Founded in 2013, Poetry for Strangers is a project dedicated to 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 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: Voyage

January 10, 2018, 8:35 am

On the Big Island, we did a Kona coffee tour: it was a small grower, and we were invited to pull the ripe red berries off the trees and taste them, noticing how all coffee possibilities come from this simple, sweet fruit. Our tour-guide, Yasmina, is formerly a submarine captain; upon learning this fact, I held my breath. When I asked her about the transition to working on land, she said, “If there’s an emergency here, I can leave work. Not so under the ocean.” When I asked for a word, she offered three: Voyage – Transition – Journey. She added: “To me they’re all the same thing.”

The Stranger: Yasmina

The Word: Voyage

The poem I wrote:

Hanging by a thread. How many
I have known who wished

for such delivery, when the body
fails but they are still

breathing. Their answer each time
I asked, how are you?

And nobody ever said the voyage
between calm and calm

is calm.


In this house,
it is her seventh birthday and she

is distracted by a piñata
in her mouth, dangling dead, still

part of her dental-scape.
It’s just tissue, my sister-doctor says.

Use scissors.
How she wishes to go to sleep

and wake delivered.
How in times of pain, like her birth,

I wished my mother
could rescue me from the deadening

roots of my body.


How solitary to be each
our own species. I cannot rescue her

forever but this is so easy.
That night, my hands washed twice,

I creep into her room
and kneel. I find the tooth and slowly

twist, slowly
slowly until it loosens its hold

and strands itself
on the continent of my hand.


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

The word: Generosity

January 3, 2018, 12:55 pm

Happy new year, and thank you for continuing to read (and respond to) these poems! Today marks the 5th anniversary of Poetry for Strangers, which I started in January 2013. Here is the 235th stranger & poem:

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii: I met her lying on a patch of grass in front of a Vietnamese sandwich café. “It’s kind of prickly,” this stranger noted when my daughter and son and I joined her in the grass. I learned that she has lived her whole life on the Big Island. She pointed toward the hills. I also learned about a deeply generous thing she recently did: enlisting a local Toyota dealer to donate a minivan to a local kids’ soccer coach to hold all the team’s gear. Twenty or so minutes later, I said goodbye to her in the café and asked her to be my next week’s stranger. Rebekah said, “But we’re not strangers anymore. Now we’re family!”

The Stranger: Rebekah

The Word: Generosity

The poem I wrote:

It is the sand
I love, the
being buried,

more than
the lovely salt
floating, the

lucky and unlucky

fish, the
generosity of air

a straw:

I have no
collector’s impulse
and I will take


home, but for
just a few minutes
when the sun

has no teeth
I will collect
on my body

the world:

its faulty shells,
all its warm
secrets, and

for a spell
I get to hold
every one.


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

The word: What if

December 27, 2017, 8:23 am

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii: 6am, café. It was a few days until Christmas, and the music consisted of Beatles songs (the barista had said: “Do you like our holiday music? I’m keeping it fresh!”) I had an extraordinary conversation with a woman named Marna who was sitting nearby—I noticed her because she had a sort of light-up energy that is unusual to see in the early morning. Marna told me how she first came to Hawaii over thirty years ago on a trip with a friend, and she had known before arriving that she would stay. I observed how we can’t know how these things will unfold. And she looked at me clearly, uncannily, and said: “Can’t we?”

The Stranger: Marna

The Word: What if

The poem I wrote:

There was once a village that waited. Waited for rain to come, then when it rained waited for sun. Waited for winter in the spring, and summer in the winter. Waited for plants to grow, which they did easily. Each of its inhabitants waited to be properly loved. Each day an act of waiting.

One day in a patch of dirt where he had been waiting for radishes, a farmer’s son found something extraordinary. It was a person, alive—a girl made entirely out of radishes. Her head a perfect radish circle, her hair a green sprout, her arms and legs and fingers long skinny radishes; then a heavy pink belly radish to which they all connected.

She untangled her roots and took a breath of air. She had been buried in dirt for a long time, and dirt still clung to her. The farmer’s son waited for her to brush it off. She did not. When at last she spoke, she spoke in the earth-throated voice of a genie, and she asked him the genie’s question: What is your purest wish?

The boy stared a long time, so long that the rest of the village, who had been waiting for something to happen, came to see this miracle, this radish-girl-genie come up from the dirt. But genies come in bottles not dirt, so nobody believed in her, and soon all the villagers scattered back to their homes. Except the boy.

The farmer’s son brought her water and rubbed the dirt from her hands. He didn’t believe in her, not quite, but he at least was able to ask himself what if? She looked up at him with her leafy radish eyes, and said, I have a gift for you. The gift she pulled from the dirt: round top and round bottom, slender middle: it was shaped like a person made of glass. Inside it the rushing sound of sand.

Here, she said to the boy, yours. I wish for your village to listen. She whispered to the sand her words for him, and then turned back into nothing but a handful of radishes, which the stunned boy lowered into the soft dirt. That night, the farmer’s son did not sleep, though he was not waiting for morning. He was listening to her voice in the hourglass, her voice manifesting:

You hold time. You, wide-awake person, have all the days in front of you: swallow them. Let them pass through you. If you do not look at them, feed them and love them, they are not yours. Yours is what you pay attention to. The boy lay wakeful, turning his gift over and then over, believing he had, for that night, everything he had ever wanted—along with seeds enough to plant his next crop of questions, then the next, then the next, and then the next forever, even if the dirt itself was his only answer.

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

The word: Antiquarian

December 20, 2017, 11:59 am

We had reserved a taxi to come at 5 a.m.; we would be leaving for a month vacation in Hawaii during the middle of winter. My husband said over the phone, “We might need something large,” for we had packed, in addition to our backpacks, a giant bag of snorkel gear. At 5 a.m., waiting in the alley behind the house…. A PARTY BUS! With flashing disco lights and dance music! All to ourselves! Our sleepy selves twitched in half-dance all the way to the airport, amid conversation with the driver, Eddie.

The Stranger: Eddie

The Word: Antiquarian

The poem I wrote:

To leave home requires
a recollection, cripplingly raw,

of being once part
of a family. Any going

outside into a cold morning
is to push the old world

aside, spinning it like a broken
piece of rubber. We have

how many minutes ahead.
No-one knows. Look.

Layers of sun. Like
layers of paper. How

they hurt the eyes, they are so
antiquarian and burst-full

of news untold. Listen.
Here we are still. Thawing.

Not wild animals but close.


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

The word: Chapter

December 13, 2017, 1:16 pm

Alexi works at a coffee bar, and I was chatting with her while I waited in line. We both owned up to writing poems. Her love of poetry came from her mother, who gave her poetry books to read when she was a child. (My perfect grammar comes from my mother, but that is another story). Alexi said she was looking for a word to describe a turning point, a new chapter.

The Stranger: Alexi

The Word: Chapter

The poem I wrote:

We have a spell in our house
to cast off nightmares:
Nightmare, away!  Nightmare,
out the window!  They egress.
They cannot stay in the room. more »

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