What is the Poetry Canvas?
Since November of 2004 I have had a hobby I call the Poetry Canvas.
What I do is this: I take a big toolbox full of books of poetry, anthologies particularly though not exclusively, and I plant myself on a San Francisco sidewalk, usually in front of Café Reverie in Cole Valley. I choose a book, then a poem, and then I ask every person who walks by, no matter who they are or what they seem to be doing if they would like to hear a poem, for free. I have a sort of patter I put out:
"Would you like to hear a poem? It's a free poem! Hard to turn down a free poem. It's a good poem, even . . ."
And so on. Perhaps one in ten or twelve people I ask will stop to listen. I read them the poem, and thank them for listening. That's the main thing.
The whole idea is to find people without a poem in their day and put a poem in their day.
History of Poetry Canvas
Here's how it happened: I began this hobby right after the 2004 presidential election, during which I had worked as a fundraising canvasser for John Kerry, going door to door in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area knocking doors and asking for money to help put an end to a disastrous presidency. Toward the end of the campaign I went to Ohio in order to work on get out the vote efforts in a swing state. At the time, as a twenty year old, it felt like the most consequential election in history.
Yeah, I know, I know.
When I came back to my room in San Francisco, I felt like failed garbage, the kind that had tried to be a dumpster fire but never got hot enough and eventually drowned in moldy garbage juice. Not great, and lonely to boot.
I had spent almost every moment, in the weeks and months prior, talking to strangers, asking them to commit to turning up to vote for Kerry, or to open their checkbooks and contribute. Not talking to strangers was an extra bit of emptiness on top of the depressing and discouraging election loss. And I turned to poetry.
On my way to Ohio, for the airplane ride, I had purchased an anthology, edited by Billy Collins, called Poetry 180. The overarching goal of the collection was to somehow get poetry into the air around high school students. One hundred and eighty poems, one for each day of the school year, which could be read over the loudspeaker between classes, or given to the students not as assignments but as gifts, daily treats. They were all poems chosen because they were instantly pleasurable. The reader could get some fun without even necessarily understanding these poems, they could still spark something in the language loving sector of the mind.
I thought "These could be read to strangers!" On a day somewhere between election day and thanksgiving day, while riding the 48 Quintara bus, I asked the person across from me if they wanted to hear a poem. They listened, and I felt a little better. I got off the bus in West Portal and read more poems from an alcove belonging to a Charles Schwab storefront. And I felt better.
I went back over and over, reading poems to strangers, bringing more and more of my books with me to have more poems to hand. Usually in a backpack, but I eventually got the idea to fill my bright red Stanely brand toolbox with books, and that became my standard conveyance. I was reading nearly every day, rain or shine. If I had free time, I read for hours at a stretch. I resolved to always turn down tips.
When I moved to Cole Valley, sharing a big apartment with five roommates, I stopped reading in West Portal and took up station in front of Cafe Reverie. I've read poems from that swath of sidewalk for 14 years now, at first with great frequency, but later life imposed itself, I did less of it. I got married, moved to the Mission, then Dogpatch, had a baby, and another baby, and I read less frequently. My poetry canvasses dwindled from weekly to monthly, or less even. But I've kept it up. In 2015, for the 11th anniversary of the poetry canvas, I read for 11 hours, a marathon that if I am honest, wasn't worth it.
The 2016 election redefined "most consequential election in history" in a way I hope won't be challenged again, and a major depression settled over me. The poetry canvas became a sort of therapy for me. If I managed it, a reading session on that sidewalk could lift my spirits significantly. If I read once a month, I felt accomplished.
Reading poems to strangers opens something up about the poem to me. I feel like I never read a poem quite as deeply, or with quite the same completeness, as when I am reading to a stranger. It's the only thing we have in common, at that point. Not only do I have to pay attention to the words, make sure I am saying it out loud correctly, that I have a good cadence, that the right voice for the poem. And I am paying attention to the listener. I want to know, are they getting it, like I get it? If it comes to that, do I really get it?
Reading poems aloud this way, there's a new layer to the onion, more aroma somehow. And it's intimate. Try reading a love poem to a stranger. Try reading an erotic love poem to a stranger (okay, but be a little careful there!) Read a funny poem to someone and get them laughing less than a minute after you spoke your first word to them. Read poems discover that you are weeping openly with a stranger, and they are also crying.
My last poetry canvas was March 7th, 2020. Covid has made reading aloud to strangers on the sidewalk a wildly irresponsible behavior. I hope that soon, it will be safe to again ask strangers if I can put a poem in their day.