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: 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.

The word: Crepuscular

April 19, 2017, 3:14 am

Idaho is home to the World Center for Birds of Prey—where I accompanied my daughter’s kindergarten class on a field trip. On the bus ride over the children asked for the scariest fairy tales I knew; I told them variations on “Fitcher’s Bird.” Upon arrival we met Curtis, the education coordinator, who took the kindergarteners on an energetic tour of the center and got them talking about birds, flight, and extinction. The man could mobilize kids: at one point he had them soaring around the facilities with arms outstretched, pretending to be baby condors.

The Stranger: Curtis

The Word: Crepuscular

The poem I wrote:

I suffer
for home, for stretching
corners until they hold,

pulling from floor
to wall some
semblance of order;

and what a fool I was
to think it would be easy,

this being
awake nights,

this crepuscular work
and when they are born

their rush
toward flight.

The startling part
is always the nest, the choosing

and destroying,
the damning proof
of how much life

we spend
building a house.

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

Before today’s poem, a happy announcement: Poetry for Strangers Vol. II is available! Please take a look. It is a lovely book of 50 poems, perfect for mother’s day, father’s day, or a gift to a reader you love.

And now, this week’s stranger:

“Want to feed the lobsters?” Mike asked. He stood behind the counter at the fish market, wearing an apron and holding a knife. When we said yes, Mike helped my nearly 3-year-old guy onto a stool and into plastic gloves, and gave him a sliver of fish to drop into the tank. I had never given much thought to lobsters’ mouths, but it turns out they are worth thinking about: how they use their tiny front legs to slide the fish into a sort of gaping hole. “It’s like a conveyer belt,” Mike said, seeing my son’s and my surprise. “They’re having salmon for dinner. What are you having?” The afternoon ended with Mike taking our dinner (salmon) and turning it into poke while we watched.

The Stranger: Mike

The Word: Lobster

The poem I wrote:

The sky
won’t fall tonight,
so sit outside

Hold this hour
like a poem
in your hands,

shed your lobster life,
heavy as any

beast laden
with too many

Be the world
where shell ends
and spirit begins.

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

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... 43,