When the Amherst Bulletin police log got national attention as ‘found poetry’

Nick Grabbe

The Amherst Bulletin’s police log received national publicity in 2002. With its mini-tales of a frozen turkey plunked in the middle of North Pleasant Street and a man licking the pavement on Main Street, it was the subject of a national magazine article.

And yet the police log, whose quirkier items are still read aloud in Amherst living rooms and posted on Facebook, was conceived with the most modest of journalistic ambitions: to fill space.

Harper’s magazine ran a feature on the Bulletin’s police log in the February 2002 issue. It was called “Gone When Police Got There,” and spanned four pages in the magazine.

A squirrel that was acting oddly on North East Street was gone when police got there,” read one of the reports that made it into Harper’s. Another was, “People meditating inside a car parking behind a West Street home were sent on their way by police.”

It’s a portrait of a small town where there seem to be very strange events,” said Elizabeth Giddens, the associate editor of Harper’s, in 2002. “It’s quirky and surreal but also harmless and charming. It’s glorifying the beauty of the mundane.”

These “very strange events” included “a group of 10 to 20 people wearing no clothing running around outside the Boulders,” “a T-shirt on fire on the side of Belchertown Road,” a man selling pies door to door in Brandywine Apartments, and two women pretending to be Charlie’s Angels and planning to steal a pumpkin from the front of Atkins.

Giddens said she heard about the police reports from a job applicant. More of the “very strange events” appeared in Jubilat, an Amherst-based literary journal, and as the “poem of the day” for Oct. 5, 2001 on the web site poems.com.

Back in 2002, a grad student named Corwin Ericson, spent three years cutting out gems from the Bulletin police log. One of them (“Footprints outside a Pine Street barn were just indentations made by falling snow”) he compared to haiku.

What was more fun that the crimes were the sublime events where nothing happened,” he said. “There’s a sense of a quest for some benign state that the community wants, if everything were just OK.”

Ericson said of the police log, “It’s the unadulterated history of what’s going on next door, or why the lights were on at 4 in the morning. It’s like the smallest possible element of human drama – so condensed, it’s interesting. More might be boring, if it were drawn out.”

He published a book called “Checked Out OK” that included 300 items from the Bulletin police log. If you think I’m making this up, check out this review of his book.

Ericson made copies of his selected police-log reports and gave them to friends. UMass Professor Dara Wier read them aloud in a graduate poetry course called “Form and Theory.” The late James Tate, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who taught at UMass, included in his collection “Memoir of the Hawk” a dialogue between two officers based on a Bulletin police log item about people painting at Puffer’s Pond at night.

Ericson transformed the deadpan Bulletin reports by bringing a poetic sensibility to selecting them, turning them into “found poems,” Tate said.

A poet can see poetry everywhere, even in a fragment of conversation on a bus,” Tate said.

The Bulletin’s police reports are compiled by reporter Scott Merzbach, who writes each entry based on a dispatcher’s log of calls.

I was the editor of the Amherst Bulletin when it started publishing the police log in the mid-1990s. At the time, the newspaper’s staffing was decreasing while advertising was still strong, and so I had to find a mountain of material to fill the space every week. I decided to pay someone to go to the police station and report exactly what was on the dispatcher’s log, thinking that this was a cheap and easy way to fill the paper.

If someone had told me then that the Bulletin police log would inspire an article in Harper’s magazine, or that its items would be considered poetry suitable for a book, or that Amherst residents would read it aloud to each other, I would have laughed.

Comments 4

  1. When I planned my move to Amherst in 1995, it was based in part on the Amherst Police Log. I had been living in Boston and receiving the Bulletin there in anticipation of moving. Each week, I would happily share the police log with friends to prove that this place where I was planning to move was not just safe but on the quirky side. A major “crime” that stands out in my memory was the theft of a weathervane from a barn roof in South Amherst.

  2. Thanks, Nick. When we first moved here in 2012 I loved reading the Police Log. I remember the one about people stopping traffic to let salamanders cross the street. Also someone arrested for stealing American flags at the VFW, his excuse was that he was French. The log has gotten much more routine lately.

  3. Carol and I were listed once. Actually our chickens were. Seems they were parading down the center of Ward St. and a neighbor grew concerned. Never did find out who called.

  4. The true authors have been ignored or forgotten in all this literary commentary — the officers, who choose their words carefully when writing up their reports, and Scott Merzbach, who does a lot more than merely compile log entries. This is what particularly irked me about the Harpers piece. Many times while working at the Gazette I sat at the same table with Scott, looking at the same log and getting the same briefing. Believe me, Scott knows what he’s doing and deserves credit for it!

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