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.

Wow.

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.