It is ten o’clock on Sunday morning, and sunlight is streaming into the River East Art Center in Chicago, Illinois. Dave Landsberger, Eric Plattner, and I are surrounded by four elementary school girls ordering us to write them poems on the subjects of “cats,” “school,” “chocolate” and “sisters.”
We roll sheets of paper into our two manual typewriters—Smithy and Quiet Deluxe—and set to work. The girls clutch their dolls and hover close as we strike the keys. Not only have they never had anyone write a poem to their specifications before, they have also never seen machines like these; they are all under ten years old, and their timelines consist only of handwriting and then computers. What are these things? How do they work? Why are they so loud? You don’t plug them in?
As we compose, their dad, a dapper gentleman in a fedora and trench coat, counts out our suggested rate of $5 per poem, with the proceeds going to a literary nonprofit. He has his wallet in one hand and a bag of artisanal pineapple donuts in the other; he has set his artisanal coffee down on our wooden table, and as his kids exuberate, watching us do our thing, he eyes the artisanal mother-and-daughter jewelry team to our left, and the artisanal pizza bakery behind us, and beyond them, Rustic Tart, a purveyor of “handcrafted free-form pies made with seasonal fruit from local growers,” by whom we will be commissioned to write a poem later in the afternoon.
We poets are here doing Poems While You Wait, which you could say means that we are making artisanal poems.
We have a sign-in sheet where, as the girls have done, customers write their names, as well as any requests in terms of style or subject matter. Today’s topics: “reality,” “freshness,” “ekphrasis,” “my dog Lucy,” “dreams,” “surrender,” “cake versus pie,” “a librarian,” “romance,” “beauty” and “the dystopic future.” At the end of our six-hour shift, including a one-hour lunchbreak, we will have written a total of 63 original poems among the three of us.
Dave used to do a similar project with the Miami Poetry Collective, and it was his idea to transfer the venture northward as part of his overall interest in “decontextualized and recontextualized poetry performances.” The aim is to provide the public an unexpected and unpretentious encounter with poetry, as well as to challenge ourselves with the improvisatory nature of the commissions.
So far, we’ve set up shop—or are scheduled to do so—at Wicker Park Fest (hotter, louder, boozier), the Adler Planetarium (for one of their “After Dark” events), and the Arlington Heights Public Library (where we will be hidden among the stacks). The goal is to find places where people are not anticipating an encounter with poetry, but where they are engaged in an activity that they identify as expressing their values, and where those values are congruent with the ones you associate with poetry: a desire to learn, to be entertained, to make distinctions in terms of taste and experience, and to communicate.
Dose Market, where we happen to be this Sunday morning, is such a place. Per its website, “Dose is a year-round market featuring the finest selection of vendors under one roof”: transpiring once a month, the market focuses chiefly on food, design, and fashion. We suppose we fit the latter category, albeit not exactly. Of fashion, the Dosettes write, “To us, fashion is what’s of-the-moment, style-wise. It’s about what’s new and what’s lasting. It’s what’s happening around us, aesthetically and experientially. It’s quality, beauty and pleasure.”
We hope our poetry is “about” those things, too.
In the materials they offer for potential artisans, the Dosettes explain that “Dose Market vendors offer products that are new, unusual and hard-to-find everywhere else. These products are of the highest quality and are crafted or acquired with a discerning eye and impeccable palate.” You can find poems like ours—or at least the general enterprise of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call retail poetry—in a few other places. Our project is sort of similar to Fresh-Squeezed Poetry by Barbara Perry, although Perry does not use typewriters, and to Custom Poems Picked Fresh by Holly S. Morrison, who does use one, and to Jen Hofer’s escritorio publico project, in which she uses a typewriter to compose letters for her customers, and to the Typing Explosion in Seattle. But overall, it’s true that poems on demand are not the easiest thing in the world to track down.
An ungenerous observer could characterize Dose Market as an obnoxious, bourgeois, performative see-and-be-seen space, and could scoff at the relentless artisanality—but what Dose affords is hardly intrinsically shallow or bad: it’s a forum that presents attendees with an opportunity to be more mindful of their consumption, and to think about their purchases as an expression of their openness, receptivity, and capacity for close attention. If you think about it, for the artisans—a word that simply refers to a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand—the whole set-up recalls the Arts and Crafts movement. The effort is very William Morris (himself a poet), very John Ruskin, a potential remedy for alienation insofar as it combats the division of labor described—and decried—by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice:
We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.
At their best, venues such as Dose provide thought and labor a chance to have a family reunion.
There is a longstanding contention that monetary commerce is inherently deadening to art, but this isn’t always the case; we’ve found that it can actually be enlivening to poetry. Participants in contemporary poetry’s so-called “gift economy”—in which poems and books are frequently not sold, but rather given away or swapped with other poets —often bump up against the fact that they can’t be certain anyone will want to receive their gifts. Yet today, at Dose, we will find that we cannot keep up with the demand from people who want to pay us for poems: we will have to shut down the sign-up list an hour before the market officially closes so we can get all the orders completed.
As we finish their poems, the four elementary school girls—our first customers—ask us to read the pieces aloud. When we are done, they tell us that they will keep these sheets of paper forever. It occurs to us that, although it may be a commonplace to say that kids are more creative than adults, it’s mostly correct: the girls are immediately into what we are doing, see it as valuable without question, and take pride in having provided us with the various dramatic situations. They find the process magical.
Their response puts me in mind of the contrasting reaction in a scene in the 1995 Richard Linklater film Before Sunrise in which Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke, and Céline, played by Julie Delpy, stroll along the Danube Canal in Vienna and encounter a street poet who offers to write them a poem inspired by a word of their choice. If they like it, he says, they can pay him whatever they think is fair. They give him the word “milkshake” and the poet—attractively tattered, surrounded by crumpled drafts, and smoking a cigarette—sits down and begins scrawling. The resulting poem is called “Delusion Angel” (written for the film by the American performance poet David Jewell):
Daydream delusion, limousine eyelash
Oh baby with your pretty face
Drop a tear in my wineglass
Look at those big eyes
See what you mean to me
Sweet-cakes and milkshakes
I'm a delusion angel
I'm a fantasy parade. . . .
And so on. As they’re walking off, Celine says “It’s wonderful, no?” and Jesse says, “You know, he probably didn’t just write that. I mean, he wrote it, but he probably just plugs that word in.”
There’s a lot you could say about Jesse’s response, including that instead of being grateful for this moment, he’s wondering if however much money he spent really bought what he was promised. You could say that his reaction is cynical, or at least not charitable. But even his doubt is a form of engagement, and his skepticism causes him to go back and closely read the poem, to think: Is it possible that that word was just placed arbitrarily? His doubt—and the fact that he paid for the poem—makes him more attentive to its language, its possible means of inspiration, and the mechanisms of its composition. His having purchased the poem makes the object more memorable, and weaves poetry more deeply into the texture of his evening. None of this would work if the street poet was—or if we were—just handing out poems like palm cards or flyers.
Getting people to interact with poems as consumers changes the way they experience the poem. For the most part, it means that they experience poems at all: thus, whether your response as a customer is romantic or cynical, we’re happy either way. Of course, the presence of the author at the moment of the work’s reception indisputably affects its reception: are people going to tell us to our faces that they hate one of our poems? Probably not. Are they going to read it incredibly attentively because they just saw us make it? Definitely. The horseshoe you buy at a Pioneer Day festival is just a horseshoe, but because you watched the blacksmith smith it, you will treasure and save it.
Worth noting is that in the YouTube comments on the Before Sunrise scene, someone has written “great . . . thanks man, he drops the poem of the century on them and they're like, thanks man.” Did the street poet drop the poem of the century on them? Do we ever succeed in doing so at Poems While You Wait? Can any poem composed in the ten or so minutes between when a customer places an order and returns for the finished product be the poem of the century?
The process of writing a poem—any poem—consists to a great extent of anticipating how the poem is going to be read. At Poems While You Wait, the audience reaction is particularized and demystified: these poems aren’t written in the hope that they’ll have an independent further life in a print anthology or on a website (which is not to say that’s out of the question) but rather with aims that are modest and extremely targeted. This is not poem-as-personal-computer—i.e., a device designed to maximize its potential applications—but poem-as-flint-arrowhead.
That being said, I’m less interested in an unanswerable question about what comprises a poem-of-the-century than in a couple of further comments on the Before Sunrise clip: one that says, “i never cared much for poetry but maybe because it was cuz i was reading from a book … when presented in this setting, this poem moves me to tears every time I hear/see it,” and another that says, “I wonder what the poet smells like?” To speak to the first comment, we’ve been impressed with the extent to which our customers’ enthusiasm seems to stem from the fact that this brush with poetry occurs unexpectedly and serendipitously in a commercial space, as opposed to in a classroom, at a conference, at a reading, or in some other tightly defined intentional poetic community. To speak to the second comment, we’ve also been struck by how the embodied presence of three laboring poets seems key to the pleasure people take in the performance—as does the sheer physicality of our use of vintage manual typewriters: customers are enchanted by the idea that their poems are one-of-a-kind, suitable-for-framing objects made right in front of them, and not only don’t mind but seem charmed by the typos and errors that inevitably creep in because of the speed at which the pieces are typed. If we were writing the poems by hand, or composing them on PCs, I suspect that this would not be the case.
The two fundamental appeals of Poems While You Wait and other similar endeavors seem to be the restoration of a poem’s aura and the masterful incorporation of accident. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin critiques the means and motives behind the reproduction of images through such media as filmmaking and printing; in so doing, he laments the loss of “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction,” specifically “the aura”—the sense of a work of art’s uniqueness, and the instant of wonder that is supposed to grip its beholder. Benjamin mourns the fact that, “[e]ven the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
PWYW reintroduces the singularly physical component crucial to the idea of an “aura,” and also manipulates time and space. The time is quick: we make the poem before your eyes. It’s like the Benihana of poetry (only with fewer flashing knives, less fire, and arguably a more enduring deliciousness). The space is tight, the distance closed almost to a point that could be uncomfortable for some: too personal or too intense. You can smell us, and we can smell you. We give a customer’s poem a uniqueness that it would not have were he or she to come across the poem in a book. (Although we do reserve the right to photograph your poem and put it up on our tumblr before we hand it over to you in perpetuity.)
Benjamin argues that, “[t]he cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead” present in early photographs gives “the fleeting expression of a human face,” and that “this is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty.” At PWYW, the majority of requests are always for poems that are for other people, usually people who are absent: lovers, friends with upcoming birthdays, gifts for the holidays, even elegies. That is why what we do is so human and moving—not because we think we’re amazing poetic geniuses creating deathless works of art, but because our customers are so touching in their intentions for the poems that they’re buying: the roommate who wants to apologize for being loud and drunk in the apartment the night before (poem title: “Hot Mess”) or the guy who loves his friend so much, but can’t really say it like that, and so commissions a poem to tell him that he hates him (title: “Fatass”) or the husband who wants to tell his wife how excited he is about their one-month anniversary (title: “Being Married to You Is Like Owning a Time Machine”) or the woman who wants a poem for the son of her dead sister and brother-in-law, to tell him that everything will be okay eventually (title: “Elegy”).
Benjamin also observed in his essay, way back in 1936, that virtually all readers are now becoming writers, too: “Literary license,” he complained, “is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.” His point is valid, but to us, the closeness at PWYW between writer and reader is not a net negative, nor is the fact that the poems we write are not meant to be personal to us, the authors, but are intended to have value as a commemoration of an occasion, as a communicative act, or as the articulation of sentiments which people feel that they can’t express in language or that they’re somehow unauthorized to express.
For even when our customers are obviously hiring us because they feel they cannot say in words what they need to say, they are still our collaborators—like the British soldier who bought a poem at Wicker Park Fest last summer, who had been away on duty in Afghanistan and was about to return home and move in with his girlfriend, and who wanted to tell her that he was sorry he had to be gone and that his time away was difficult, but that he really loves her and that when they’re together again, they can make it all work.
Wherever you are, British soldier, you should know that you basically wrote that poem on your own, but I hope it worked out. I hope that you are still in love, and that the poem helped, at least a little.