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: 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 »

The word: Crestfallen

December 6, 2017, 9:29 am

Cynthia and I bonded at the Whole Foods River Room while talking about books and beer, academic trajectories that took unexpected turns, and a former life in Texas. She gave me this word the same week my family lost our gentle, good, old dog.

The Stranger: Cynthia

The Word: Crestfallen

The poem I wrote:

Since you died I have had
dreams of snow

falling like tennis balls,
stacking up to the sky,

trapping us in, and for
some reason I hold

not a shovel but a camera.
Around me are hills

combed with white,
soft Labrador white.

Somewhere in it all
you are there, deserving.

Forgive me. I am just human
and not even great

at that. We do our business
inside, safe from

this beastly cold, at times
crestfallen, but often not.

I dream my way back,
wishing to give you a gift,

something evergreen,
something else.

I tried to take a picture
of the sun, and it worked.


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

The word: Peace

November 29, 2017, 6:10 am

It was hard to catch Azam to ask for a word, for she was deep in a quest with a teenager to find a book. Azam has worked at the public library for twenty years: when I first saw her, she was putting on a puppet show for a hundred spellbound children. This week the library is papered with signs announcing her retirement party. I asked her about it and she replied: “It’s been twenty years of fun.”

The Stranger: Azam

The Word: Peace

The poem I wrote:

It was the wrong first kiss and I am remembering this now, for no reason, or for the reason that I have had so many birthdays and that they, my young, will soon be kissed by others than me: He had given me a ring. We were being driven somewhere by one of our parents. We were thirteen and I was hoping for a kiss. If on the lips, it would be the first. He held my hand in the car. This was close, but not a first. The trees whirled past the windows, sprawling in peace, like adults. When we were dropped off, his father—huge, red, like a sausage—swooped in and wished me happy birthday. He kissed me like an uncle on the lips, and that was it: he had done what I had long wanted his son to do, and what his son, in the end, would not do. Other kisses came later and in truth, I cannot remember them all. Driven home, being dropped off home, being disappointed—always the passive verb, the passive verb that is a teenager. That night I saw it did not matter who kissed and who did not kiss. That either way the night could not hurt me, for all I had really wanted for my birthday was a story.    

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

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