by Ruth Arnison

Stepping into Poetry

Ruth Arnison's passion for poetry in public places is hard to resist.

After coming across Poems in the Waiting Room (UK) while looking at poetry sites on the internet I emailed the founder, Michael Lee, congratulating him on his wonderful scheme. His immediate response: 

Would you like the license to use our name and organise your own poetry card for the South Pacific? 

I answered:

No I wasn’t angling for inclusion just showing my appreciation. 

He replied:

 I’m sending you a cheque to help get PitWR(NZ) up and running. 

Well, what could I say?

That was 8 years ago. Since then our free seasonal poetry cards (160,000 of them) and braille poetry booklets (363) have interested, entertained and delighted readers at 420 rest homes, 577 medical centres, 8 prisons, and 5 hospices. 240 generous poets have gifted 310 poems for use in our poetry cards. That’s a lot of goodwill. We’ve been sponsored and supported by local and national funding agencies to help with our two costs – printing and postage. Letters, emails and phone calls from readers have encouraged us to keep going when sometimes the thought of writing another funding application has seemed just too hard!

We’ve held six annual national poetry competitions and four fundraising PoARTry exhibitions. The exhibitions were collaborations with local and national poets and artists.

In 2015 I was looking around for a fresh project as an add on to PitWR when an email arrived from our son in Melbourne. He’d attached a photo of a small free library (cupboard) at the end of his street.

I’d found my next project! I coaxed my neighbour, Muz, into drawing plans and I started writing funding applications. The name, Lilliput Libraries, happened upon me in a 2am moment. It was catchy, easy to remember, as well as self-explanatory. Cargill Enterprises built the first 10 Lilliputs - slight panic after the order was underway, what say I couldn’t find 10 people in Dunedin interested in being guardians? It’s easy to laugh at my dramatic panic now - we have 90 Lilliput Libraries scattered around Dunedin with a waiting list for more. The Otago Corrections Facility inmates made 15 LL and from there on in we’ve used the wonderful very-partial-to-fruitcake guys at the Taieri Blokes Shed. They, like the inmates, build our Lilliputs for free so our fundraising covers the costs of the building materials.

Local artists, school art groups, university students, community and disability art groups have all donated their time and talents to paint the Libraries before they go off to their forever homes. Resene has sponsored all the paint and offered their Crawford St colour shop as a book collection site.

The original idea was to share books and the love of reading. It’s become more than that. Neighbours have met at Lilliputs and got to know each other, they’re a ‘destination’ for a walk, an opportunity for people to connect, and they’re all over Dunedin - NZ’s UNESCO City of Literature.

As each library is placed on site our Google Map is updated. 

Sheryl McCammon, a PitWR trustee and friend, and I dreamed up another PitWR project over winter – Poems on Steps (POSTs). Once we had all the approvals and consent forms signed and with Resene’s support, we got to work on our first set of steps leading to the Filleul St carpark. Actually ‘we’, is a very loose term! Sheryl painted and I chatted to passers-by, kept the parking meter fed, and read stories to Sheryl as she worked. Hence our logo portrays Sheryl painting and me reading!

We’re planning more Step Sisters projects around Dunedin during 2017 and toying with several ideas for another fundraising venture to help our poetry cards reach our target, available New Zealand wide!

After leaving school many people may never purposely make contact with poetry again. I get great pleasure in making poetry available in unexpected places and surprising people with its accessibility. I’m happiest when I have a ‘project’ on the go and thoroughly enjoy organising collaborative projects which challenge me and also allow me to meet people from a wide range of backgrounds. Through PitWR I’ve met, via email, fantastic poets from all over the world and artists from all over NZ who have been happy to participate in our poartry exhibitions. Lilliput Libraries has been a dream project as the city has embraced it so enthusiastically. It’s a very selfish passion – I get much more out of it than I put in!

Remember, if you’re stuck in the doctor’s waiting room surrounded by sick crying babies, tired children and clock watching adults and you desperately want to be out of there: there’s a high chance there’ll be one of our Poems in the Waiting Room poetry cards sitting begging to be read. Just pick it up and take yourself off into another world! And if there’s none in sight ask the receptionist if they wouldn’t mind stocking them – they’re free.