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Poet imparts a sense of place

Sitting at Café on the Common in Waltham last month, Jennifer Rose quoted Gertrude Stein over a toasted bagel and cream cheese.

"There's no there there," Stein had said, referring to the city of Oakland, Calif., where the author grew up. That is the essence of what Rose, an urban planner and poet, is trying to halt -- the march of sameness that development has brought in places throughout the world.

For the past 15 years or so, the 48-year-old Waltham resident has struggled against that sameness -- working to save architectural history in Waltham, to protect and enhance the neighborhood character of Allston, and now to run a consulting business in Waltham aimed at preserving local distinctiveness. All the while she has written poetry about love and life that often focuses on the importance of place in America.

Her latest book, "Hometown for an Hour," a collection of poems on places and belonging, won the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry last month and has also been honored with Ohio University Press's Hollis Summers Poetry Prize.

In her professional life as a planner and in her writing, Rose has sounded the alarm.

In 2003, when she spoke at a Philadelphia city planning conference, she said she showed a PowerPoint presentation of a recent vacation and asked the audience to guess where she'd gone. They were unable to answer because Rose had photographed chain stores to prove that slowly but surely, cities are being stripped of their character.

Rose's poetry often speaks of distinctive places. In "Bay State Road," she reflects on her appreciation for the urban scene on the Boston University campus.

"I love this street -- its many languages of flowers and kerchief'd sidewalk-sweepers, their brooms whisking away the pollen dribbled everywhere like face powder scattered in Nature's dressing room."

"Kentuckiana Postcards" is a manifesto about why she's an urban planner. It also speaks to her respect for distinctiveness in buildings and places:

"All the downtown
buildingsneed to do is raise their painted eyebrows
slightly or flash old-fashioned neon and I'm gone."

In her early career days, Rose made her living writing and editing. She got into the field of planning in the 1990s after helping to save the Grover Cronin Building in Waltham, a historic structure with a 1930s Art Deco facade. At the time, she was working as a managing editor at Agni Review, Boston University's journal of the arts. She said she quickly became a "building hugger."

She went back to school, getting a master's degree in urban affairs from Boston University's Metropolitan College in 1995.

For 11 years -- until earlier this year -- Rose worked as the executive director for Allston Village Main Streets, one of the country's first citywide, multi-district revitalization programs.

Some of her responsibilities included managing the commercial district's urban design; helping small businesses with technical assistance (like getting to the bottom of utilities that were not reliable); writing grants; and organizing business networks.

With a volunteer she codeveloped The Main StreetS Database Template, a computer program designed to help cities and towns work more efficiently, which is now sold across the country.

"She's extraordinary in her ability to build community relationships," said Josh Bloom, principal of the Clue Group, an organization that specializes in downtown revitalization.

Bloom recalled going for a walk with Rose last summer in an Allston neighborhood.

"She would know everything about the storeowners' lives and their children," said Bloom. "She has this extraordinary ability to connect with people where they are, and as they are, no matter their culture and background."

Her poetry also deals with connections.

In "Hometown for an Hour," each poem is titled like a postcard, with a city or town. In her poetry, Rose asks the question: "How do we know where we belong?"

David Yezzi, executive editor of The New Criterion, a monthly review of the arts based in New York City, and one of the judges for the Audre Lorde award, observed: "Places on maps can be hard to inhabit, but in her poems Rose makes a home wherever she goes."

Some of Rose's poems touch on the frustration and sadness of having a partner who is too ashamed to openly show affection.

Many of her works, however, are devoid of sexuality, as Rose said she does not want to be pigeonholed into a poetic genre.

She said she begins crafting her poetry with visual images, and by creating word lists. One of her favorite tools, she said, is using consonantal rhyme, words that have the same consonant, but different vowels, such as cream, cram, crumb, crime.

"It's like doughnuts with different fillings," Rose said. Traditional rhyme, she explains, is formed with vowels, like cry, bye, sigh and why.

"I love wordplay," she continued. "I love the kind of surrealism that can come when you discover those connections between the words."

Rose is working on a prose memoir with the working title "Years Ago," and a book of poems, a collection of elegies titled "Before and After Photographs."

She began writing the book before her late wife, Cecile Pickart, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, became sick.

The couple had commuted between Baltimore and Waltham for over a decade.

When Cecile became too ill to continue traveling, they went to Waltham City Hall and got married.

"I threw some rice over our heads and we came here to Café on the Common and had a cup of tea," Rose said. "It was a wonderful thing to be able to get married."

Pickart died in April 2006.

Rose left her Allston job in February and now runs her consulting firm, which is called Downtown Diva.

Hopefully, she'll succeed in preserving history so when people look at their vacation photos, they'll know where they've been.

For more on Jennifer Rose's poetry, check www.jennifer-rose.net. For information on her downtown revitalization firm, www.downtown-diva.com.

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