I don’t remember her name. I do remember that I interrupted her quiet.
She was a plump, youngish woman, sitting in a folding chair, knitting. Her booth at the small art fair was ready for customers when I walked up and asked if she had time to read a poem.
“What for?” she asked.
The giant headphones around my neck and the fuzzy microphone in my hand gave me away. I didn’t just want her to read a poem: I wanted to record, edit, and broadcast her voice as part of a podcast. She blushed, then set down her needles and obliged me.
I sat down in the empty folding chair next to hers and handed her a piece of paper with “Cicada III” by Scott Aycock printed on it. She cleared her throat as I inched my mic closer to her mouth.
“Ci-CAAAH-da,” she said. I let it go. “Cicada Three by Scott…” She stumbled over the poet’s last name, looked at me for guidance, which I did not give, then moved into the poem’s first lines.
“I am drawn to the empty husk / of the cicada,” she read as a truck rumbled past and people walked by, some staring. She kept going. Occasionally she mispronounced words, misread lines, corrected herself.
Earlier that morning, I had recorded other people at the fair reading the same poem. There was a man with a gravelly smoker’s voice who said the last time he read poetry was in high school; a friend’s aunt who was high-pitched and quick with nerves; a bushy, bearded fellow in overalls who beamed when I asked him to read, and then read as if every syllable was a proclamation:
“I. tug. care. full. y. at. this. kneel. ing. shell.” The knitter’s voice was clear. She read the first stanza. Then the second, the third, the fourth. I lowered my head, listening intently as the poem she read relayed an encounter with the shell of a molted bug to a moment with a dying grandfather.
Midway through the fifth stanza, “When he breathes his body crackles / like,” her voice broke. I looked up to see her wiping a tear from her cheek.
“Sorry,” she managed to squeak out. I almost spoke. Instead, I held my breath. In that moment of silence, she explained that seven years earlier, her grandfather had died a painful death. Her family never talked about his final, ugly year.
“I think in a way we just don’t want to remember him like that, but—but that was a big part of our memories of him, too.” Taking a tissue from her purse, she dabbed her running nose and finished reading.
“Looking at this almost empty shell, / wanting to crawl inside, / slip his skin over mine and emerge shimmering new, / to sing with my grandfather through one more dusk.”
I said thank you, and she exhaled.
“Cicada III” became the first Poetry to the People podcast. After recording several people reading and responding to the poem, I took the tape back to my office, uploaded it to my computer, and turned the individual readings into a collaborative one: I layered voices on top of each other, left in the fumbles, and added music. I kept in the woman’s story about her grandfather’s death. The man with the gravelly smoker’s voice reflected on his own—he said he doesn’t expect to live too long past 60.
Recording people on the street connects them to poetry. I’ve walked poem in hand, mic turned on, looking for people everywhere: state fairs, New York City, city parks, bars, diners, and farmers markets. I’ve approached self-conscious teenagers, old men with cigars, best friends, toothless folks. Taking poetry to the people doesn’t work every time. Some hesitate. Some are unsure of their voices. Some protest the poem. Others outright refuse to be recorded. But every so often, I find a person—a carnival worker, a minister, a granddaughter— who stops in her tracks, reads the words on the page, and finds her own voice in the poem.
Originally published in Poetry to the People, This Land’s new book of poetry from the middle of America.