Poetry for Strangers is about finding inspiration in the chance encounters of everyday life. PFS suggests that every person can be the “muse” of a poem. Each week I ask a stranger for a single word and write a poem inspired by the word. I invite you to do the same.

Share your poem on this week’s word!


The word: Aroma

May 24, 2017, 3:15 pm

When I was in college my friends obtained a wine-tasting chart, and what amused me then was that one of the aromas was “cat wee-wee.” Last week at a wine bar with a group of my dearest friends in Austin, I learned that wine tasters have a special euphemism for the aroma of “cat wee-wee”: gooseberry. Monica let us into this secret and more, and the word she gave reflected her favorite thing about wine: the aroma.

Many of my stranger-poems have an invisible title that guides me as I write, and this poem’s invisible title is “Dunyazad.” In the Arabian Nights, the sick king Shahriyar is on a streak of marrying a new virgin each night and beheading her in the morning. This goes on for years until a clever young storyteller named Shahrazad marries the murderous king and stays alive by telling him stories for 1001 nights. Her younger sister, Dunyazad, has the job of waiting under the marital bed and, at the appropriate moment, popping up to ask her sister for a story.

The Stranger: Monica

The Word: Aroma

The poem I wrote:

The king was so old, and it would have been
easy to kill him that first night. There are
so many weapons in a bedroom: medicines
wrongly mixed, long sashes hanging
from the window, his razor laid to rest.
Hands, fingernails, teeth. No children
would avenge his death, as he
has let no woman live longer than a night.

I am the sister who waits under the bed.
My realm is the creak of the mattress, the bull-cry
of my sister’s new husband.
My script is to ask for a story. Sister,
dear, how about one of your pretty tales
to while away the night?
If the king agrees, she will live
another day, and I will return
to wait underneath and to regret
all of the reasons why, as a child, I wanted her dead.
The anis-seed she stole from me, also
the next-town vizier’s son.

Every night for three years
I lie cupped beneath the fierce aroma
of their nights together, his bed sheets
perfumed with woman’s blood
left over from all the wives before.

Every night I fall asleep to her voice, talking
to keep him awake, teasing out
endings she refuses to give, holding at bay
not sex but death,
emptying him out and whetting his need
for some tale whose ending only she knows. Her death
rests on the other side of each ending.

But clinging to the roots of each end come
the sprouted starts of the next story, leaving the king hungry,
three years hungry for closure.

These thousand nights might have driven him mad,
if he hadn’t been mad already. Perhaps
they cured him. Or perhaps
I helped, the witness that I was,
the sister who waited, the child.

The Challenge: Do you have a poem in you on this word? Write one here.

The word: Transition

May 17, 2017, 8:33 am

I met Phil and Anissa when they were out celebrating their anniversary. They were visiting Boise from Indiana, a fact that initiated our conversation, as I had just returned from such a great visit there. We toasted their transition into a new era of marriage.

The Strangers: Phil + Anissa

The Word: Transition

The poem I wrote:

Do not believe
life is designed
to tire you out
just because
family members
are our first
just because
the muddy water
of transition
is where we live,
just because
a single day
holds more
than the heart can.

The word: Circuitous

May 10, 2017, 6:41 am

While flying for my Indiana trip I sat next to an orthodontist who had grown up in Boise, moved away, and come back to live with his wife and sons. This is the story of most fairy tales—young hero leaves home to have adventures in the greater world, then returns older (ideally with an elixir or some new knowledge) to make home a better place.

The Stranger: John

The Word: Circuitous

The poem I wrote:

When you leave a city
that loves you
it will not let go easily
but it will always let go. Like
a lover desperate at being
abandoned, a city will mourn by showing
you what you have missed,
the clothing it forgot to wear, be it rain or rage
or natural disaster. The city will grow while it waits
for you to come home by some circuitous path. Once
it has given you its passageways and parks, its subtle hills,
the changing of its masks, a city
will be surprising as you leave, tripping
onto an airplane, enumerating your pasts
and motives, glancing once
over your shoulder.

The Challenge: Do you have a poem in you on this word? Write one here.

The word: Energy

May 3, 2017, 5:30 am

Today marks the 200th poem of Poetry for Strangers! Tremendous thank you to all readers, strangers, and poets who keep this project interesting.

Several weekends ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting Trine University, my grandfather’s alma mater and in his estimation the entire reason he was able to leave the coal mines and start a career as a professor of chemical engineering. Trine sits in the northeast corner of Indiana, and Indiana is a place whose warmth and kindness cannot be overstated. My job was to deliver two talks, one on my grandfather’s biography, the other on Poetry for Strangers. Between talks, I spent a lovely hour chatting with Earl Brooks, the university president.

The Stranger: Earl

The Word: Energy

The poem I wrote:

The constant

how will
your life

be solved?

The incomplete

you think about

at night.

(Don’t wish
these years

The well-

puts forth
the same

each day:

If it gives you

do it.

The Challenge: Do you have a poem in you on this word? Write one here.

The word: Prodigious

April 26, 2017, 9:59 am

At the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Boise, I met Alane, a prolific author of books for young adults and the daughter of one of my dearest friends, Gloria, also a brilliant author. I’ve long been interested in the ways that creative people get obsessed (haunted?) with an idea or memory that comes out again and again in their art. Alane and I talked about creative obsession—I marveled at the depth and expanse of her research—and the morning after we spoke, this poem emerged.

The Stranger: Alane

The Word: Prodigious

The poem I wrote:

I auctioned your memory
last night. You, for sale, among
so many prodigious ghosts.
For years I had nursed you,
and you breathed and bled
from my pen. Each morning
I bore you, each evening I conceived you
again. You died every afternoon.
The catalogue called you treasure,
claimed you as a gold-baby.
Wealthy souls cried bids for you,
and your price drove up and up.
Midnight brought coffee,
dawn fireworks. It seems
someone had won you.
A young woman, a writer,
was in need of a story,
and by God did you sell.

The Challenge: Do you have a poem in you on this word? Write one here.

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