1 word, 2 poems

Tandem Poetry was sparked by a series of ideas. Our good friend, Katherine Ferrier, sets up a typewriter at her local farmers' market and churns out on-demand poetry. A woman in California does, too. Another man we read about sets up typewriters in St. Louis for the public to share their words. And Maya rode her bicycle 1,200 miles from Massachusetts to Wisconsin towing hers.

We love collaborating, and writing is something we're both passionate about, so we wanted to throw our hat into the ring, too, and try our version of on-demand poetry. We were intrigued by how it would feel to create poems for someone else, and to let go of the poems once we wrote them. To make things a little easier, we gave ourselves the limitation of an index card to write on.

Day One: Prospect Park, Brooklyn. We sat on a bench with our sign parked beside us and waited. No one stopped. People walked past us with barely a glance (Seriously? We were sitting with a bright blue and a bright orange typewriter in our laps!) or else looking skeptically in our direction for a moment and then hurriedly moving on. We assumed they assumed we were crazy. Or selling something. It is New York after all, and nothing is free. So a few of our friends wandered over and gave us a word, hoping to spark some curiosity from onlookers. Still nothing. Even for Brooklyn, we were an oddity.

So our friend Gary sat down on the bench next to us and started hawking us to passersby. "Give them one word, just one word, folks. And they'll give you 2 poems. Two!! And you can keep them! Two whole poems just for you! It's free! C'mon. Give it a try. They won't bite." Finally a woman and her young daughter stopped. They had a word. The little girl whispered, "Kindergarten." Her mom told us she was starting school tomorrow. Her first day. We put our heads down and started typing.

The words flew. It was easy to imagine what she was feeling. Trepidation. Nerves. Huge butterflies in her belly. And her mother, letting go for the first time, heartbroken and hopefull all at once.

And so we wrote. A 3 x 5 card to get it all down. The ding of the bell. The sound of the carriage whizzing back home. We finished almost at the same time, then read the poems out loud to the soon-to-be-kindergartner, watching her expectant face light up when she realized the poems were not just for her, but about her. Realizing we understood how it felt to be 5 years old and facing the biggest day of your life . Her mother cried. The little girl clutched her poems tight and waved good-bye. We turned to each other, blinking back tears. 

photo by Kim RuffWe've had several more opportunities to try Tandem Poetry since that first day. We were invited to participate at a hair salon's special event, complete with background music provided by a raucous DJ, and wrote poems about love and marriage and sex and diamonds and perseverance.

A few days later we traveled to Virginia and set up a booth at Fall for the Book, the annual book festival that takes place on the campus of George Mason University. We sat in the courtyard outside the student union. The college students flowed toward us the minute we sat down.

photo by Kim RuffAnd they got it. Two poets. Two typewriters. TYPEWRITERS! They were amazed and excited. They stood in line, 10 deep, waiting their turn. We wrote about politics and boys named Dash. We wrote poems that came from words like "women" and "tribe" and "constellation" and "hope." We were gifted words like "destiny"
and "crepuscular." We wrote thirty or forty poems each without stopping. We didn't have time to read the poems out loud. The students were rushing to class or to take exams. So we simply wrote our lines and handed them over. And during the course of the long afternoon, we started to envision a new project, the beginnings of a dream come true. It was still hazy, just a drawing for now, scribbled in chalk.

photo by Ren Allen (https://www.facebook.com/Facesbyren)Patti Digh's Design Your Life Camp came next. We sat on a bench outside the marketplace, put our chalkboard sign on an easel, and waited. We didn't have to wait long. A line soon formed. Words like "courage" and "reslience." We wrote and read and hugged people as we handed over their poems. The next night, we set up again as the talent show was ending. "Llama," "horizon," "reverberation," "labyrinth." 

photo by Ren Allen (https://www.facebook.com/Facesbyren)Late that evening a woman stood before us and asked if it would be okay to give us two words instead of one. Of course, we said. Then she asked if it mattered to us if the words weren't for her. Not at all, we said. Then she gave us the words: "safe tonight." We set about crafting our poems. Neither of us can remember a single line we wrote, but given the subject, we're certain it was something about anxiety and worry and fear giving way to comfort and clear skies.

After we finished and read her our poems she asked if we wanted to know why she picked those two words. She told us of her daughter's hiking trip in Oregon. A young friend who didn't come down off the mountain with the rest of the group. She'd been missing for six days and nights. Fear and helplessness gripped her family. We were stunned and saddened and humbled by this woman's offer to send the poems to the missing girl's parents. And of course, we wished her a happy ending.

The line crept forward and we kept writing. There were poems about singing and dancing, poems about being seen, about riding bicycles, about brown sneakers, about yoga, about tears. We wrote and read, then wrote some more. And throughout the evening, we connected with people in strange and astounding ways. We fed off of the energy attached to their word. In some cases we intuited a need or desire or some long-held hope. In others, we wrote about our own. It was magical and transformative and healing.

photo by Kyeli SmithThe line of people waiting, which could have been daunting, felt like a lifeline. In the midst of our writing, the woman who'd received the "safe tonight" poems came running down the hotel hallway toward us, waving her iPhone in the air. She skidded to a stop. "They found her!!" she gasped. "My daughter's friend. She walked off the mountain! Ten minutes after I left this table with your poems I got a text. She is safe tonight!"

We were stunned, humbled, grateful. We know our poems cannot bring a missing person home, but for a split second it felt like they could. We rejoiced with her. We stared at each other in amazement. And I think, in that moment, our chalked-up dream came into real focus. We pictured a real tandem bicycle, the two of us riding together, another trip halfway across the country. Words given, poetry received, imaginations sparked, community gathered. Tandem Poetry was coming to life, in a hotel hallway, 17 hours from home.