Poetry for Trash

As lovers of poetry and literary crusaders against pollution, we were so interested to hear about this new project, Poetry for Trash. We asked founder and director John-Michael Peter Bloomquist to tell us about the project, his inspiration, and what poetry and trash have in common. Here’s what he had to say.

standing on it's own, the sign

As a poet, I’ve often asked myself the question: is poetry worth pursuing? Will this poem ever get published? Is this poem trash? Many poets and myself desire to write something valuable, which can be a good thing, depending on what we mean by valuable. I value poems that make me feel beautiful, loved, or less alone.

More poetry is being written, published, and read than ever before, which is absolutely, unquestionably, unequivocally good. But I’ve become concerned that, instead of a desire to write, many of us are feeling pressure to write poems that sell—or at least that garner accolades and acclaim, earning us, for example, an esteemed teaching position that supports us financially. Poetry is also now, more than ever before, moving closer to becoming a commodity. Am I the only one guilty of asking: How much money will this poem make? Will it earn an award? Will it get me that job? Consumerism has infiltrated our poetics, and though there is a cause for despair when corporations and fashion chains look for poets to endorse them, I believe that the economy of poetry can help save us and our planet.

The scourge of a consumerist culture is pollution. Use it up, throw it out. Right now I live in Richmond, Virginia, and when I walk by the James River, I’m dumbfounded by how many bottles, cans, wrappers, and cigarettes I find. Everyone with a heart is concerned about the environment and pollution. And so another one of my questions has been: what makes an ecological poem? What is its subject matter, its line breaks, its diction, and should it be printed on recycled paper or should it be published online?

Poetry functions within the gift economy. Mauss, author of the seminal book on gift economies, The Gift, said that there are three obligations within the gift economy: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. Nature gives us the food, water, and air we need to survive, but instead of reciprocating, we’ve been making capital and consuming. While a poem doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) make capital, it does ask us to reciprocate, not just to read and write more poems, but to love more. And this is why I see all poetry as ecological.

With these concerns in my mind, I finally arrived at another question: How much trash is poetry worth? And this question started Poetry for Trash, an interactive gift economy. Over the past two years I’ve been making various signs which ask this question, and placing them in public parks. This past year, I’ve been fortunate to work with the people at MoB studios, who have created our latest sign. The sign facilitates the three steps of Poetry for Trash:

  1. Pick a poem (open the heart—that’s where the poems are)
  2. Pick up the trash it is worth (take a bag and clean up)
  3. Add your poems (let someone else open the heart and find you)

Through these stations two dumpsters worth of trash have been picked up and thousands of poems have been given away. Poetry is a solution to pollution because purification starts in the heart.


We were at AWP this year, at the Virginia Commonwealth University booth, modeling the new sign and giving away postcards that you can mail to your loved ones, which feature poems by some of our favorite contemporary poets in the country. Check out the work that we’ve been doing at poetryfortrash.com. Let’s keep the planet clean and our poetry free.

–John-Michael Peter Bloomquist