At least once a week, Chris Cook uploads a photo to Facebook that features an unusual sight he encountered on one of his long walks through his Browne's Addition neighborhood. Maybe it's of a sleek vintage car parked near the curb, or of a witticism scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk, a striking piece of midcentury architecture or an admittedly phallic rock formation that Cook has playfully dubbed Bonehenge.
Each of the photos is captioned "I love my neighborhood" and tagged with "#onlyinbrownes," and there are now more than a hundred individual posts. Cook, Spokane's current poet laureate, says the ideal subject of an "I love my neighborhood" photo is a landmark or found object that's unusual and maybe even confounding — something that's distinctly Browne's Addition.
"Maybe I've passed it for years without stopping and reflecting, 'I know exactly what that is, and how stupid of me for not noticing the first time,'" Cook says.
And once he started keeping his eyes peeled for odd sights, they seemed to pop up in every direction.
"I thought to myself, 'This doesn't exist anywhere else on the planet,'" Cook says. "And all you have to do is look down at your feet or above your head. Anywhere. It's all around you."
These walks and the resulting social media posts sparked the idea for Cook's new poetry project, a series titled In the Neighborhood, which is funded through Spokane Arts and is encouraging others to explore their familiar surroundings in the same way and write a poem about it. Spokane Arts is accepting submissions through Feb. 12, and selected poems will eventually be included in a printed collection.
This is, of course, not a project without precedence. Cook points to several local poets who have highlighted specific regions of Spokane in their work, and who have influenced his own poetry — Thom Caraway's poems about West Central, Dennis Held's about Vinegar Flats, Tom I. Davis' about Peaceful Valley. Anthony Brighton has also memorialized Browne's Addition in his poems.
What's different about In the Neighborhood, though, is its community angle, and its platform that will let other Spokane residents reflect on the specialness of the streets where they live.
"As poet laureate, you always have in your mind that you'd like to do a signature project," Cook says. "And so I've been thinking about this probably since day one, when I wanted it to be something that was important to me, and show my pride in my city, and to allow others to show that same pride."
"I think that Spokane thinks of itself as a smaller town than it is," says Spokane Arts Program Manager Mika Maloney, who was enthusiastic about the project when Cook approached her with it. "We're a city with these different neighborhoods and areas, and there are interesting things happening all over the city, things worth noticing and writing about and reading about."
In a way, this is a distinctly COVID-era project, Maloney says, because so many of us have been confined to our neighborhoods for months at a time.
"You're going on walks by yourself, [taking] a lot of the same routes and engaging less with the whole city like a lot of us normally do," Maloney says. "So I think this project fits with where people are right now, but also we'll end up with a collection of poetry that is interesting and fun and good to look back at later."
Submissions for In the Neighborhood started coming in at the tail end of 2020, and Maloney says they've already received work from as many kids as elderly people who are writing about neighborhoods where they've spent most of their lives.
"We're getting poems from published authors, and people that we know as poets and writers," Maloney says. "We're also getting poems from people that maybe haven't submitted poems before, or haven't written a poem before. Maybe they write a ton of poetry, but they don't share it with anyone beyond their family or their close friends."
Cook hopes that those authors, whether they be veterans or neophytes, will find new ways of appreciating their own hangouts much like he stumbles upon the unique charms of Browne's Addition — from its century-old mansions that have been repurposed into apartments, to the cobblestone side streets that recall a time before automobiles.
"I like the fact that long after we're gone, a neighborhood identity can remain," Cook says. "I also like that they can run the gamut from Mr. Rogers' vision of a neighborhood to the one described in the Tom Waits song that gave me this project name. There's love in both of them, it's just expressed very differently."♦
To see the poetry parameters and submit your own poem, visit spokanearts.org/opportunities/in-the-neighborhood-poetry-project.