Poetry for Strangers is about finding inspiration in community, in people, in the chance encounters of everyday life. PFS suggests that every person can be a “muse” of a poem. Every week of this year I will ask a stranger for a single word and then write a poem inspired by the word. I invite you to do the same.

Share your poem on this week’s word!


Forgive me, but this week requires an essay:

For the first time since beginning Poetry for Strangers in January of 2013, I found myself in a predicament. I always want my Christmas word to come from a Santa. But as we closed in on the week, I began to panic. I took my kids to the Discovery Center the night Santa was there. The parking lot overflowed and the Santa line was at least an hour long! Then we achieved a brief Santa encounter at a café, but I missed my chance to ask. Then yesterday at the grocery store when I was getting some things for the airplane ride, one of the employees casually said that Santa was there. “Where?!” I demanded, whipping my head around like a rabid animal.

“I think he’s in produce,” she said.

“Who is it?” I asked.

She answered, “Renfro.”

Hence my ethical dilemma. Here was a Santa. But I grocery-shop an inordinate amount of times per week, and the people who work there are my friends, and I know Renfro, and he is not a stranger. The Santa problem was hitting home: Renfro was Santa. He was also Renfro. I weighed my chances. I was an hour away from leaving for the airport, and who knows what my chances would be? So I complimented Renfro on his Santa look and asked him for a word. “This is hard,” he said. Finally he settled on sandwich.

Four hours later, my husband, children and I were hurrying through the Las Vegas airport on a very tight layover. “Hey look, there’s Santa!” my husband said. He was amused by the whole thing, with our children feeling ho-hum about seeing Santa, and me on a determined rampage. So I raced back and explained my project. This Santa was a stranger. He was also a wholly convincing Santa, full red suit, boots, and beard sitting in a plastic chair at his gate, awaiting his plane. He was the kind of Santa that prompted my daughter to observe, “I feel sorry for all the children who aren’t at the airport tonight.” This Santa didn’t hesitate at all. “Christ,” he said. “The reason for the season.”

The Stranger: Santa

The Words: Sandwich (Santa #1) | Christ (Santa #2)

The poem I wrote:

They say a poem brings out
and orders what is always inside the head
(an internal conversation made external)
and they say that people who drink between
three and five cups of coffee a day die less often
than people who drink ten or no cups
and they say that if we get the science right
one day we won’t have to die;
they also say that a sane person early last
century knew how to grow food, build shelter,
entertain oneself, and we all know
that those things are lost arts. We are busy,
we are full, the hours the hours the hours
and how many words are flung at us all day,
making us heavy, brain-full, heart-saturated
and a little stretched. I am sorry I have not
been listening. My head is full, I am carrying
a poem in it, bright and inflamed as a bag of toys.
They say writing works against dementia
and that everyone gets cancer if they are lucky
to live that long. They say cells carry memory
of the things we did while wearing them,
so the newborn remembers World War One.
They say Christ broke five loaves to feed five
thousand, and that heaven is inside the house,
not turquoise with clouds trailing like Santa’s beard.
They say if you have leftovers you’d better make
a sandwich the next morning. And someone says
the whole point of being alive is to gather
all that is beautiful and try to contribute
a little bit – he said it once and I was busy
but looked up briefly and can almost remember who.

The Challenge: Do you have a poem in you on these words? Write one here.