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: 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.

The word: Tertiary

April 5, 2017, 8:12 am

While visiting my awesome brother John and my awesome sister-in-law Michele in LA, I met their dear friends Sophia, a photographer, and Ian, an actor. We stood near the kitchen in my brother’s house and ate handfuls of mukhwas, the sugar-coated fennel seeds you find at Indian restaurants. (“John,” Ian said in the kind way we speak to the oddities of friends, “You eat more sugar than a hummingbird.”) Later this same visit I heard somebody say, in this business you are only allowed one other life. I put the two together.

The Strangers: Sophia + Ian

The Word: Tertiary

The poem I wrote:

In this town you get one life,
sometimes on Saturday two.
(Oh do not get
snuffed out by that,
keep nose low, keep smelling.)
As for tertiary lives
ask your gods if it isn’t better
to hold them
underwater like drowning a dog—
If they still can breathe
when the tide lets out,
they are yours, yours to keep.

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

The word: Happy

March 29, 2017, 6:00 am

“Inflammation, baby!” This was part of Faith’s explanation of why she thinks vegans are generally happy people. By eating plants, they have less inflammation. I was at the Boise Coop studying the pastry case when Faith recommended I try the vegan donut (which, by the way, is sound advice: they are great and I have eaten many). This led to a lively conversation about veganism. I eat vegan-ish, which is to say mostly vegan at home, which is to say not vegan by vegan standards, but riotously vegan in contrast to the standard American diet. Our conversation left me feeling…happy.

The Stranger: Faith

The Word: Happy

The poem I wrote:

He has come
through the window
again to relish

the strange mortality
of her body. He tells
of countries

whose bright trees
fist into bloom. She
looks and looks

but in the darkness
cannot see
his face.


What remains
is quite a new

She thinks,
how quickly
we go gray.

His visits so strange
and they leave
her almost

but not entirely
happy. He snores
his cherrywood breath.

Her tools for knowing
are minor but here
in the room:

—an unlit candle, the fire dying—

She eases him off her,
she lights the candle,
she looks.


He is beautiful
in a way
she couldn’t have

his mouth prettier
than hers:

such unconcerned
eyelids, such wings
sheer against the sheets.

She knows
his curls from touch,
the hard shapes

of his clavicle and ilium;
now she sees
that he is unlike

any man she knows.

She shivers, wax
drips. So
Cupid left Psyche.


Don’t worry
about the ending,
for this myth ends well.

We care only
for the point
when her life changed.

When she first saw
him she chose him,
while he hated

being seen

(see the bending
of his face, the frantic
thrust of his wings?)

When she opens her eyes
she will find herself

crumbling into her loss,
and I dare all of you—

once in your life to love like this.


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

The word: Solitaire

March 22, 2017, 6:34 am

Walking the Labrador down my street on a day when spring seemed just about here, I was surprised when a man popped his head out of the side of a van. “Do you like opera?” he asked. Yes, I answered. He handed me a CD. “You’ll love it,” he promised. Pleased by the gift, I asked him for a word to use in a poem.

The Stranger: Andre

The Word: Solitaire

The poem I wrote:

I don’t wish to die, said a man to his gods.
The gods squatted on their heels and acted
surprised. Finally

the gods pronounced: You may live as long
as you choose—when you wish to die,
touch the earth. Then they vanished

in a bath of light, leaving the man a horse.


The man rode while history unwrapped
like a moving picture.
He rode into the future

and met generations of kings. He rode at night,
moonlit, and he always took care

not to fall.

But he began to ask, Why did the gods
waste this gift on me,
me a solitaire, me
an old boar?
Some days it was just man and sky,
the horse nodding at other horses.
The glare of life from so
many angles, so many years.

First he felt

delirious at his luck, then
happy, then content.


At last he came upon a very old woman

carrying a jug of milk; she
was ragged, she
was poor, her face
was a thousand years old,
and when she dropped her milk

he dropped from his horse to help
without thinking
that it might be a woman
to undo what the gods had given.


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

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