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.

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Bhavna Patel is a writer based in Montreal.

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