“This isn’t a collection of my best work, or a collection of poems I spent the most time on, or even a collection of poems dedicated to the people I love the most. This is a collection of work created for people I had just met. Each poem I wrote in 10 minutes, typed frantically onto a piece of recycled paper, using a vintage typewriter.”
-taken from the intro to my book Love Poems I Wrote for Strangers
I have spent the last 2 years of my life appearing at festivals and events around The UK creating custom poetry for strangers. It started with asking a series of questions in order to get to know a person better. I remember doing random google searches of “best questions to quickly get to know someone” or “best questions to know someone’s soul”. After a series of trial and error, the following were the questions I whittled it down to:
“Name?” “What’s up?” “Favourite smell?” “Favourite time of year?” “What are you afraid of?” “One thing you would change about the world?” “One thing you would change about yourself?” “What’s your superpower?” “Love is…..” And finally “tell me a secret”
Why do it?
At first I treated it as nothing more than a great writing exercise. It can take me months to finish a poem in some cases. This was a perfect way to commit myself to creating multiple poems in a day (normally around 20/30) When you take down the answers of another person and give them a timeslot, you know that they are going to come back and expect a fully formed poem waiting for them.
It’s kind of liberating. Knowing that you have to make quick decisions can actually make you skip the b.s. and make some pretty bold and confident choices. Typing straight from brain to page without any sort of redraft and liking what you come up with is actually a pretty cool feeling.
It helps beat perfectionism. There’s something really beautiful in knowing that there is no way you can possibly create something perfect (well I wouldn’t say no way but there’s certainly no expectation). There is something really charming in reading something that was created in 10 minutes for a complete stranger!
It gives you a pretty good insight into peoples lives and the way that they perceive the world (more on that in a minute)
The Things I Learned
Firstly that the quality of the poem really depends on how deep people go with their answers. For the most part, I do not know these people and I have to spend a lot of time reminding them that I can only go on their answers to my questions.”Give as much detail as possible” is what I used to say. Writing “Don’t have any, lol” in response to “tell me a secret” isn’t going to give me much to run with. That said sometimes the people who wrote the least ended up being my best poems because I had to go a little deeper with my imagination, had to think a little harder, had to use a little more intuition in order to create something that would stir them in even the smallest of ways. Sometimes those people were the ones who came back and hugged me after.
Something I was not expecting however was to be so utterly blown away by the answers I got. I couldn’t get over just how much people were willing to trust a stranger with. I couldn’t believe by just putting a piece of paper and a pen in front of someone, they could so easily spill their soul, their insecurities, their worries, their heartbreak, their jokes, the colour of their bedroom walls, all of it. No details spared.
Who’d have thought that just by asking strangers to divulge intimate insights into their lives, they would! All people need sometimes is the right outlet.
Some of the things I read moved me to tears. Whether it was the breakdown of a relationship, the start of a family, feelings or displacement or those feelings that you can’t quite put your finger on; there were things I read within those answers that sparked a whole new respect for humanity within me. I wish everyone could read them and I understand that I have been extremely lucky to have had this opportunity, for people to trust me with so much and also to trust me to try and make art out of it.
Sometimes I would just type out direct quotes from people’s answers because I felt they were art, all on their own
The thing I want everyone to realise is just how delicate we can all be. What I learned from that is that given the right context, people are willing to talk about more than on the surface happenings of their lives. I think ultimately what we want is to talk about the things that mean more to us, to make sense of our experience here on this earth. It’s that age-old cliche of “everyone has a story to tell” however it is only through experience that you can begin to understand how powerful that sentiment can be in uniting us together.
I honestly think vulnerability can be one of the most strongest states of being.
I urge all of you to stay vulnerable, stay open and most importantly, be ready to listen. You have no idea what you might learn. One of the messages I wanted to convey to the people I worked with was that their words contain so much beauty and power. I wanted people to realise that they all have an experience or insight or story to share that can benefit other people around them. Everyone has a poem in them, my collection shows just a few of them.
My book Love Poems I Wrote for Strangers is out soon. For updates you can follow me on Instagram: @saltwaterpoetry
If you would like to order your own custom poem before the project ends, you can do so at: http://saltwaterpoetry.bigcartel.com/
Say hi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/saltwaterpoetry
Check out my monthly spoken word night! Rhymes & Records
If you have any questions about the project, you can leave a comment below.