March 16, 2023
A Guide to Composing Street Poems
Street poems are what I call the found-language poems I've put together from lines I've overheard. They come from not only the street but also restaurants, museums, theaters, subways, etc. Examples are "Fix This One Thing,""A Day Like Any Other," and "Now or Later" (PDF; in the journal Streetcake). I overheard my lines in New York, but anywhere is good.
In cities we are used to blocking out what is not necessary for us to know getting from Point A to Point B, but unblocking is the first step to listening for lines.
Material must come from people you don’t know. You may use questions strangers ask you directly and things they say to you. Those are fine.
You can’t make up any sentences, but you can break them up and add conjunctions if you like. It’s permissible to remove uhs, likes, ums, sos, etc.
Walk slowly and stop often. Take the train and the bus. Eat by yourself. Drink coffee alone. Linger by the information booth. The people nearby are your collaborators.
Take care with names. Your goal is a poem, not libel.
Honor your collaborators. Remember what Grace Paley said, something along the lines of, “Every character deserves the open destiny of life.”
Keep an ear out for loud, one-sided cell-phone conversations.
If you hear something that makes you think, “I want to hear the rest of that story,” that kind of line is gold.
The more languages you know, the better. Include non-English verses in a regular font, not italics.
Announcements, transit and otherwise, are always welcome. You will hear a lot of announcements.
Cursing is okay but only in moderation. Same with snooty remarks.
Fill up a big cache of lines before you start putting together the poem. That way, they’ll rumble around in your head for a while and make connections on their own.
Finally, make up your own rules, of course!
The Poetry Friday roundup is at author Laura Purdie Salas's blog on March 17th.
Photo by ST. That sculpture is Jim Rennert's "Listen" (2018). Sixth Avenue and 55th Street, NYC.