When a group of four walks into the Ipswich Art Show, I am sitting behind the Poetry Stand stand. They glance at me and then quickly look away, afraid to make eye contact with an offer they intend to reject.
“Free poetry,” I say anyway. “My students will write you a poem on any subject. You can have it written as you browse.”
A chorus of embarrassed no thank-you’s as they hurry away. The fourth person also starts to walk past and then stops. “Free poems did you say?”
I nod. “We don’t even accept donations.”
He studies me for a moment, maybe to make sure this isn’t some invitation to join a cult thinly disguised as some free love come-on and then he says, “Then what’s the point?”
We get this a lot at the Poetry Stand.
The stand is not my idea. It came from an article in American Scholar by a poet-slash-teacher named Doug Goetsch who set out with a group of students to write poems for strangers (http://theamericanscholar.org/poetry-stand/#.VDFOtkvxUxc) . At the time I came across this article, I was home raising our daughters but I tucked the idea away with the same kind of someday-sigh that I reserve for real estate ads of cottages along the Sakonnet River in Tiverton, RI. Fantastic dream, but you’d have to hit the equivalent of the lottery to make it a reality.
And then, a few years after I started teaching again, I met Abbie. She was a poet, an actor, the kind of generous person who only knows how to include everyone no matter the task or the adventure. During her sophomore year, I told her about the stand and she said, “I’d love to do that.” Okay, I thought, then it’d be Abbie and me. But one voice had at least sounded in the universe.
Two years later, Abbie and fifteen other kids signed up for my first ever senior poetry class (I admit it: I am a lucky bastard) and this time when I mentioned the poetry stand, Abbie said: “You keep saying it. Why don’t we do it already?” Maybe I was my tentative, dbuious, fall-back, cautiously optimistic, borderline pessimistic self, but one Saturday in April, six of us set up shop in Newburyport and thirty or so poems later, the poetry stand became The Poetry Stand. Four years and hundreds of poems later . . . people still want to know: what’s the point?
Well, here are some of the millions of points that I can think of to get us started:
- A man says, “I’ve been watching what you guys are doing for a while and now I’ve come up with a poem. I just moved her from the midwest and would like an existential poem about it.” Abbie says: “I got this. We read The Stranger in French with Dr. Ladd.”
- Another woman wants a sonnet from the perspective of a brick. Abbie writes that one, too.
- A woman with a baby carriage hugs me and says, “You know how sometimes you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for? That’s what happened to me when Lisa wrote me this poem today.”
- A man decides to post Olivia’s brewmaster poem on the labels of his homebrew.
- Anna can’t make the Sunday night stand and arranges a Saturday night one, instead.
- Maddie writes a poem for a busker and he reciprocates.
- “Can you throw some German expressions into a poem about antiques?” she asks, and Hannah says yes.
- Alumni perform cameo requests.
- After her poem on friendship, Liz gets a hug from a woman who says, “How did you know exactly how I was feeling?”
- Julia says, “How does this work?” and I say, “You’ll get at least one grandchild and one cat poem,” and she does. And she really loves cats, so . . .
- Jeremy does a multi-stanza rhyming epic starring the Incredible Hulk with a four year old leaning against his leg.
- Tom, Abbie, and Tara take the stand all by themselves to Salem.
- Alli, Emily, Maddie, Britta, Olivia, Erin don’t take a poetry course and sign up anyway and in this way, year two unfolds.
- Jazmine, Devin, and Shannon set up a satellite office by the waterfront in Newburyport and business is great!
- Colin writes a poem for a group of fourth graders and when one of them says, “Now can you read it in French?” he does!!
- Ryan says: “I didn’t want to do this at first, but it’s been a great day.”
- Kyle needs a little help with One Direction info but makes the most of the brainstorm session.
- Sometimes, we get pizza; sometimes, cider donuts.
- Ink freezes when it’s 12 degrees, but Gus writes with no gloves, Austin doesn’t have a hat, and the girls hunker down inside Zumi’s to collaborate on pony poems.
- People cry.
- People beg us to take their money (we don’t, though one person stuck money in Gus’s empty coffee mug anyway).
- Every time I make an announcement: Anyone interested in working The Poetry Stand, kids show up (Sophie first).
So far over seventy kids have written for The Poetry Stand: sonnets, haiku, pastorals, poems about dying loved ones and video games, plain old elusive joy; they have written about teddy bear hamsters and Lego Star Wars, about the empty nest syndrome and sibling devotion; they have written so that a girl might fall in love with the stranger before them; they have written about the blues and sailing, about a child with Down’s Syndrome, about Tyrannosaurus Rex; they have written from a line someone hands them. They are always ready to write the next thing.
The point is poetry and the way in which it connects us to the world. The point is there will never be any strings attached. The point is that, this weekend, at the very last minute, kids walked in out of the rain on Saturday night or sat beneath a streetlight Sunday night and grabbed clipboards to start writing. The point is, whenever The Poetry Stand is open for business, another one of my dreams comes true.