Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Poem Store, a Cliff, and a Bar Stool Next to Billy Collins

I read a story on NPR's website this morning about a guy who quit his job and started bringing a typewriter to public places to write poetry for people. The whole thing amazed me. He calls it a Poem Store and people prompt him with a word or two and pay what they will for the poem.


He admits that his income is anything but steady and lately he is only doing it once or twice a week as he works on more private writing, but still the guy has been making a living off writing poetry for passersby.

I've had some experience in immediate poetry. In classes that I teach I often talk with students about writing and then, for the hell of it, rip a draft of a poem off on the projector. Sometimes, I revise and work the poem while thinking out loud so that they hear what's going on in a writer's head.

Another time, at a bar with friends, a woman said she had been hit on by a guy with a bad poem. We demanded to see and it was indeed terrible stuff, a roses-are-red type thing. I scoffed, but one friend said that a guy under pressure of time couldn't be expected to come up with something great. I said that it was just a matter of taking the thing seriously. A challenge ensued and I ripped off twenty lines or so of non-rhyming verse on a cocktail napkin. All acknowledged it to be good.

That said, the next evening when Billy Collins was in the same bar, I was happy that the cocktail napkin was gone. I resisted the idea of challenging him to a cocktail napkin duel though one friend suggested I do just that.

There is a part of me that wants to quit my job today (woo-hoo!) and go into the Poem Store business. It's the part of me that thinks the way to happiness is to jump off a cliff and hope for strong updrafts or a benevolent bird. The rest of me knows that cliff jumping is a pretty bad idea at least until one has bought a parachute or learned how to dive into the deep water without courting death.

I can stay in my job for now and keep learning how to write. I can send things out to publishers, friends, editors, and the occasional Poet-Laureate in a bar and see what they say about it. This is a much slower process than cliff jumping, but less likely to end in complete disaster. I still need to take risks and put myself out there on the edge, but I don't have to blindly dive.

I think about Billy Collins in the bar and imagine sitting down next to him. The bartender comes my way. I order vodka on the rocks with a twist. I ask her for a stack of cocktail napkins. Billy drinks. I take out a ball point pen. I write a few lines on a napkin. Billy acts like he doesn't care what I'm doing. I know he's watching. Wondering how long he can let me go before drawing his own pen. Soon he takes a napkin from my stack. Begins a poem of his own. I order us both a second drink. Push my stack of poems toward him. He pushes his toward me. And we, through the night and into the first hours of morning, drink and write on.