This Must Be March

Street Guide


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.


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When I go out today, I will listen. What fun to research for a poem in a different way!

What a terrific guide, Susan! And a great reminder that poetry is literally everywhere.
And your warning, "Your goal is a poem, not libel." is hilarious. :)

Linda, yes, it’s fun! And good practice for me for staying in the moment as I am prone to get waaay ahead of myself. 😆

Thanks, Bridget! I also find that if I’m reading poetry just before I start walking around, literally everything sounds intriguing.

This is an invitation to pay more attention to the world. I love the idea of taking note, seeing what you have, then finding poetry. Thanks, Susan. Great Idea for Poetry Month.

Susan, I've read some of your found this way poems before. Now I've read these three you linked to. I have never thought to give one a try, but I just decided to make a date with myself and write one for things I hear in Yucca Valley. I'm going to go to my favorite places, slow down, eat and drink and most of all listen. I wonder how it will differ from things you hear in New York. Wonderful I did!

Oops, that was wonderful idea.

Janice, yes, yay, I'm glad that came through. There are so many things that compete for our attention, and yet I have to remind myself over & over to slow down and listen in any number of situations.

Denise, yessss! I can't wait to see what you find.

Love your guidelines! And lucky you, having a great city like NY to collect your data.

Thanks, Jama! I do feel very lucky that NYC is a relatively short train ride away.

I love this - live "found" poems in the making. One of my favorite things to do is to eavesdrop on conversations that take place. I was just at lunch with a sister, walking through a nursery, and picked up two lines in the space of a few minutes. Now, I have to gather more, then harvest!

Oh, fun, Patricia! I look forward to hearing/reading what you come up with. People are always supplying lines if you just listen for them! Solutions to writing problems often come to me while I am walking, too.

"Love this idea! I am a listener and an observer. I think it would be fun to do this - especially, 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."

Since moving last summer, I have yet to go and have coffee on my own. This is something I regularly did. I have been thinking about starting again. You inspired me. Of course, my writer's notebook will be my companion! Thanks!

Carol, perfect! You will have your writer’s notebook with you for company. Have a great time, and I hope you’ll share the poem with us one day.

Fun--a license to eavesdrop!

This is awesome! Thank you for sharing. "The more languages you know, the better. Include non-English verses in a regular font, not italics." really resonated with me... wonderfully said. Thanks for sharing!

This sounds like the perfect goal for an Artist's Date. Thanks for the guidelines and for sharing a few wonderful mentors. Love this idea!

Linda, Sarah Grace, and Molly, looking for lines is for sure an excuse to eavesdrop! I really enjoy the search and the surprise of a great line. Thank you for reading.

Ideas float in the air around us, so your methodology is perfect, Susan. In my six years in NYC, I travelled regularly to schools via thee subway and collected a rich tapestry of stories, but your use of dialogue adds a new perspective to such precise eavesdropping (for which we poets have a licence). I applaud your ingenuity. What a cache of poetic pearls you must have gathered as part of this intriguing journey of committed collecting. Your instructive post is most valuable for others who may be prompted to pursue a similar magical process.

Alan, riding the subway probably gave you many notebooks worth of material! Thanks for your kind words. There are poetic collaborators everywhere—even if they don’t know it.

Susan, I love this. In your examples, I love the way you use repetition of the same line or bits of the same conversation to ground the randomness/surrealness of unconnected comments and give a shape to the overall poem. Thanks for these directions--adding to my prompts.

"Your goal is a poem, not libel." **snort

Thanks for unpacking your process (it's a poem in itself)! I think we'll be seeing lots of Street Poems in the PF roundup in the near future!

Thanks so much, Laura! The "how do I get downtown" poem came about after hearing a woman who jumped onto a crosstown bus going from east to west and clearly not going downtown. It made me wonder if she just hopped on and hoped for the best.

Mary Lee, you got it. The process is the best part! Walking around and eavesdropping for the win.

As you know from reading my post, I love eavesdropping on conversations, but it is often unintentional. Your suggestions add a whole new perspective and purpose. Going to try it more often now! Thanks.

Rose, in Karen Edmisten's post about "Emily Dickinson's To-Do List," by Andrea Carlisle, there's also a mention of eavesdropping. A surprising theme this week!

What a wonderful way to create a found poem. I'm going to give it a try! Thanks so much for the idea.

This sounds like so much fun! I'd love to do this! Kind of a fun artist's date.

Carmela and Marcie, let me know how it goes! It often takes me several jaunts around town before I collect enough material.

Susan, I love this guide, these ideas! It reads like a Billy Collins poem. And ha, yes, love the surprising theme of the week! :D

You've reminded me of a line I overheard in a coffee shop once. I've always remembered it and want to (PLAN to ... plan it, Karen!) use. I heard one man tell another, "I've got cat issues. I mean, I'm a 35-year-old man. I'm not supposed to have cat issues."

Thanks for the list of ideas/prompts, Susan!

Hahahaha! That is hilarious. And absolutely the beginning of a poem. Or short story!

This is such a rich writing prompt, Susan. I went to college in NYC and you're spot-on about this: "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."

Aw, thanks, Laura. I have to remind myself to listen so often--even yesterday on a Zoom call.

You're so lucky to have gone to school in New York. Our niece did, too!

"Now or Later" is really perfect and so matter of fact, each line flows into the next. Great post! I walk each day, not always in a sea of peeps, but I'll have to keep my ears open for any ambient voices, thanks Susan!

Thanks so much, Michelle! I like to take long walks looking for birds, too, but they are harder to translate. :)

March 24 - Susan, we missed you today! I did write my street poem; I wanted to show it to you: Thanks for the inspiration!

Denise, OMG, I love those poems! Beautifully done. And interspersing the song lyrics is SO fun.

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