Jon Cotner at the BMW Guggenheim Lab website:
Poem Forest took place November 2011 at the New York Botanical Garden, which was celebrating the renovation of its 50-acre old-growth forest. The Garden, in conjunction with the Poetry Society of America, asked me to do something poetry-related on site. This commission excited me because I wanted to pull poetry from libraries, magazines, books, etc., and put it in the world.
I’ve always felt that poetry is not an art object to be idly studied. Rather, it’s a way of life, a mode of knowing—a call to become more attentive and active. Koreans have an important proverb: “Knows his way, stops seeing.” Spanish poet Antonio Machado responds to this existential blur by advising us to “wake up as much as possible.” And before him, near the very beginnings of Greek philosophy (that moment when philosophy and poetry were still linked), Heraclitus said: “We share a world when we are awake; each sleeper is in a world of his own.”
Machado and Heraclitus get to the heart of poetry’s power. Poetry can wake us, and in the process we create a shared world or “the commons.” But what characterizes this common world? How can we describe it? With such questions in mind, I shaped Poem Forest. A typical literary event wouldn’t work; it’s too easy to drift while others read their own prewritten material. Poem Forest needed to be more engaging. Otherwise it wouldn’t be poetic.
So I “installed” 15 lines pulled from 2,500 years of poetry along a trail through the old-growth forest. Visitors spoke each line (printed on a handout) at specific locations (marked by small orange signs) to which the lines corresponded conceptually or physically. For example, near the start of the self-guided walk, people would recite Pythagoras’s maxim “The wind is blowing; adore the wind” to clear their heads.