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!


Kailua-Kona, Hawaii: 6am, café. It was a few days until Christmas, and the music consisted of Beatles songs (the barista had said: “Do you like our holiday music? I’m keeping it fresh!”) I had an extraordinary conversation with a woman named Marna who was sitting nearby—I noticed her because she had a sort of light-up energy that is unusual to see in the early morning. Marna told me how she first came to Hawaii over thirty years ago on a trip with a friend, and she had known before arriving that she would stay. I observed how we can’t know how these things will unfold. And she looked at me clearly, uncannily, and said: “Can’t we?”

The Stranger: Marna

The Word: What if

The poem I wrote:

There was once a village that waited. Waited for rain to come, then when it rained waited for sun. Waited for winter in the spring, and summer in the winter. Waited for plants to grow, which they did easily. Each of its inhabitants waited to be properly loved. Each day an act of waiting.

One day in a patch of dirt where he had been waiting for radishes, a farmer’s son found something extraordinary. It was a person, alive—a girl made entirely out of radishes. Her head a perfect radish circle, her hair a green sprout, her arms and legs and fingers long skinny radishes; then a heavy pink belly radish to which they all connected.

She untangled her roots and took a breath of air. She had been buried in dirt for a long time, and dirt still clung to her. The farmer’s son waited for her to brush it off. She did not. When at last she spoke, she spoke in the earth-throated voice of a genie, and she asked him the genie’s question: What is your purest wish?

The boy stared a long time, so long that the rest of the village, who had been waiting for something to happen, came to see this miracle, this radish-girl-genie come up from the dirt. But genies come in bottles not dirt, so nobody believed in her, and soon all the villagers scattered back to their homes. Except the boy.

The farmer’s son brought her water and rubbed the dirt from her hands. He didn’t believe in her, not quite, but he at least was able to ask himself what if? She looked up at him with her leafy radish eyes, and said, I have a gift for you. The gift she pulled from the dirt: round top and round bottom, slender middle: it was shaped like a person made of glass. Inside it the rushing sound of sand.

Here, she said to the boy, yours. I wish for your village to listen. She whispered to the sand her words for him, and then turned back into nothing but a handful of radishes, which the stunned boy lowered into the soft dirt. That night, the farmer’s son did not sleep, though he was not waiting for morning. He was listening to her voice in the hourglass, her voice manifesting:

You hold time. You, wide-awake person, have all the days in front of you: swallow them. Let them pass through you. If you do not look at them, feed them and love them, they are not yours. Yours is what you pay attention to. The boy lay wakeful, turning his gift over and then over, believing he had, for that night, everything he had ever wanted—along with seeds enough to plant his next crop of questions, then the next, then the next, and then the next forever, even if the dirt itself was his only answer.

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