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: Aplomb

June 14, 2017, 12:23 pm

Ballet Idaho puts on superb dance performances, the kind where the world on-stage eclipses everything else because of how wholly the dancers inhabit their roles. I ran into Andrew, one of their principal dancers, when I was at a café getting ready for class. We chatted about the making of art and the odd side-hustles so many creative people must embrace.

The Stranger: Andrew

The Word: Aplomb

The poem I wrote:

Whether the washing
of windows,

humility streaming

in the uneclipsed sun,
or the dance

and its searing
fairy tales,

with aplomb we try
not to fall

even if the world
seems all edges:

Let’s face it, work
is sexy and everything

roots down
in what we make

and with what
labor we love.

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

The word: Conundrum

June 7, 2017, 9:44 am

I stopped by The Peanut Shop in downtown Boise to get a gift, and Dan gave me a dozen spicy samples, the most surprising of which was a collaboration with a beer-maker. This led to a conversation about intriguing collaborations.

The Stranger: Dan

The Word: Conundrum

The poem I wrote:

I uprooted them, the slugs,
from their painless dirt home—
to line them up by size
on my arm, wrist to elbow,
and show them off. Patient
are the adults who have seen
many slugs. Devoted are
the children who tolerate
such slime. Choiceless
are the slugs, inventoried.
A conundrum, how to live
in the space between devoted,
patient, and slug. In the heat
of the backyard, how far
we inch away, how silently
we grown up clean. We will
look backward twenty years
and tell stories of childhood
as if it were make believe, as if
this beast we hold, this now,
did not quite fit in our arms.

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

The word: Warrior

May 31, 2017, 6:38 am

Burns, Oregon. Passing through on my way to backpack for the first time. Mollie had escaped an abusive relationship and afterward tattooed onto her arm the word “warrior.”

The Stranger: Mollie

The Word: Warrior

The poem I wrote:

For how many years I refused
these wilds,
would not hold
or look at their maps.
Out here, who
would take care
of me? Who would be
my rescuers, here
with no mother
and no mate?

I follow her,
this woman who listens
to rocks. We dig
our holes; we bury;
what we cook we eat;
what we wear, we carry.
In my city
and my home,
there is a deep-breathing
child who listens,
who wants to know
how it is done,
how to go into these places,
how to come back
yourself still
but less hungry.

Sleeping girl, I don’t know
how to tell stories
about the wilderness.
There are those
who go deep,
seeing things
I don’t want to see;
they return
I know none of the ghosts, only
how light it feels
to fall asleep
with nothing,
how the act of purifying water
is just one form
of making life,

how you will make life enough
out here and always.
Listen: let
the wild be
your mother
and your mate for you
are more warrior inside than all of it
and perhaps so am I.

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

The word: Aroma

May 24, 2017, 3:15 pm

When I was in college my friends obtained a wine-tasting chart, and what amused me then was that one of the aromas was “cat wee-wee.” Last week at a wine bar with a group of my dearest friends in Austin, I learned that wine tasters have a special euphemism for the aroma of “cat wee-wee”: gooseberry. Monica let us into this secret and more, and the word she gave reflected her favorite thing about wine: the aroma.

Many of my stranger-poems have an invisible title that guides me as I write, and this poem’s invisible title is “Dunyazad.” In the Arabian Nights, the sick king Shahriyar is on a streak of marrying a new virgin each night and beheading her in the morning. This goes on for years until a clever young storyteller named Shahrazad marries the murderous king and stays alive by telling him stories for 1001 nights. Her younger sister, Dunyazad, has the job of waiting under the marital bed and, at the appropriate moment, popping up to ask her sister for a story.

The Stranger: Monica

The Word: Aroma

The poem I wrote:

The king was so old, and it would have been
easy to kill him that first night. There are
so many weapons in a bedroom: medicines
wrongly mixed, long sashes hanging
from the window, his razor laid to rest.
Hands, fingernails, teeth. No children
would avenge his death, as he
has let no woman live longer than a night.

I am the sister who waits under the bed.
My realm is the creak of the mattress, the bull-cry
of my sister’s new husband.
My script is to ask for a story. Sister,
dear, how about one of your pretty tales
to while away the night?
If the king agrees, she will live
another day, and I will return
to wait underneath and to regret
all of the reasons why, as a child, I wanted her dead.
The anis-seed she stole from me, also
the next-town vizier’s son.

Every night for three years
I lie cupped beneath the fierce aroma
of their nights together, his bed sheets
perfumed with woman’s blood
left over from all the wives before.

Every night I fall asleep to her voice, talking
to keep him awake, teasing out
endings she refuses to give, holding at bay
not sex but death,
emptying him out and whetting his need
for some tale whose ending only she knows. Her death
rests on the other side of each ending.

But clinging to the roots of each end come
the sprouted starts of the next story, leaving the king hungry,
three years hungry for closure.

These thousand nights might have driven him mad,
if he hadn’t been mad already. Perhaps
they cured him. Or perhaps
I helped, the witness that I was,
the sister who waited, the child.

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

The word: Transition

May 17, 2017, 8:33 am

I met Phil and Anissa when they were out celebrating their anniversary. They were visiting Boise from Indiana, a fact that initiated our conversation, as I had just returned from such a great visit there. We toasted their transition into a new era of marriage.

The Strangers: Phil + Anissa

The Word: Transition

The poem I wrote:

Do not believe
life is designed
to tire you out
just because
family members
are our first
just because
the muddy water
of transition
is where we live,
just because
a single day
holds more
than the heart can.

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