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Submarine kangaroos and space pirate birthday parties

An afternoon with Poems While You Wait

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It's balmy in the Children's Garden of the Garfield Park Conservatory, a welcome respite from the blustery chill of winter. It's Sweet Saturday, so visitors can sample coffee beans, lemon, papaya, and prickly pear, among other edible treats, and there's the tumult of children playing.

Amidst the cacophony of children at work, there's another form of clatter at the back of the garden: the unmistakable sound of typewriter keys being punched, of carriage returns being zinged.

I'm facing six poets behind six typewriters sitting at a long table covered in black cloth. Beside their typewriters are an array of notepads. They're busy punching keys, staring at the tiny sheets of paper rolled between the platen and the paper bail, some blank, some half-filled, some waiting for just one more line.

Most of the poets type with their pointer fingers and the occasional middle finger only, an emphasis not on speed, but on deliberateness.

There's yelling and the clanging of the metal grating where children play above us and wait for a twisted slide that empties right by the poets' table. At one point an ant crawls across the spare topic list behind the table. A few spots of crumbled earth land on my notebook. The occasional drip of water or flower bud falls from above. The distant rolling of the el shudders in the background.

And this is all in just the first five minutes.

I settle in and get ready to watch the poets from Poems While You Wait.

Started in 2011 by Dave Landsberger, Kathleen Rooney, and Eric Plattner, Poems While You Wait now has two dozen poets in its stable and has become a staple of Chicago events and locales. Perhaps you've seen them at the Field Museum or the Adler; the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; a summer festival, a street market, a book fair, a library, a theater, even a wedding.

It's simple: Give them a topic and $5 and come back in a quarter hour to get a fresh, hot-off-the-press poem written just for you. A smudge, an uncorrectable error, it's part of the authenticity.

Normally the money goes to Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit literary publisher started by Rooney and Abigail Beckel, but because the museum is free on this day, so are the poems.

People walk by and ask: How does it work? Are you volunteers? Do I write the poem or do you?

The poets explain the process—often it's explained by Rooney herself. Once it's been established who does what, the person gives the poet a topic: family, coffee, palm trees, emergency medicine. With the younger crowd there's usually some negotiation. "What do you want a poem about?" a parent will ask, and their child will shrug or blush or whisper something. It's one poem per household, so siblings will often have to agree to a subject; or, because a poet's creativity knows no bounds, multiple topics can be lumped together like scoops of ice cream. What does a poem about submarine kangaroos sound like? What about tacos and cats? A space pirate birthday party? No topic is too weird.

The group's objective is to provide patrons with a "magical, unexpected, unpretentious, and decontextualized encounter with poetry."

I recall the Czech poet Miroslav Holub's affirmation that "there is poetry in everything. That is the greatest argument against poetry."

There are other arguments against poetry, too: it's ambiguous, inaccessible, magniloquent (whatever that means); our attention spans aren't built anymore for the commitment and concentration it requires. Or so the arguments go. We see and feel the poetry of the world; we're in love with the poetic, but we're afraid of the poem.

This chasm is precisely what Poems While You Wait aims to bridge, to coax the public into remembering what it's like to enjoy reading poems, to revel in language and the way someone sees the world, even if only for a few dozen seconds.

"I don't care about being corny: it's magic," Rooney says. "Everybody who came here today is like, 'I'm going to go to the conservatory, I'm going to look at plants,' and that's already kind of magical. But then you come here looking at plants and on top of that suddenly you can walk up to a poet, and be like, 'Write me a poem about plants.' And that suddenly memorializes and activates and alters the great moment you already came out to have, and I think there's some kind of alchemy to that."

There's something generous and democratic about Poems While You Wait: there are no agents, no editors, no journals, no publishers. There is only the writer and the reader. It is, according to Plattner, a "total demystification" of poetry and the poem, even of art: "It's not this hermit sitting alone staring down into this dark hole of poetic bullshit."

The poets occasionally stop to snack and apply hand sanitizer. At one point a poet's finger starts to bleed (metaphor!). Antibiotic ointment is applied, followed by a Band-Aid, and the poet starts typing again. The finger will heal, but the poem cannot wait.

The clamor of children is noticeably less intense and the list of topics dwindles to nothing. The last wave of commissioners comes by to pick up their poems. The poets stand up, stretch, pack up their typewriters. Eighty-three poems today.

Someone asks the poet to read her poem aloud to him: "I want to hear it in your voice."

As they walk away, twin sisters pantomime their poem's lines about how twins look at each other.

A patron pulls a poet aside to talk jazz.

On the table sit unclaimed poems, common at a free event, according to Plattner. They're orphaned children, writing sent into the void, like most writing. They're also a reminder of what makes Poems While You Wait special: a word, a line, an answer that's waiting for someone to ask.   v

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