For National Poetry Month, Alexandria Writer Shares Literary Form With Residents and Visitors in Creative Ways

Renée Adams, sitting in her cozy living room, displaying a Fairy Room she created. Adams’ home is filled with Fairy Rooms that she designed and crafted. Many of the items are from her home and have personal family connections. She put them together mainly for her small granddaughter. Photo: Judith Fogel

ALEXANDRIA, VA-If you’re like me and you love walking through the streets of Alexandria, Del Ray would be one of your favorite spots. The main avenue lined with eateries and shops, the charming houses, the small-town neighborhood feel, the explosion of spring blossoms everywhere you turn. If you meander off Mount Vernon Avenue and onto the side streets, you will no doubt stumble upon an iconic poetry fence on the corner of Dewitt and Windsor Avenues.

That fence is the brainchild of Renée Adams, who has been living in that house for 45 years. Adams is a local writer. She hesitates to call herself a poet. But poetry is her passion.  Some of her works are published, and she is an expert at compiling poems and finding them in all sorts of places. Adams invited me into her home last week for tea and conversation. She told me she started her poetry fence fifteen years ago.

Renée Adams, displaying her iconic Poetry Fence. She has been sharing poetry, solace, inspiration, humor, and knowledge for 15 years, expanding to 93 feet. Photo: Judith Fogel

“When my son was in middle school, I used to put poems in his lunch box and he would read them to his friends in the lunchroom and come home and say they all loved them,” Adams said. “So I would take the poems that didn’t have food all over them,, I’d put them in an envelope, thinking I would recycle them back to my son at some later point.”

“Time passes,” she continued, “And I came across the envelopes of poems in my kitchen and thought, oh, I don’t think other people think to share poetry with their kids. So I took some of the poems, made copies, wrote “take a copy” and stapled it to my fence. Later I came out and saw copies had been taken and I was like, oh my goodness. People like it! So I did it again.”

Adams began putting up poems for kids and adults. “People immediately started loving it. People would stop me and say, I bring my friends and family when they’re visiting from other cities and other countries because we think it’s just so amazing.” Adams began laminating her pieces, eventually buying her own laminating machine.

The writer included articles, pictures, and short statements on key issues such as Black Lives Matter and the environment on her growing fence.

Renée Adams added a mailbox to her Poetry Fence, where passersby could add comments. Photo: Judith Fogel

“People over the years have told me they come for solace, they come for comfort, they come to read something,” she shared. “Through the pandemic, people could come there when they couldn’t go most anywhere else because it was outside, they would wear a mask, they would keep some distance. I would talk to them, they would call to me in my garden.”

Since April is National Poetry Month, Adams is on a mission to make poetry accessible. She knows many people hated the way poetry was taught to them in school, but sometimes they come across a poem and it resonates with them, she says.

She has created several unusual and imaginative ways to bring poetry to the public in Del Ray. She told me where they all are located, so I embarked on a scavenger hunt of sorts to find them. Adams instructed me to start at the Duncan Library. There, in the children’s section, was a mini Poetry Fence decorated with poetry and colorful butterflies and flowers.

Outside, hidden in the grass by the parking lot, I found “Poems for fairies,” which Adams added this year. They are small laminated haikus placed among tree roots and flower beds.

A treasure I discovered on the ground at Duncan Library, tucked into shrubbery. Photo: Judith Fogel

I next took a stroll down Mount Vernon Avenue to find all of Adams’ poetry. Over 20 poems are mounted on wooden stakes or in windows or doors in front of shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, and coffee shops. Adams matches poems to the venues so if you’re grabbing an ice cream cone at the Dairy Godmother, you’ll see a well-known poem by Shel Silverstein called “Ice Cream Stop.” Swing by Swing’s Coffee on Monroe Avenue and you can stop and read “Coffee in the Afternoon” by Alberto Rios while sipping your java.

“For a lot of kids in school, part of the instruction is to tear the poem apart,” Adams said. “It was boring. They weren’t given poems that would really resonate with them [or] speak to them.”

Gumball Poetry at St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub. Photo: Judith Fogel

I arrived at St. Elmo’s on my tour of Adams’ poetry displays. Inside I found a gumball machine sitting on a corner of the ordering counter. Adams launched Gumball Poetry at St. Elmo’s in 2019. This year, she expanded to the Fairlington location. For 50 cents, a child can buy a poem tucked inside a capsule.

Adams got the idea from a neighbor who’d seen them in the Pacific Northwest. “They had Gumball Poetry there and my neighbor thought it was so cool. Gumball machines with poetry in the capsules. And I was like, Oh my god, I’ve got to do that!” Adams borrowed poems from neighbor, Elaina Palincsar – writes a lot of haiku – and other local writers. She printed, folded, cut, and positioned the poems into the capsules.

Pick up a copy of the Del Ray Avenue Poems 2024 at the Duncan Library, beneath the mini poetry fence. And then set out on your own scavenger hunt to locate all of Renée Adams’ selections along Mount Vernon and Monroe Avenues. Take the kids along. While you’re at it, be sure to stop by Adams’ Poetry Fence. You can also check out her Little Free Library, which she erected in April 2013. It is the first Little Free Library in Northern Virginia.

The original Little Free Library and a mounted poem in front of Renée Adams’ house. Photo: Judith Fogel

Renée Adams is also working on her first book, filled with stories about her Poetry Fence. The working title is “A Quiet Place for Community.” Her friend offered to be a reader, and suggested it should be called “A Lively Place.”

“I said no. It’s not. It’s a quiet place that people come to,” Adams recalled. “A man told me he comes to the poetry fence when he’s having a bad day. It’s for people to just stand there and read.”

[SEE ALSO: ATC Board of Directors Approves Alexandria Transit Strategic Plan]

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