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!


I hadn’t been so excited about a math word since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation. My dissertation, Asymptotic Autobiography, used the idea of the asymptote to describe the problem of personal narrative: its impossibility of ever touching absolute truth. I proposed fairy tales as a structure for telling a true story while acknowledging the role of the imagined. This week’s word was given to me at the Boise Art Museum Triennial. A woman in a red hat approached me and initiated a fascinating conversation about the making of art. When I asked for the definition of her word, she and her date, a mathematician, tried in various ways to explain how its identity is its square. In the end, Rebecca just laughed and said, “Now we’ve sent this word out into society!” The following day, I found this definition: “denoting an element of a set that is unchanged in value when multiplied or otherwise operated on by itself.”

The Stranger: Rebecca

The Word: Idempotent

The poem I wrote:

She squared herself at six—
knowing things
seemed simple addition.

Edit belief through subtraction
and so grow up. Multiply
some seed, then divide

belongings and at equation’s
end, die. Such is the easy generosity
of math. ‘The story of myself

versus myself. That is the book
I really want to write.’[1] Stuck
in the same story or enlightened

from birth-point-zero. Some solace
it is to be idempotent. Some life
negotiating with the sky. We all

end up here. Add anything to me
and I will hold the same power.


[1] From a letter written by Zelda Fitzgerald to her husband Scott in April 1932, when she was being treated for schizophrenia at the Baltimore Phipps Clinic; Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald (468).

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