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: Dignity

March 8, 2017, 7:08 am

I met Lisa at a party—she was leaving as I arrived, and we did a speed-intro and I understood quickly that she was a total badass, having co-founded Global Talent Idaho, whose mission is to “help skilled refugees and immigrants reclaim professional careers while boosting the talent pool in Idaho,” after which she went onto start another venture, Figure 8 Investment Strategies. Our brief conversation left me thinking about how place influences identity, and how we must adapt with resourcefulness and humility from one environment into another.

The Stranger: Lisa

The Word: Dignity

The poem I wrote:

Then there are days
when you have twenty years
outlived yourself—here
in old clothes stripped
of your native dignity.
Your soul one degree short
of flying out the chimney;
without witness your hands
might be wings. Crafts fall
second choice, after a life
of first choices. Tell one
person who once you were,
what labor you knew. Say,
there is more to know
than this quiet folding
of birds, and then the hiding.
Birds under the sheet, birds
wetted from the bath,
more birds in the room
than we know.

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

The word: Adjust

March 1, 2017, 10:35 am

I stopped by Bittercreek before lunch to have a $1 taster beer and tinker with a poem. Amy was working the bar. I learned that she runs a mega compost project in the form of a worm farm, and we talked about creative pursuits in unexpected forms. The conversation got me thinking of another person who loves feeding small animals: my mother, whose birthday is this week. This 5-part poem started with the memory of a spider she once fed.

The Stranger: Amy

The Word: Adjust

The poem I wrote:

Once an orb spider

laid two egg sacs
in a skylight of the greenhouse
that my mother kept.

Two identical globes
in her queer gauze light.


My mother stands in the room
as if it were the bathroom,
four by five feet.

She looks inside and sees
her animal. She feels life
slanting away. She who saves

after rainstorms
had decided to feed this spider.


Somewhere along the line…

Somewhere in the story…

Someone is talking, talking
about a mother,
no a writer, no
an animal.

She collected dying insects
in coffee mugs and tossed
them up to her.

(she dropped
to wrap
each in white,
and precise)

My mother must feed
somebody, she knows somewhere
the young might be hungry.


I carry through my decades
an image of her webs,
strung from corner to corner
to corner and weighted
with so many insects,
so many still living bodies
demanding their say,
saying that they want out,
sagging the web heavy,
dying down to the ground.
With orb-spider eyes
I watch them. Then I look
away, find another branch,
another unused greenhouse,
even if there is nothing to eat.
Each generation says,
the world is too much. 


To adjust a life takes
a lifetime. Suppose
she is living still,
she and the woman
who feeds her.


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

The word: Idempotent

February 22, 2017, 10:47 am

I hadn’t been so excited about a math word since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation. My dissertation, Asymptotic Autobiography, used the idea of the asymptote to describe the problem of personal narrative: its impossibility of ever touching absolute truth. I proposed fairy tales as a structure for telling a true story while acknowledging the role of the imagined. This week’s word was given to me at the Boise Art Museum Triennial. A woman in a red hat approached me and initiated a fascinating conversation about the making of art. When I asked for the definition of her word, she and her date, a mathematician, tried in various ways to explain how its identity is its square. In the end, Rebecca just laughed and said, “Now we’ve sent this word out into society!” The following day, I found this definition: “denoting an element of a set that is unchanged in value when multiplied or otherwise operated on by itself.”

The Stranger: Rebecca

The Word: Idempotent

The poem I wrote:

She squared herself at six—
knowing things
seemed simple addition.

Edit belief through subtraction
and so grow up. Multiply
some seed, then divide

belongings and at equation’s
end, die. Such is the easy generosity
of math. ‘The story of myself

versus myself. That is the book
I really want to write.’[1] Stuck
in the same story or enlightened

from birth-point-zero. Some solace
it is to be idempotent. Some life
negotiating with the sky. We all

end up here. Add anything to me
and I will hold the same power.


[1] From a letter written by Zelda Fitzgerald to her husband Scott in April 1932, when she was being treated for schizophrenia at the Baltimore Phipps Clinic; Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald (468).

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

The word: Appaloosa

February 15, 2017, 10:42 am

I adored meeting Keats. It was at Story Story Night, which left the whole audience feeling hopeful and hungry to add to the green of the world. Keats was with her mother, a friend of mine; I learned that she is studying marine biology and just had her first daughter.

The Stranger: Keats

The Word: Appaloosa

The poem I wrote:

It is afternoon when things
can be made and done, and
clothes drip like moss

about the furniture.
The baby is a fat
beautiful fish heavy

in the bed. At least
as alive as the birds.
Outside the window

there is nothing for us,
inside a room of animals.
This one (we made all this,

it came from our ocean)
an appaloosa, impossible
to keep from running.


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

The word: Fantasy

February 8, 2017, 9:38 am

My friend Cathy and I sat talking politics at a pub Friday night, on our way to write postcards to our state representatives. Next to us sat a quiet man wearing a wool tartan cap. Toward the end of our conversation, he said, “I’ve been trying to figure out which side of the fence you two are on.”

Cathy guffawed. “Really?”

We learned that this man, Robert, was in town visiting his daughter who works at the pub. We also learned that he owns a dairy business in California and that he stands opposite us in terms of the fence. This led to the sort of lucid conversation about politics that leaves with nobody feeling moved philosophically, but each of us feeling empathy and interest in the other.

Cathy asked if this man’s daughter shared his political opinions.

“I think so,” he said.

At that moment, Robert’s daughter walked over to squeeze her dad on the shoulder. “Which side of the fence are you on?” Cathy asked her.

The daughter’s response: “I’m not talking about THAT!”

The Stranger: Robert

The Word: Fantasy

The poem I wrote:

Home is a trap
just as anger
is a sleeve

inside out
for effect.

Brain too
is a sleeve
and I never know
how you
live in yours.

is the broken
shell of a
hermit crab and

fear is a beast
that rattles

and beast is
a good
excuse. Baby,

what I mean
to tell you
is how awful
I feel
that my heart
is not as open
as yours.


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

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