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Artist takes poetic license to the sidewalks

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Francis the Poet uses chalk to write a poem by the Speedway Boulevard underpass at 1 a.m. Friday. Francis the Poet writes poems by other authors as well as some originals to provoke thoughts in passersby.

Scratching chalk against a UA wall, an anonymous poet leaves his signature, ""Francis the Poet.""


The poem above his signature, ""The Poet,"" is the first of his own poetry chalked at the UA.

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But, his signature also sits below the names of famous poets at more than 30 locations around campus.


Students, faculty and police walk past or on top of his chalk every day, but few know his real identity.


Francis the Poet, as the Daily Wildcat agreed to call him after the University of Arizona Police Department arrested a graduate student for writing in chalk at a protest Thursday, started writing poems on campus property at the beginning of the semester.


Francis says he wants to spread his love of poetry and make people stop and think.


""I pick a lot of (poems) that are neutral or light in my topics because I don't want to start a fight,"" he said Thursday night in an interview with the Daily Wildcat.


""I just want to start people thinking.""


He dresses in black and works at night. He often chalks poems by Gary Schneider, e. e. cummings, Jack Gilbert, William Blake and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Francis is a senior in the creative writing department.


""At first I was going to try to be totally anonymous,"" he said. ""It's not possible, there are people on campus all hours of the day. So I kind of gave up on being totally anonymous and just try to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible,"" he says while chalking a poem called ""The Red Wheelbarrow"" by William Carlos Williams on a wall at the Integrated Learning Center.


He brings his dog Daisey, a bucket of chalk and poetry books. He rides a skateboard or drives his car from spot to spot — tagging even the far edges of the university.


""It takes a lot more planning than you'd think,"" he says of finding suitable places for the poems.


On a printed a map of the university, he circles good spots to chalk the ground. He keeps mental notes about slabs of concrete he has seen, and what poems would fit on each.


The key, he says, is finding a place big enough for the poem he wants to write, usually not longer than 10 lines, and smooth enough to not break his chalk. Brick doesn't work because of the many cracks, and some concretes are too smooth for chalk to mark.


His poems are temporary. Chalk on well-traveled sidewalks wears away within a few days. The chalk on the walls, like at the Integrated Learning Center or the Modern Languages building, stays legible longer.


""Even if just one or two people look and kinda be like ‘huh, that's cool,' that's all that really matters,"" he said. ""If it only lasts 10 hours and 10 students see it, it's worth it to me … I just want to share my love of words with other people, even if it's just for a fleeting moment.""

However, all poets have their critics.


""Is it about advancing promoting public literacy and advancing the awareness of poetry at the university,"" asked Jake Levine, a UA graduate student and poetry instructor, ""or is it about egotistical masturbation? It's a fine line.""


Levine spoke to his English 209 ""Introduction to Poetry"" class Friday about Francis and suggested they try to show him up by writing their own poems around campus.


Since then, Levine spotted an original poem by Francis, and eased up his criticism, but not completely.


Levine says he likes the idea and the energy, but doesn't want poetry to become branded advertising.


""It's a brand so that people will know that it was Francis the Poet who sidewalk chalked (someone else's) name in front of the poetry center,"" he said. ""There's something innately wrong with that.""


The UAPD knows nothing about Francis the Poet, said spokesman Sgt. Juan Alvarez.

Despite the dozens of chalk poems around campus, Alvarez said he had never heard of Francis when the Wildcat contacted him Sunday.


""We don't target artists, we target criminal acts,"" Alvarez said.


Using sidewalk chalk on university property is considered criminal damage, he said, but arresting somebody for the act is at the officer's discretion.


Francis says an officer once caught him in the act, but after checking his record for outstanding warrants, the officer let him go.


He has had two other brushes with the police, he said, but before Thursday's arrest of Jacob Miller, the graduate student arrested for writing in chalk, Francis said he didn't worry too much about the police.


When he writes, going back and forth from book to sidewalk, saying the lines out loud, he doesn't look over his shoulder for the police.


Facilities Management, the department in charge of keeping campus clean, has likewise never heard of the poet, said Associate Director Chris Kopach.


Francis said several of his poems written on ILC walls were erased over the weekend.

While Francis hasn't made UAPD and Facilities Management's radar, he has caught the attention of students on campus.


Outside the Park Student Union while writing his last poem of the night, a girl walking by spotted Francis bent over with chalk on his pants and hands, scribbling words on the sidewalk, and exclaimed, ""Are you Francis the Poet?""


He said he was and she walked away.


""If she recognizes me,"" he said, raising a finger to his lips. ""I'll just say ‘shhh.'""

 


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