Poet turns park information signs to art

Sep 1, 2016

It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in Leland, Michigan. The sun is out and a lot of people are visiting Fishtown. Sonja Vanderveen is up visiting from downstate. She’s standing in front of a National Park sign, with poetry on it.

“There were towns, and beaches spooning," she reads. "There was longing, and belonging. There was plenty of parking, and abandon lots. There was sunset. Three scoops of peach high and as wide smeared." 

This sign is brown with white lettering. It’s somewhat small, and looks like any other official National Park sign. Visitors often don't expect to see poetry when they read it.

“That looks more like a parking sign," Vanderveen says.

But that’s what Moheb Soliman wanted.

Moheb Soliman wanted his poems to look like any other National Park sign.
Credit Moheb Soliman

"I thought it would be really interesting to still use that authoritative and objective format, but putting in really poetic and subjective language.”

Moheb Soliman is a poet. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt. He moved to the United States with his family when he was six years old.

Learning a new language was a defining part of Soliman’s life growing up. He took English classes, and practiced at home with his younger sister.

“When you’re learning a ton of vocabulary," he explains,  "you just kind of realize at some point that you now have more words to describe a thing.”

That drive to use words more creatively, led him to poetry. 

Last year Soliman received a fellowship from the Joyce Foundation to travel the entire Great Lakes coastline.

After his trip, he contacted Sleeping Bear Dunes, Isle Royale, Pictured Rocks, Indiana Dunes, and the Apostle Islands. He asked if he could install his poems on their land.

The parks seemed indifferent at first.

But after six months of what he calls bombarding them with phone calls and emails, the five parks finally agreed. Soliman has five different poems installed at each location.

Like the poem in Leland, the 24 other poems around the parks are about nature. He says for him, poetry is a lot like nature. 

“It doesn’t have to narrate," he explains. "It doesn’t have to be logical. It can work with associations, impressions, details, memories.”

The poems will be up through the National Park’s Centennial celebration this year. But Moheb Soliman hopes the park service forgets about the signs altogether, and leaves them up even longer. 

To view images of Soliman's poetry in all five of the Great Lakes National Parks and Lakeshores, click here.