Not everyone likes poetry.
But with Typewriter Rodeo, I’ve found that, everyone does seem to like a poem written just for them, on a topic they selected.
“I love Sean Petrie and his band of poets — they always lift the mood.”
— Naomi Shihab Nye, U.S. Young People’s Poet Laureate
Over the last decade, I’ve written more than 25,000 poems. But not for a book or magazine. No, these were for an immediate readership: strangers, waiting across from me for poems they’d just requested.
A lot of those were done with Typewriter Rodeo, an Austin-based group I helped start, at events all across Texas and the country.
“[Sean’s] Typewriter Rodeo is an exciting project that implicates perfect strangers in the business of poetry by spontaneously writing a poem for them. Who said poetry needs be limited to the library or classroom?”
— Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate
Others were written on my own, at places like a coffee shop in Portland, Maine, or an art fair on Alki Beach, Washington.
I have poems in books and magazines and on the radio. And I love doing those. But the poems for strangers — call them on-the-spot poems, collaborative poems, or simply interactive fun — those take poetry beyond the page. They shift it from the often-inscrutable to the immediately-accessible.
For those 25,000-plus people – from all ages and walks of life – it made poetry real, tangible, enjoyable. That’s why I call it poetry for all.
Add the extra magic of seeing (and hearing!) your very own poem clacked out on a typewriter, in just a few minutes? Well, that doesn’t just make poetry appreciators. It often makes poetry converts.
“Dear Sean —
Thank you for keeping the sound and fury of typewriters available to all. Yee-haw!”
— Tom Hanks, actor & typewriter fan
Imagine a salesman at an insurance conference, walking up to the table and saying: “Poetry? Why the heck would I want a poem?” Then getting one, perhaps about his wife or his favorite hiking trail. Then reading it to himself. Then his eyes lighting up as he says:
“This is so f—ing cool!”
(Yes, true story.)
Or imagine an eighth-grade girl asking for a poem about “how all my friends seem like they’re fading away.” A retired recalcitrant Maine lobsterman, giving only the name of his boat as a topic: “Empty Pockets.” A young couple asking for a whimsical poem about “baby goats wearing sweaters!” Sharon Stone asking for one about hoping to be loved. Luci Baines Johnson asking for a tribute to family. The mayor of Boston asking for an ode to his city. A teenage boy asking for a poem he can read to the girl in line behind him, to ask her out.
(Yes, all those happened. And 24,992 more.)
It’s hard to convey the magic of those moments. So here is a short video from Texas Country Reporter that touches the tippy-tip of the iceberg:
what is a poem?
Asking that question is like asking what is art. Almost anything! Poetry, to me, is basically words on paper (or any other medium, including air).
Now, what makes a good poem? Everyone of course has their own opinions, sometimes even rigid rules and metric requirements. Fine. Some folks love cherry fudge pecan caramel swirl ice cream, others like vanilla bean. (I prefer strawberry.)
But for poems, I think it helps to really observe what you are writing about. To see it the way only you can. And to care about it — to pour a bit of your passion into the page. To me, poetry is about evoking emotion, both in writer and reader. And showing the way you see the world, the way ONLY you see it. In whatever meter or free-flung form you want.
Does a poem stir something in you? Sadness, a smile, a shadow of a memory, a word or phrase that makes you pause with wonder or nod in agreement or say in your head or out loud, “that’s kinda cool.” Then it’s a good poem.
What is poetry? Poetry is passion.
It is how YOU see and hear and feel and think and tremble about the world.
It is following rules and smashing them.
It is freedom to show even the tiniest bit (or the largest fireball) of your true self.
My Poetry Mission
There’s an old political slogan, “a chicken in every pot.” Well, I think there should be a poem in every hand. Or heart. Everyone should have at least one poem that speaks to them. And what better way than having one written for you, on a topic you selected?
Just like Jell-o, there’s always room for poetry. I hope to spread it to as many folks as I can, one typewriter-clacked, half-sheet of paper (yes real paper!) at a time.
Poems Across America
Was Johnny Appleseed a real person? Doesn’t matter! That spirit – of spreading something one seed at a time – endures.
I like to think of the poems I’ve written for strangers like that. 99% I’ll never see again, I hand over the poem, and then it’s gone. To me at least. To that person, it often gets tacked to a fridge. Framed on a wall or beside table. Tucked in a pocket for a funeral. Propped up on a car dash for a cross-country trip. (Yes, all really happened.) And hundreds of other ways I can’t even imagine. I like to think of all the different ways those have taken root and are still out there, growing strong. Like Johnny A and his trees, those poems will be alive far after I’m gone.
I’ve gotten to write poems at events from Austin to Boston, Seattle to San Jose, Ohio to Minnesota, New York to Maine, Mexico to D.C., Vermont, New Hampshire, Oregon, and tons more. To read a few, click here.
I’ve written poems for people aged 95 to 5 months. Even to kids waiting in the womb. To hear some of those poetry stories, click here.
I’ve written poems for city mayors and teachers, salespeople and tech nerds, librarians and students, beer lovers and word lovers and new lovers, odes to new houses and jobs, tributes to lost pets and parents, first and fiftieth anniversaries, even marriage vows. (On the flip side, I’ve also written poems for people to breakup with someone.) For famous actors and authors, to people feeling like they are invisible.
And really, isn’t that what we all want? To be seen, truly seen?
“Your heart is hungry for this art.”
— Laurie Halse Anderson, National Book Award finalist (Speak)
If I can, even for the briefest moment, help someone feel that way, that’s what it’s all about. This moment of connection that can never be replicated anywhere or anyplace or anytime again. If I can stop and focus—on this single person in front of me, on whatever bit of themselves they want to share with me—if I can truly see and hear and feel that, and give a bit of MYself back, in a few lines typed on a half-sheet of paper?
Apples are great. But if I could give everyone a poem experience like that? Well, there are worse things.