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!


There were king crab legs for sale and I hadn’t eaten them for at least ten years, maybe twenty. The first time I had them may have been the last. They are huge. They spider out of the fish-basket as if they might sprint off the top of the ice. They were actually pretty horrible to look at. I don’t usually eat animals but I thought I’d get a valentine’s treat for my husband. I asked the man selling fish: “What do I need to know about how to serve these?” and he confessed he had never eaten king crab legs. This detail made me smile—years ago I had worked in a Texas BBQ restaurant and, as a non-animal eater, had no idea how any of it tasted. Ajmal was from Afghanistan but grew up in Russia. His word is Russian for fish, and I have anglicized the spelling.

The Stranger: Ajmal

His Word: Ryba (рыба)

The poem I wrote:

That wasn’t what I was trying
to make. When I thought swim
I expected something bigger,
with more of a face like mine.
So this was going to be
the future: thinking a thing. Scales!
And seeing it be. I squat in my
hut, feeling the roots rise
like animals below my feet.
Sun rises, sun sets. I am alone.

I not-talk all day long. Nothing
will talk to me. When I said
I’d create the world animal
by animal I didn’t know I
would dream about the ones
I’d left. The not-animals.
And now this terrible mistake.
It does swim but could it be
alive? Anyone could say
the same of me. I live days
according to what I am not.

Some say witch. Some say
Baba Yaga who eats children.
But there is more to it, geese
I make and tame, shelter I
build of chicken-legs, any
animal I make that wants
to stay near me. They all do.

You are magic, I say to the thing
that swims. I do have kindness
somewhere beneath
my filthy skirts. Here’s
a name like a cage
so you won’t run away.
Fisk. Peixe. Kala. Vis.
Fish. Arrain. Ryba, Ryba.

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