A Verse to Go, Please: Street Poets and the Lives They Touch

On-demand poetry elevates curbside artists to messengers of clarity, wisdom, and solace.
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Ryan Ashley Knowles types in the street, with a handmade sign advertising "A Poem for You..." at his feet. (Bhavna Patel)

The transaction took place in the summer of 2010 at the Arcata Farmer’s Market in California. Jacqueline Suskin sat in a folding chair balancing a manual typewriter on her knees, pecking letters onto receipt paper using two fingers. She wore a printed dress under her camel overcoat—the kind one imagines wearing to an Easter Sunday service, and large dark glasses shrouded much of her face. A small sign next to her read, ‘Poem Store—Your Subject, Your Price.’

Neal Ewald, 58, VP of a timber firm, stood there skeptical yet intrigued. He asked Suskin for a $5 dollar poem about being underwater—he was eager to hit the beach on an upcoming vacation. "Being under water was my second favorite thing to do in life," Suskin replied.

Suskin grew up in Florida and knew all about the ocean. She used to spend hours on end snorkeling until an eye infection prohibited her from doing so. Within a minute she typed down the following:

Of all the things to do in life, all landscapes to believe in, all ways

of

proving anything is possible, with the weight of water around us as we

pay

tribute to the finest possibility. When below the surface we take

moments

to look up and know that be it waking life or not, all the force of the

world lies deep and well in such an unknown place.

The pastoral setting offers an almost airy feeling of liberation. But the weight of the water presses down at the same time.   

The poem perfectly captured Ewald’s experiences. “There’s pressure, euphoria and a great sense of adventure down there. Being under water makes you feel limitless and the poem reminded me of all of this,” he says.

As he got into his car, he read over the words some more. It was, he said, “like someone who tells you your fortune and reveals secrets only you would know.” Ewald was left feeling eerie, but in a fitting way. Memories of his late wife, Wendy, who had died two years earlier, and with whom he and his then two teenage children had spent hours scuba diving, came flooding down.

Wendy had been a fitness instructor and marathon-runner. When she first fell ill, the doctors dismissed it as a minor bladder infection that would pass. But her symptoms had continued, eventually being diagnosed as stage 4 urothelial carcinoma, a rare form of cancer typically found in long-time smokers 60 and up. She had never touched a cigarette, but did grow up with a smoker. Wendy died on November 29, 2008 – exactly five months after her diagnosis.

Lonely weeks had turned into years, but Ewald was still holding on to Wendy’s ashes.

After the encounter on the sidewalk, Ewald provided Suskin with stories about Wendy, as well as letters and email exchanges with her friends, and then commissioned her to write a poem about Wendy's life. The finished poem was titled “Everything’s A Gift,” and reflects on the value of “teachers of wisdom” (Wendy was a school teacher):

It is these guides who recognize the fickle ways of the body, knowing
that all life is not had in the mind, who discover the sturdy ground is
in the kith and kin, in the loves we nurture with the simple give and
take that can only be had through such constant connection.

The poem included three stanzas.

Ewald had found clarity.

“I took Wendy’s ashes to College Cove, read the poem aloud with my family, and released her ashes.” And for the first time, Ewald removed his wedding ring. When he returned home, he found a special place for it beside Wendy’s ring.

The release gave birth to a regular ritual. Ewald now treks out to College Cove three times a year - on his wedding anniversary, Wendy’s birthday, and the day he shared her remains with the water. “I take a copy of that poem, read it, swim 500 yards off shore to where she is, lay a dozen lilies and swim back.”

***

Street writing has been around for decades. Ron Dultz typed poetry outdoors in the 1970s and Dan Hurley, who calls himself a 60-second novelist, took it up in the 80s. Many of today’s spontaneous writers know or have heard of one another, usually starting up their own portable business after a personal encounter with a street poet themselves. According to members of the loosely connected network, who congregate on social media sites, there are about 30 literary street artists in North America and the number is growing.

Each member, more often than not, finds a customer base for his or her poetry outside on street corners, or in front of supermarkets, farmers markets, fairs, galleries or wherever else people stroll in large numbers.

Some of the poets have never had the opportunity to become a part of the stifling constraints of the conventional art world. They have established their own boundaries: on-the-spot spontaneity, connection with customers, and work that is directed to, and to some extent by, others; and it must be produced in mere minutes. There is no outpouring of their souls and payment is often donation-based. The entire exchange also requires a typewriter, usually antique, and otherwise known as the showstopper.

Zachary Houston, 31, a spontaneous poet from Oakland, California admits, “it’s totally not the most effective way to walk around with language technology at your fingertips.”  But the obsolete technology has its powers.

When a poet rolls in a sheet of paper down a platen and click-clacks on some keys, it prompts related levers to raise, and in turn, pushes letter bars against the ink ribbon and onto the paper, the pressure, leaving an imprint on the page. Observers get to witness the tactile, organic process of writing firsthand and receive a poem that is truly unique. “The medium always adds value to the words,” says Hurley. “The physical action of hammering a key onto a piece of paper creates an end product that simply can’t be digitally reproduced.”

Customers can have a poem written on any subject they choose. Part buskers, part griots, part hustlers, the network has created a poetic world apart where they can find direct connection with readers, at times tapping into their hidden feelings within minutes.

Street poet from France Antoine Berard enjoys the flash therapy he provides spontaneously to others both in the US and back home. “Sometimes people bring up real issues of the heart or important life decisions. That’s really what makes it worth going out there and doing this.”

“I’ve shared so many tears with so many people that I just meet on the spot that for whatever reason feel intrigued to come up to me and ask me to write about their problems,” says Ryan Ashley Knowles, 31, from Denver, Colorado.  Knowles has written about heartbreaks, the loss of loved ones and the struggles of drug addictions.

Suskin adds, “It’s so intense to interact with people in that way. When I get home, I’m physically exhausted. People in Arcata would joke about me being the town poet and therapist!”

And then there are those passersby who stick to lighter topics. Dog poems drive Houston nuts. “Dogs dude... Dogs. It's terrible. My rule is if your dog can read you can get a dog poem but I need proof. Show me a home video of your dog reading out loud and I'll write you a dog poem.”

Clients aren't always happy with the end product either. Originally from New York, Tristan Bennett, 27, has been a street poet in New Orleans, Louisiana for the past three years. “One guy took the poem, read it and said, ‘Well I only like this half.’ He ripped off the other half and paid me for the part that he did keep.” Apart from that incident, he jokes about having a “decent Yelp rating”—most of his customers, he thinks, walk away satisfied.

Houston also feels his public has spoken. “There are thousands of poems that I’ve sold that are gone,” he says. Each customer owns a single copy of his compositions. All this without an MFA degree to his name, though he did briefly study linguistics, art and sociology at Sonoma State University. “Tell me, who the hell can sell 10,000 versions of their poetry books nowadays?”

Brett Fletcher Lauer, the Deputy Director of the Poetry Society of America, believes any time a writer gets the public to think about poetry, it’s a win for everyone. “We feel really marginalized as poets,” he says. “The last thing we want is for the only readers to be buying or reading poetry be other poets.”

Sharing poetry can be therapeutic for those who write it, as well. “There were so many things that I didn’t know how to deal with,” says Knowles, whose mother was murdered and his father imprisoned when he was just a teenager. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a good or bad writer. Writing is important to shake some of those cobwebs off of you," he says.

Since his own encounter with poetry, Ewald has started writing an adventure novel. “It’s certainly not high prose. But it was therapy for me and it gave me something to do," he says, as he gets used to requesting a table for one.

 

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Bhavna Patel is a writer based in Montreal.

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