Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Count me in on Roadside Poetry April 26, 2011

“We’ve selected YOUR poem for our spring Roadside Poetry installment!”

For nearly a month now, I’ve kept that exciting, boldfaced news mostly to myself, sharing it with only my immediate family, my mom and a few select friends and extended family members.

But now that the billboards are up—yes, I said billboards—I no longer feel obligated to keep this a secret.

I won the spring Roadside Poetry competition and my poem now sprawls across four billboards, Burma Shave style, 50 yards apart in Fergus Falls.

That’s it, my poem, the winning poem, which is posted along North Tower Road west of Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, just down the road from Fleet Farm. Take exit 54 off I-94 on the west edge of Fergus.

Paul Carney, the project coordinator who delivered the good news to me via e-mail in early March, tells me that 100,000 vehicles drive by the billboards each month. “How’s that for readership?” he asks.

Well, mighty fine, Paul. Mighty fine.

Getting my poetry out there in this unusual, highly-public venue really is an honor for me, adding to my poems already published in two magazines and four, soon-to-be five, anthologies.

The mission of The Roadside Poetry Project “is to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the rural landscape,” according to roadsidepoetry.org. The first poem went up in September 2008 and was, interestingly enough, written by another Faribault resident, Larry Gavin, a writer and Faribault High School English teacher.

The poems, all seasonally-themed, change four times a year. Mine will be up through the third week of June when a summer poem replaces it. Yes, entries are currently being accepted for the summer competition.

About now you’re likely, maybe, wondering how I heard about this contest. I honestly cannot remember. But I do remember thinking, “I can do this.” So one night I sat down with a notebook and pencil and started jotting down phrases.

Like most writers, I strive to find the exact/precise/perfect/right words.

I scribbled and scratched and thought and wrote and crossed out and jotted and erased and counted and filled several notebook pages.

These poems do not simply pop, like that, into my head, onto paper.

To add to the complexity of this process, poets are tasked with creating poetic imagery that describes the wonderment of the season, all in four lines. But there’s more. Each line can include no more than 20 characters.

Now that character limitation, my friends, presents a challenge. Just when I thought I had nailed a phrase, I counted too many characters. Again and again, I had to restart until, finally, I had shaped and molded the poem I would submit.

“I love the language and the imagery,” project leader Paul said of my winning spring poem.

Honestly, when I wrote this poem, I could feel the sun warming my back as I stooped to drop slips of zinnia seeds into the cold, damp earth. Visualizing has always been a part of my creative process. Choosing the words “vernal equinox” simply seemed so much more poetic than the single, plain word, “spring.”

Even though Paul loved my poem and it fit the contest guidelines, there was a problem: Audrey Kletscher Helbling. Count and you get 23 characters and two spaces in my name, putting me five over the 20-character limit.

I understood the space limitations, but explained to Paul that I really wanted Audrey Kletscher Helbling, not Audrey Helbling, on the billboard because that’s my professional name. He agreed to see if the sign-maker could fit my full name and keep it readable. From my experience years ago writing newspaper headlines, I knew that the letters “l” and “i” took less space than other letters. The sign-maker was able to honor my request.

I haven’t been up to Fergus Falls yet to see my poem and Audrey Kletscher Helbling splashed across four billboards. But a trip will be forthcoming.

FYI: Paul Carney hopes to expand Roadside Poetry, supported in Fergus Falls by the Fergus Area College Foundation, to other locations in Minnesota. However, additional funding is needed to finance start-up, printing and other costs. If you would like to support this public art venue, have questions, need more information or wish to enter the seasonal contest, visit roadsidepoetry.org.

© Text copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of Paul Carney