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Custom poetry, while you wait

A New York wordsmith, his trusty typewriter at the ready, works the streets for fun and even a bit of profit.

November 26, 2007|Jennifer Peltz | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- He's an urban curiosity -- a poet of passersby, a vendor of verse.

With his manual typewriter outside a downtown Manhattan supermarket, William Chrome creates poems on the spot from bystanders' requests, sentiments and dares. He does it for the creative challenge, plus the donations.

In his carbon-copied pages is a mental panorama of New York, or anywhere. Write me a poem to honor Jesus. Eulogize my dog. Celebrate my grandmother's birthday. Win back my girlfriend.

"So you just write poems?" says one of the people who circle like moths, peripheral and hesitant, and perhaps proffer a word or a theme for a poem on a balmy fall afternoon.

"Not just. It's very important work," Chrome says.

Chrome is not without compatriots, whether online or on other street corners. Reference points include European court poets and the Typing Explosion, a trio of typewriter-toting performance artists based in Los Angeles and Seattle who team-write poems for an audience that chooses titles. Created in 1998, the group performed regularly until 2004 and continues occasional appearances now, said Sierra Nelson, a member who lives in Seattle.

Chrome was inspired by a friend -- artist-poet Zach Houston, who started plying his poetic trade in the San Francisco Bay Area last year.

"I knew it would be interesting," said Houston, 25, primarily a visual artist whose work has been exhibited at Oakland International Airport and other places.

"I think I could respond to anyone on the level of what could be taken as poetry," he said. "I think anybody could. If you sit down and look somebody in the eye, you're going to get somewhere."

Still, Chrome's poem shop is novel enough to get a lot of notice in his chosen spot in Manhattan's East Village. And so it should at a time when the acclaimed HBO spoken-word series "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" and other "performance poetry" is taking the venerable literary form beyond library shelves and onto streets and stages, according to Matthew Rohrer, a poet and New York University creative writing professor.

"People think, 'Poetry, oh, that's Shakespeare and Keats in a book, and you figure out what it means.' But that's only one part of it," Rohrer said. "It's been troubadours. . . . It's been a lot of other things."

For Chrome, it's a way to be creative while clearing, he says, an average of about $15 to $20 an hour, about 20 hours a week. An average four-hour day produces seven to 15 poems, sometimes fetching as much as $20 apiece. A typical custom-tailored poem is finished in less than 10 minutes; ready-made ones are available for people short on time or ideas, which Chrome is not.

"It feels to me like poetry is the counsel in your own mind -- who you take your advice from, your instincts, your intuition," said Chrome, 25, born William Curtis.

Except for a stint in college, he has pursued an idiosyncratic education in experience and self-expression since graduating from high school in 2000 in Springfield, Va. He's lived in New York, the San Francisco area and Montreal; he's made paintings and moved furniture, played guitar and had a gig helping a blind man read his mail.

His poetic training consists of reading -- Walt Whitman, ee cummings, Joyce Carol Oates.

Often abstract and by nature impressionistic, Chrome's "spontaneous verse" might not satisfy the keepers of iambic pentameter, but that's not to say it's just rambling prose punctuated by carriage returns.

On a recent visit to the street-corner poet, Elizabeth Bernstein got a poem that incorporated money, freedom and more. It read, in part, "Clouds lick the sea level and it rises. / 5 dollars fortunate and 10 dollars old."

"I like the idea of supporting someone's creative process," said Bernstein, 44. "I mean, he's not selling earrings -- he's selling his thoughts."

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