pinned to the fence outside of Simpson Field, Adams posted the poem “Out Beyond Ideas” by Jalal ad-Din Rumi, which she said resonated with her in relation to the congressional shooting in 2017.
“It’s a poem by Rumi,” Adams said. “‘Out beyond ideas / of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. / I’ll meet you there.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect.’ … this whole idea of come and play ball and not have ideas of what’s political.”
Some businesses took so well to the poems, they asked Adams to keep them displayed and replenish them year-round.
“She posts whatever she feels like posting,” Del Ray Café owner Margaret Janowsky said. “We don’t edit what she brings, and we don’t know when she’s coming to change it out, and our customers love it.”
Beyond her fence and poems along Mount Vernon Avenue, Adams continues to infuse poetry into the community with different projects, including a mini poetry fence at Duncan Library and a gumball poetry machine at St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub.
“[She] encourage[s] a lot of community participation, and kind of a bonding over the interest in language, which I think is a good thing. A lot of people have dropped poetry,” Palincsar said. “It’s a pleasure to know that someone is willing to work that hard and that well for the community for a goal that she sees as an important one.”
Adams will host a 10-year celebration party for her fence in her garden on April 14. She said all are welcome to enjoy food and drinks, poetry and company.
“It really is nice to get poetry out in the world, which is what I’m all about at this phase in my life,” Adams said. “Sometimes I’ll just walk out there with the poems I’ve put up, with my coffee … and read it and I’ve read it a bajillion times and it will just bring tears to my eyes again. This is what I just love about poetry.”