Weekend Write-In: Poetry by Request

100826-helix-asperaOnce upon a time, I saw a periwinkle making its way back to the ocean as the tide rapidly retreated. I had no idea these creatures left such lovely signatures behind. This is how poems began for me, with an image that would not let me rest.

Then, my students and I started the Poetry Stand (see my blog entry Free Poetry, Really ) for further information, and, for the first time in my career as a writer who teaches writing, I asked these young people to do something I had not done before: to take an order for a poem and to write the poem on the spot. For free.

To be fair, I decided to make myself take the kind of risk I’d asked them to. I started by sending out a few emails to close friends (okay, so maybe I cheated a little) telling them I’d like to write a poem for them and asking them to request something — anything. I widened the circle to other friends, book club people, blog readers, etc. To date, I have written poems about sheep, about dementia, about the fall from innocence and swingsets, about forgiveness and the possibility that, someday, we might be able to have movies made of our dreams and many other topics I would never have chosen myself.

Suddenly, poems did not begin with an image. Instead, they began with research. I found Bible passages on what it means to forgive, specialized words that had to do with what happens in our brains when we dream, photographs of brain cells transformed by Alzheimer’s, and really creepy facts about sheep.

Where previously an image had held me hostage, now research set me free. How fun it was to become a student first, poet second; to wallow around in facts and new words until I found something that felt like a beginning to me.

Sometimes, when we write, we sound too much like ourselves. Again and again, we tap the usual reserves, but other people’s ideas and a commitment to attempting to use them, helped me try things I had never considered.

These days, I do a little of both: my own inspiration from those haunting images, and the requests of people who, in most cases, have never had a poem written exclusively for them. I hope you’ll try it.


This is the poem I wrote that began with the image of the periwinkle’s trail.

Plum Island and Back

You come here expecting things in pieces:

the fractured, fleshless shells of mussels,

crab-backs abandoned by soft bellies, a claw.


You come expecting flight over dunes, terns

diving, the confetti of aerialists mad for sky, herons

lifting from the marsh, trailing legs, trailing ropes of water.


You don’t come expecting poetry, nor love, either,

things you feel you’ve had enough of.  You expect —

no, you hope — for nothing grander than relief.


But the periwinkle lays out a path to the sea, a ribbon

in the sand his thin tribute. He has this house to move,

this exaggeration of spine, the only bone he knows.


It helps, it must, to have nothing to compare oneself to.

He can’t know the work ahead, but you do. You wish

the tide back in for him, you wish the moon on his side.


The second is a link to a poem that was requested by my good friend and fellow writer, Holly Robinson. Holly wanted a poem about Plum Island with an emphasis on the way it’s currently eroding. As a bonus, she published it in her novel, Beach Plum Island. You can read that poem and a preview of Holly’s novel, here.

Free Poetry. Really.

Stand Poets, Class of 2014.

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. Another woman wants a sonnet from the perspective of a brick. Abbie writes that one, too.
  3. 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.”
  4. A man decides to post Olivia’s brewmaster poem on the labels of his homebrew.
  5. Anna can’t make the Sunday night stand and arranges a Saturday night one, instead.
  6. Maddie writes a poem for a busker and he reciprocates.
  7. “Can you throw some German expressions into a poem about antiques?” she asks, and Hannah says yes.
  8. Alumni perform cameo requests.
  9. After her poem on friendship, Liz gets a hug from a woman who says, “How did you know exactly how I was feeling?”
  10. 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 . . .
  11. Jeremy does a multi-stanza rhyming epic starring the Incredible Hulk with a four year old leaning against his leg.
  12. Tom, Abbie, and Tara take the stand all by themselves to Salem.
  13. Alli, Emily, Maddie, Britta, Olivia, Erin don’t take a poetry course and sign up anyway and in this way, year two unfolds.
  14. Jazmine, Devin, and Shannon set up a satellite office by the waterfront in Newburyport and business is great!
  15. 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!!
  16. Ryan says: “I didn’t want to do this at first, but it’s been a great day.”
  17. Kyle needs a little help with One Direction info but makes the most of the brainstorm session.
  18. Sometimes, we get pizza; sometimes, cider donuts.
  19. 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.
  20. People cry.
  21. People beg us to take their money (we don’t, though one person stuck money in Gus’s empty coffee mug anyway).
  22. 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.