On a cool March evening, we set out a sandwich board that read “SHORT ORDER POEMS 1 FOR $5 FRESHLY TYPED & HOT,” sat down behind our typewriters, and started taking and fulfilling orders. People asked endless questions: What is this? Who are you writing for? How do I order a poem? Why are you doing this? How do I write a poem? Who are you? How can I join you? What is that thing you’re using? It was clear we’d struck a nerve. Two writers sitting at a table in the midst of a crowd of thousands, typing away with great intensity in the small pools of light from a couple of table lamps, spoke to people.
We conceived of Short Order Poems at Elemental Coffee in early March of this year while discussing ideas for enriching the literary scene in Oklahoma City. We didn’t want to create just another under-attended literary reading series, or one that only other poets would attend. Brian Bergman, idea man, business and life coach, and director of the monthly H&8th Night Market, a food truck festival that attracts between 25,000 and 30,000 people every month, agreed.
The three of us discussed a variety of other ideas—ranging from a house-based reading series to readings in unexpected places, such as parks and grocery stores—and eventually settled on an idea inspired by Kathleen Rooney, a friend of ours in Chicago who founded Poems While You Wait, a group of poets who write poems on demand on manual typewriters in public places.
Brian agreed to let us set up in front of Elemental Coffee Roasters—right next to the professional soccer team’s booth—during the first H&8th event of the year. Wanting to play on the food-truck theme, we decided to let our patrons order their poems from a menu, as a diner would order food from a truck. And inspired by chefs Jonathon Stranger and Russ Johnson from Ludivine, who change their menu almost daily according to whatever is locally available and in season, we decided that for each H&8th we’d offer a new menu featuring different “tastes” for patrons to choose from, which equaled ways to customize poems by specifying styles or requesting specific words.
We, the poets/chefs, would aim to complete the poem within 15 to 20 minutes of receiving the order and take a digital photo of each poem before rolling it, tying it up with butcher string, and giving it to the patron. The price of $5 for one topic, and $10 for up to three topics, ensures that the patron has some skin in the game and returns to pick up the poem, and the income has allowed us to cover our material costs and even pay the guest poets a bit.
Our first attempt was so successful that we couldn’t meet the demand. In a country where highly accomplished poets are happy to sell a couple thousand books and make a living by teaching at a university, doing something completely unrelated, or living with someone with a great job, this was a revelation.
Since March, we’ve been at every H&8th plus one night during the deadCENTER Film Festival and had numerous guest poets from all over Oklahoma and other states —poets like Melody Charles, Victoria McArtor, Brent Newsom, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Jennifer Hudgens, and Jeanetta Calhoun Mish. We’ve grown to two tables, seven manual typewriters, and five guest poets per session, which has allowed us to meet the demand. We feature some of the best poems on our social media pages and in chapbooks, and we have big plans for the next H&8th season, plus some events during the off-season. Also, we partner with Rob Roensch and The Red Earth MFA program at Oklahoma City University in running a monthly community writing workshop at the Ralph Ellison Library.
People still ask how we came up with this idea and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Of course, our direct lineage is Poems While You Wait in Chicago, and we hope to do some joint events with them in 2015. But there are people and groups all over doing similar things, including OKC’s Kerri Shadid, who runs Poetry Stand. The tradition goes back to various groups in the ‘70s, and even Frank O’Hara, who famously wrote occasional poems for friends in New York City in the ‘50s, many of which were recovered (he didn’t take pictures of them) and included in his collected works. Of course, you can go all the way back to the troubadours who tromped around the south of France looking for a king to pay them to write poems about the queen, about divine right, and of course, about that endlessly popular topic, unicorns. We’ve written our own poems about unicorns, too, but also about love, clouds, dogs, friends, cats, colors, annoyance, love, birthdays, food, music, date nights, Shakespeare, existential angst, love, and more.
We’ve chosen this over a reading series, at least for now, because it really does break down the walls between the general public and literary poets, who are often perceived as elitist and inaccessible. We have a great time, as do the poets who write with us, which creates community, and we appreciate the immediate feedback. It’s not uncommon for someone to walk away with her poem and return a bit later to ask who wrote it and to engage that poet in conversation.
While we know we probably won’t start a poetry renaissance here, we do know that we’ve reached some people and have made them reconsider the power and pleasure of poetry.
A few examples of short-order poetry:
By Timothy Bradford
Hockey players aren’t like you & me.
I stole that from a friend who stole it
from a children’s book on hockey.
Hockey itself was stolen from the Iroquois
& the best goalies are said to pick
the pockets of the players whose best shots
they snatch out of the indoor rink’s air.
Some fans go for the fights, some go for
the skating & passing. Few go to pick
actual pockets because hockey fans aren’t
very gullible or passive. Consider
the fact that they have started fist
fights with players in the penalty box.
Consider that they’re there for the fights
& skating & passing. Consider that
the announcer may say, “By the look
of things, I’d say that’s a jugular”
as the ice is sprayed with the blood
of someone enough like you & me to bleed
profusely if wounded in certain ways.
But he survived & the game went on.
Hockey players aren’t like anything
else, but somehow we relate & root
& forgive the beautiful bloody mess.
A CITY LIKE A TEXT
CAN BE READ
By Chad Reynolds
Jane, if Oklahoma City were a book
how inscrutable would it be?
Would we meander through its pages
like Leopold Bloom through Dublin
in Ulysses, all meaning eluding
our grasp, each step a thought
we think as we step
and our thoughts get lost?
Or would it be something else,
something like a tabloid
from the grocery store
in the suburbs, something
that people read for fun
or to pass the time?
A poem is a city
with its own alleys and highways
and sidewalks. Our selves are
seen here, through these windows
and if we try too hard
to neaten things up
type away all the typos
then it starts to feel
like a Disneyland
a trick poem
a dead city
We need an element of disorder
in the order we bring
MY LIFE AS A COUNTRY SONG
By Brent Newsom
Bullet casings in the front yard,
glinting in the grass (brown):
Left them there this morning
in the pre-dawn gloom:
plunked the truck for target practice
for no real reason
except she’s gone
and she’s gone and she’s
gone and done it again:
just me and my four walls
and the antlers that hang
upon them: gone is the feel
of her fingers running through
the river of my chest hair:
gone the swirl of ice cubes
in her sweet tea: gone
the tea and the long low whistle
of the train that she beat out of town:
just me now, and the antlers,
and the holes shot in the truck.
By Victoria McArtor
you throw the whole
of your weight into this
night, you’ve made dawn fall
down to day
street lights come on too strong
glugging tan clouds into twilight
you give me blissful bring, you’re
you give me
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 20, October 15, 2014.