where you are
Thousands of these types of poem-displaying stickers have shown up across the nation’s capital in the past few years, and some have even made it outside the region.
If you’ve ever found yourself reading one, you’ve probably wondered who or what organization was behind them.
Well, ponder no more. Meet Buck Downs, a 57-year-old who used to work in the publishing industry and now splits his time between helping people with their writing, working at a Georgetown bookstore and slapping stickers across the city.
Downs, who has published several books of poetry and is a former board member of the District of Columbia Arts Center, used to recite his poems in front of audiences. But that was before the pandemic brought those public gatherings, and many others, to a halt.
The stickers, Downs says, have allowed him a different way to get his poetry in front of people. They have also given him the chance to reach people who might not have the will, or the time, to sit down with a 100-plus-page book of poems.
“I feel like most of the people I’m interested in interacting with, they have busy lives and the idea that they’re going to spend three or four hours an evening doing that is unrealistic, given all their options,” he tells me on a recent morning. With the stickers, he says, “an experience of an unusual beauty or of an unusual art pops into their day, and they have a minute with it. And then they get to go on with their day.”
The stickers meet people where they are — both when it comes to a person’s interest in poetry and where they physically find those poems. They might spot one if they rent a bike on Capitol Hill or stop to mail a letter from the post office in Union Station.
Downs, who has lived in D.C. for more than 30 years, doesn’t drive, so he leaves them in places he encounters as he makes his way across the city from his home in the Hill East neighborhood. Most of the locations, if pinned on a map, would form an arc.
Whether you hate the poems or find yourself seeking them, their delivery has made them a part of our communal scenery. By his count, Downs has posted about 3,000 stickers. While there is no telling how many people have passed by them, there is no doubt that many of us have seen the same ones. We’ve sat in the same Metro train and let our eyes slip over the same words. Personally, I’m drawn to street art. I like the communal aspect of it. But I’m also someone who still listens to the radio because I like knowing someone is hearing the same song as me at the same moment.
Others will undoubtedly find a sticker slapped against a building an annoyance or worse.
Downs knows some people probably view his actions as vandalism. But he describes the stickers in much the same way graffiti artists might talk about their work — as a temporary piece of shared art.
When people toss fast-food wrappers and other trash on the ground, he says, that’s vandalism.
“When someone is spray-painting a wall or slapping a tag on a lamppost, it’s not simply mischief; it’s not simply vandalism for the sake of vandalism,” he says. “That’s an artist’s reaction to the world around us. And at some point, it’s going to be gone, because someone will come clean it up.”
When I ask if he’s considered the legality of putting up the stickers, he says he has: “And the conclusion I came to is that this is pretty insignificant stuff and the police have more important things to do, and they go out and do them, and I’m all for that.”
His stickers are also not the only ones that appear in abundance across the city. The city has an “active slap tag culture,” he says, and he has twice been part of a D.C. street sticker expo.
The idea for the stickers came to Downs after he started experimenting with sharing poetry through Instagram. All of the stickers he’s posted in real life appeared first on that page. He learned quickly that they should be short.
One of the poems on that page reads, “& there I was — / so distracted / by world events / I lost the lid / to the peanut butter.”
In a recent piece Will Schick wrote for the Click, he describes turning to Instagram “to search the origin of the sticker project” and finding Downs. That article begins with the discovery of a sticker on a bike rack. On it appeared a phone number and the words, “Night Poems, Uploaded Freshly.”
When people call the number on that sticker, they get to hear Downs recite a poem from one of his published books. He records one each day as the outgoing voice-mail message to that phone number, which is used only for that purpose. When talking about that project, Downs is quick to offer assurance that if people call, they won’t have to talk with him.
Downs has no way of knowing how many people have seen his poems. But he does know some have welcomed those brief interruptions to their days. People in Seattle and Denver have asked him to send them stickers, so they can post them in their communities.
And people in D.C. have turned to his Instagram page to share where they’ve encountered his poems.
“Orange line to Fairfax.”
“Orange line too, I wonder if we were all sitting in the same seat.”
“keep seeing these stickers around GW, absolutely beautiful.”
“I found this on the train. Now it’s on my phone. Thank you.”
“This greeted me as I reluctantly came back to the town I am from for the weekend. Thank you for helping to make DC not suck.”
That last one appeared in response to a poem with a title we can’t print in a family newspaper. But it contains the word “son” and was described in this way: “what can you say / when someone hateful / loves you.”
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