Michael Slotwinski considered carefully whether to reveal his identity.
After all, being anonymous was part of the mystique of the pandemic project he took undertook this year in Canatara Park. For nearly four months, Slotwinski shared a poem he was writing by posting it page-by-page in a glassed-in frame screwed to a tree just inside the park’s Christina Street entrance.
Each evening he went back to post the next excerpt, tantalizing passersby with the unfolding storyline of a man and a woman at what he calls his “Poet Tree.”
The embossed pages carried only two initials and an email address.
“I wanted the words to speak for themselves,” said Slotwinski, a 31-year-old art teacher at Great Lakes Secondary who challenged himself to write the romantic poem during last winter’s lockdown.
“I wrote every day for about half an hour and it turned into a love story. I thought, ‘There’s quality here that’s worth sharing.’ I’m also an artist and I believe if you’re going to create, others should enjoy it.”
The serialized story was inspired by the painted rocks and encouraging notes of others, said Slotwinski.
“During the pandemic, so many people are walking in the park and my idea was to give them something to look forward to. There’s a lot of humour in my poetry that is very relatable and makes people smile. I wanted people to stop and appreciate.”
Occasionally, when posting the next page, someone walking past would thank him and comment on the developing story.
“That really gave me a boost,” he said.
One of those readers was Jean Cowper, a Sarnia snowbird marooned in Canada by the pandemic. She noticed the anonymous poem shortly after it appeared in May.
“So many people enjoyed it and talked about it,” said Cowper. “It became my motivation to take a walk.”
Anonymity added to the fun, she said. “I’d wonder who was writing it. Whoever it was can really write.”
Pages in the frame changed daily until July and then abruptly stopped. Unbeknownst to readers, Slotwinski was on vacation.
Cowper was relieved when the Poet Tree resumed in August. “I was just so interested in finding out what happened to the characters,” she said.
But one day Slotwinski arrived at the tree to find the frame badly damaged. He replaced it, but a few days later found the replacement smashed and tossed in a nearby garbage can.
The vandalism continued, and eventually it wore him down. Seventy-four pages in, the story stopped, just as the plot was heating up.
“I think (the vandal) was just someone who didn’t like it whenever things didn’t go well for the male character,” Slotwinski said. “And I want to say to them, things don’t always go your way. Whoever removed the poem missed the point, and destroyed it without finding out what happens.”
Cowper missed the installments so much she jotted down the email address one day and sent the anonymous author a note. She encouraged him or her to continue, and perhaps even reveal their identity to readers via The Journal.
“I even asked park staff if they had taken it down because they didn’t like the nail in the tree. They said they hadn’t,” Cowper said.
Seeing his poem smashed in its frame “took the charm out” of project for Slotwinski.
“I considered leaving a ‘good-bye’ but I ran out of frames,” he said. “I really would like to finish writing the rest. I know how it ends and there’s a massive surprise, something I think people will enjoy,” he said.
“Maybe I’ll start it up again, especially if I find out a lot of people were enjoying it.”
The first 74 installments of Slotwinski’s poem can be found on Instagram at ms_poet_tree.
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