Sid Yiddish got a surprise in the ladies' room at Cafe Express last fall. Someone had taken a knife and slashed a big X through his poem "For the Love of Man (For Jobie Hughes)." Yiddish took it remarkably well. "It's quite a compliment," he says. "If they steal it or make something on it, it inspired the person enough to do something."
At 46 Yiddish may seem a little old to be posting his thoughts on bathroom walls, but he's been at it enthusiastically for almost a year now with little recognition and no obvious reward. "It still gets me excited," he insists. "The bathroom is an intimate place, and to me the project is very intimate."
The project is the Bathroom Poetry Project, which was started by poet Regina Coll in Washington, D.C., in 2005 and today is responsible for the presence of poems in public bathrooms in seven U.S. cities, from Portland to Takoma Park. (You can see maps of locations and read many of the poems at bathroompoet.net.) Last summer Yiddish, who as Charles Bernstein works by day as a researcher at a business publisher, was trawling Craigslist when he saw an ad for a local coordinator for a project exploring the uses of poetry in nontraditional settings. "I said, 'Wow, that's something I can do.'"
Yiddish started writing poetry in grade school and by 1979, while still a student at Niles West High, was calling himself a poet. He wrote for his high school and college papers and from 1986 to 1991 published the zine Cops Hate Poetry, filled with his own poems, record reviews, and interviews with the likes of Carl Perkins, the Circle Jerks, and Allen Ginsberg.
Gnomish with a scraggly beard and heroic gut, Yiddish seems naturally disposed to showy display. He's performed throughout the country as a poet, musician, and performance artist. He recently throat sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" for the Lovable Losers Literary Revue, a club mourning the Cubs' 100 years without a pennant, at a Mexican restaurant in Wrigleyville. Next month he'll be in a display window of the Flatiron Building performing "Suite for Furby on Shofar in D Minor," a solo piece for his 13 Furby dolls. "I play shofar and jaw harp and toy instruments like See 'n Say, kitchen utensils—I throw things at them, speak to them in Furby language, do whatever I can to make them move."
Last year an impromptu rant in a friend's kitchen that mixed politics, poetry, and a breast pump inspired a friend, Joe Ornelas, to develop his first film project. Called "The Visitor From Elsewhere," it's about an alien named Sid Yiddish who uses his gift for mind reading to help a fumbling writer get things done. Six episodes shot last summer are posted on YouTube and a feature is in the works. Ornelas originally cast Yiddish to play himself. "I did the pilot but I got kicked out because they didn't want an improviser and I'm an improviser," Yiddish explains. "Now he's had three or four different actors playing me. I guess I have that many personalities."
The bathroom project is hardly a stretch; Yiddish sees it as a career move. "It's exposure of my work in a place that nobody would generally see." Coll asks coordinators, none of whom are paid, to post other poets' work as well as their own, and Yiddish is happy to share the limelight—above the urinal or by the sink, depending on the location. He solicits contributions from "people I've met along the way that have a great way to express themselves." Some are established poets, some aren't. One works in a steel mill. "I said, your stuff is gonna be in a weird place, but they're gonna love you for it, they're gonna appreciate you so much more, 'cause you dared to do something different." His only criterion for submissions is that they be of a length that's appropriate to the venue.
For the first phase of the project, which began last fall and ended this spring, Yiddish had ten poets—including Coll—contribute six poems each. For the current phase, Yiddish collected six poems each from five poets—three new, and two from the first phase. He's planning a third phase to start in late fall.
Yiddish slips the poems in plastic sleeves and uses gum tack to post them in bathrooms at six spots around the city—in Rogers Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Evanston. He can walk to three of the spaces from his home in Evanston; the whole process takes "between four to six hours, depending on the CTA," he says. He posts only one poem per bathroom, and no two toilets have the same one. If Yiddish is waiting on a fresh batch of poems, he'll recycle old ones. At first he changed the poems every week; now it's more like every two or three.
Wes Heine, a filmmaker, poet, and musician who plays with Yiddish in a band called $2 Cockroach and contributed poems to the second phase, helped Yiddish convince Gallery Cabaret in Bucktown and Myopic Books in Wicker Park to allow poetry in their washrooms. "At first they didn't know what I was talking about," Heine says. "They asked, 'You're not going to read in there, are you?'" (Coll in fact has organized readings in public toilets.) But Heine got the go-ahead once he explained the project. "As long as we do all the work, they don't care."
So far, Heine, who calls Yiddish his "punk poet mentor," is the only contributor who's submitted a poem about a toilet:
I was in a building
a reception hall
on a job
I went to take a shit
it wasn't until I was done that I realized
there was no way to flush
only a little motion sensor that was supposed to flush when I stood up
I've seen these before
I remember in 1990 when I first saw these at Space Mountain: Disney World
I was seven
& the novelty caught on
from where America puts its dream on the chopping block
But this one wouldn't flush
It turns out that the management had to turn on the toilets with a special switch
but they weren't authorized to do so at the time
So my turds floated there
dead and proud
And I thought as I looked at them
what a great shit-hole we've cut out for ourselves
Yiddish's mother, a schoolteacher in Scottsdale, Arizona, who goes by the nickname "the Arizona Babe," is another contributor. She wrote her first poems last summer, for the Liverpool Poem 800, a Web project collecting 800 original poems in celebration of the city's 800th birthday. Yiddish and his mom are major Beatles fans: "She loves John, I love Paul," he says. He persuaded her to write. "I said, 'You know, ma, if I can do it, you can do it.'" Within days, she called to read him the first of her many efforts. Together they submitted 44 poems and each had eight accepted. Yiddish later published some of them in a mother-son poetry chapbook called Our Love for Liverpool.
Now their poems are together again in complementary bathrooms—one in the ladies', the other in the gents'. "Me and my mom, I always try to put us together. I don't want to put mom with anybody else."
One of Yiddish's favorite submissions from his mother is "Number Three Across":
I find it everywhere I look
In a magazine, a newspaper and even in my crossword puzzle book
Mrs. Lennon; Son of John; Lovely Rita; Mr. Starkey
I'm happy that it's there
What joy it brings to me
I always know the answer
There's no escaping
Although you may be a Stones fan
A Chili Pepper or in love with The Boss
You never find them, at number three across
Though most of the bathroom poets include an e-mail address for feedback (Heine's info is prefaced "For a good time, contact poet... "), Yiddish puts his own e-mail address on his mother's work. "That's our deal. She stays completely out of it."
So far none of the poets have received any e-mail response but there's some evidence they're being read. Once Yiddish found a poem scrawled with "Don't quit your day job" and then, in a different hand, "What day job?" He was pleased.
"Everybody has their own interpretation about poetry," Yiddish says, "what it should be and what it shouldn't be. Of course, there's plenty of bad poets out there, as many as good poets, but everybody pulls something away... In the bathroom it's different because it's more of an intimate experience in the process of elimination."v
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the written word