I’ve been invited to join a poetry collective! It’s called Poems While You Wait¹—the group sets up shop at event spaces and writes poems for people on demand, with great speed, on any topic of their choice, in exchange for a donation to a small not-for-profit literary press. It’s yet another situation that feels like it can only exist in a place like Chicago, in which I am once again and forever thankful to be living.
This all happened in a blur. A new friend heard me read one of my poems² at a Pesach seder. He was really excited to tell me about this poetry group that he’s part of. I didn’t learn much else up front, except that, in order to participate, you have to own a typewriter. Consider me intrigued.
He put me in touch with one of the co-founders, to whom I submitted a short introduction and a selection of my work. This person turned out to be Kathleen Rooney, the novelist³, and the author of the piece at Poetry Foundation (also a Chicago concern, I learned!) about Poems While You Wait that I’ve linked in the Notes below.
I’m very glad I found this out after sending my email—otherwise I might have intimidated myself out of the whole thing entirely.
As it happened, she enjoyed my poems and welcomed me in… pending acquisition of a vintage typewriter, with which another of the co-founders will assist me. I have been working to make my life more analog, so I’m pretty excited to learn how to use it.
The poets of Poems While You Wait. Not pictured: me. (I took the picture.)
Last weekend, I attended the above “poeming” at a local boutique movie theater to shadow and learn. We sat in the adjoining lounge and pitched our services to the various 20- and 30-somethings grabbing cocktails before a showing of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. (It was during this pre-Rushmore rush that we received most of our commissions.)
I was having a delightful time just watching and drinking and chatting, the latter of which we did plenty of once most of the patrons had left for the film. We decided to offer a free poem to someone who was still hanging out nearby, and Kathleen asked me if I wanted to write it. This was an ideal intro for me, since, once again, my brain had no time to “properly” consider the matter (i.e., to fabricate an excuse).
So that is how my first poem for Poems While You Wait came to be written, on a borrowed typewriter. It was about Saoirse, who is a cat. All I had to go on was the name, and a photo of her from the lockscreen of her owner’s phone, which showed Saoirse contorted in a super cute stretch on the floor. Here is what I came up with:
In the spur of the moment I decided to replace my last name with my middle name. Not sure I’ll keep doing that—feels like too much of an affectation.
Given that I hadn’t so much as touched a typewriter in who knows how long, I am pretty proud that there are not even more typos. The lack of capital letters is a product of my not knowing how to make them. Someone attempted to show me how but, when it didn’t work the first time, I immediately gave up; when you only have ten minutes to write a poem about someone’s treasured pet, which they will read while sitting in the same room as you, you kind of want to banish all distractions. Plus I liked the lowercase vibe.
I unrolled the finished poem, hand-delivered it to Saoirse’s owner, and then ran away.
At the end of the evening, I collected my portion of the tip jar, which was $1. I’ve had a poem published before, but this might have been the first time I actually got paid in hard cash for writing one.
And maybe it won’t be the last!
¹ Kathleen’s piece at Poetry Foundation provides a wonderful feel for what the experience is like.
The goal is to find places where people are not anticipating an encounter with poetry, but where they are engaged in an activity that they identify as expressing their values, and where those values are congruent with the ones you associate with poetry: a desire to learn, to be entertained, to make distinctions in terms of taste and experience, and to communicate.
² I first published that poem, “Pesach Morning,” way back in Issue #5 of this newsletter, with very little ceremony. What can I say, I like understatement. I do really love this poem, though.
If you prefer to listen, I’ve uploaded my spoken word version.
³ Kathleen Rooney is the author of, among other books, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, a World War I saga in which a soldier and a messenger pigeon twist fates. Cher Ami was a real bird, about whom we had recently learned in a children’s book about heroic animals. In another bit of synchronicity, one of the poems I submitted was about a flock of pigeons⁴.
⁴ The pigeon angle goes deeper! Just a week earlier, I had been walking through the park when I spotted, amongst the riff-raff that is usually to be found pecking through the grass, a dapper-looking avian towering above the others at twice their size. It had a ring of darkly-colored ruffled feathers protruding straight out from its neck, like the collar of a cape, and a head of pure white. “The King of the Pigeons,” I exclaimed (to some random passers-by).
Turns out I was not far off: this was a Grand Hungarian House Pigeon, probably purchased as a show pigeon (no comment) and later abandoned. They’ve since recaptured it—the survival odds in the “wild” were judged to be poor—and plan to put it up for adoption.
So if you or anyone you know desires a royal flying pet…