Playing the Word Saxophone
by Alba Machado

an interview with poets Kathleen Rooney and David Landsberger about Poems While You Wait, their impromptu poetry event

In the midst of the pounding music and the drunken laughter at yesterday’s Wicker Park Fest, there was the tap-tap-tapping of an antique typewriter. Chicago poets Kathleen Rooney and David Landsberger were on hand to create original, customized poems for anyone with a topic in mind and $5 to donate to Rose Metal Press and 826 CHI. They called it Poems While You Wait, and they didn’t make you wait long, either.

I visited their tent with one of my BFFs, Monica. We wrote our topics into a spiral notebook, paid our donations, and spent half an hour walking around and chatting. When we returned, we were astonished to find that Monica’s poem, “Labyrinth,” wasn’t written by either Rooney or Landsberger, but rather, by a 12-year-old poet named Phillip Ramey (the poem is included in its entirety, as typed, below the interview). Turns out, there were three students from 826 CHI present to lend their considerable talent to the event. It was a fantastic start to what I’m hoping will be a fantastic tradition. I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll be able to say that I’m going to the market to pick up a poem and, since Curbside Splendor already sells its books, along with others by indie presses, at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, I imagine that day is not so far away.

You might think that one would want to follow up a poetry-writing marathon with, say, a mind-numbing-reality-TV marathon. Not so for Rooney and Landsberger. They took the time to answer a few questions for us here at Literary Chicago, making us squeal with delight like kids after a ride on a roller coaster: “Again! Again! Again!”

Did you really need to come up with a way to make poetry writing more challenging? Isn’t it enough that poetry slam has made it necessary for good poets to be good performers, too? But now timeless works of art get developed in an hour or less, like photos at Walgreen’s? What’s next? Poets on both stilts and roller skates, balancing bowls of grenades on their heads while they chisel poems onto the sides of buildings?

KR: Oh my god, are you eavesdropping on us or something? Dave and I are totally doing the stilts/skates/grenades/chisel thing at another street fest next weekend! J/K.

But that’s a great question. To answer it, to a degree, all poetry IS difficulty; all poetry consists of setting up artificial impediments to normal communication. Like: Let’s take this highly specific thing that I want to express and force it to be strictly rhymed and metered, extremely compressed, and written with line breaks—those prohibitive conventions are where a lot of poetry comes from. So it’s not so weird to do poetry on demand if you think of it that way. And I don’t think there’s any risk of Poetry on Demand putting other types of poetry out of business so to speak—neither Dave nor I would want to ONLY write poetry this way. But it’s always interesting, if you’re feeling blocked or uninspired or want to take your work in a new direction, to add restrictions—to make poetry harder. And adding an audience participation component and a time limit certainly pushed us in ways we wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

But that’s not primarily why we did this. We did it for charity, of course, but also we did it to interact with a wider and more diverse audience than poetry often receives. So much hand-wringing goes on in poetry reviews and criticism about how “People don’t like poetry; poetry doesn’t speak to the People,” but doing Poetry on Demand at Wicker Park Fest seemed to reveal that once you stop talking about the “appreciation” of “poetry” by “people” in the abstract and let people experience poetry as part of their weekend entertainment, plenty of them end up appreciating it a ton, and they end up doing so in a way that’s actually fun and sincere, not in a dutiful do-this-because-it’s-good-for-you sort of way. Also, having people pay for the poems was a key part of the experience too—when people get something for free, as most poetry is, they MIGHT appreciate it, but when they’ve given you a request and backed that up with five bucks, they’re going to read and re-read and hopefully really think about whatever it is you’ve tried to give them.

DL: Charity was the origin of the event.  It made perfect sense since I’m an afterschool tutor at 826CHI and Kathleen is one of the powers that be at Rose Metal Press.

I kind of want to steal your ideas? Is that ok? I’ve always wanted to write a poem as I free fall out of a plane and deliver it when I land.  I’ve always wanted to hang glide and drop poems on a city.  I tried to get a crowd sourced poem going at Pitchfork this year but the higher ups deemed it not worthy. I’ve shouted poems out of a megaphone while driving a Ferrari 360 GT Spyder convertible.  Kathleen and I both are participants in The Chicago Poetry Brothel.  I think it’s safe to say we enjoy decontextualizing poetry.

Kathleen’s right, it’s odd how the 5 bucks legitimizes the poetry.  Poetry as enterprise/commerce is a weird, fragile thing.  In my opinion poetry isn’t broken, but the business model of poetry is broken, which means in today’s world it’s broken in every way to a lot of people.  I kept scratching my head at how many people are willing to sardine together on a 95 degree day to hear a band they’ve never heard of at one of the stages, but our table wasn’t nearly as claustrophobic.  A lot of poets say “ah well, that’s the way it is,” but I don’t buy it.  You’ve got to make people care again, and I think writing poems on demand or for a commissioned event is a very viable and realistic way to get people interested.

It all comes back to David Blaine stuff.  A lot of magicians hate him, but that’s because he’s really a performance artist at this point.  And he’s too commercial for performance artists.  To me he’s like Evel Knievel, and that’s cool as all heck.  Are Kathleen and I like Evel Knievel? No, we’re just poets getting out of the comfy writing chair, out of the air conditioning. And that confuses a lot of people who walk by.  But confusion is way better than indifference.

I noticed that there was only one typewriter for a number of poets. Did that make it feel sort of like a relay race? How many poets were there at your tent? And how many poems did you all write today, in total?

KR: Yep. Dave brought his one and only typewriter, which he rescued from on top of a Dumpster. He and I were at the Fest on Saturday in two shifts, one from 2-5 and one from 6-9, with an hour break in between to eat dinner and rehydrate—banging out poems on a typewriter outdoors in July makes you work up a sweat and an appetite. For the majority of the time, it was just the two of us, but for about an hour early in the afternoon, we had help from three 826 CHI students, who wrote some really excellent material. By the time we closed up shop, we had written a total of 40 poems over the course of 7 or so hours, which in turn raised us a total of $202.50 in charitable donations. Half of the proceeds will go to 826 CHI and half will go to the non-profit, independent literary publishing company Rose Metal Press.

DL: I’m not sure if it felt like a relay race, but it was certainly mentally, and at times, physically taxing.  Maybe it was more like a poetry decathlon: you keep on switching your poetic hats.  One second you’re promoting on the street, the next you’re writing a funny poem, then you’re explaining what the heck you’re doing to a flabbergasted drunk person and then, poof, you’re writing an elegy.

How did you decide who would write each topic?

KR: It was essentially luck of the draw. We had a list where people could sign up with their name and poem topic/request, and then worked our way through that alternating: Dave, then me, then Dave, then me, and so on. We only had one occasion where a customer requested a specific poet—she saw a poem that I had written called “Magma-nificent” that was waiting for pick up, and liked it so much that she asked that I specifically write her piece. In general, I enjoyed the element of chance involved in just getting whatever topic was on deck when it was my turn at the typewriter, and I also found the restrictive component—maybe I would rather have written the poem about the romantic boss, but I had to write the poem about the South—compelling. In some regard, having to write at random to a subject of someone else’s choosing is not unlike any other poetic form or restriction, like an Oulipo game or a sonnet.

DL: I think there was only one moment where I asked Kathleen to write one instead of me, on the topic of “HEAT”, and that was because I had already written a poem with the topic “HEATWAVE BREAKING”.  Later when I looked at all the poem pictures on my phone I saw Kathleen wrote a heat-centric poem already, so, sorry dude.  It’s definitely best to switch back and forth, it’s more challenging and rewarding.  Maybe next go around, if we have the time, we can try an exquisite corpse or a renga.

How was your writing process affected by the pressure of having to deliver within an hour or so? Was the process the same, only hastened?

KR: For me, the process was totally different than composing poetry alone. When I write a solo poem, I think and plan and draft (and draft and draft, sometimes dozens of times), and often show these drafts to other poets for feedback and further revisions. Obviously, with Poems on Demand, there is no time whatsoever for that kind of multi-stage process, but the haste and spontaneity are what create the appeal and the challenge. Writing a whole poem in a 5-10 minute burst was closer to improv comedy or a jazz solo or an impromptu speech than it is to my “usual” writing process.

DL: I don’t draft as much as some poets, but I take notes and write little lines for a month before I even attempt a first draft. The poems on demand process is definitely like jazz or jam band solos in a way (man I would love to do this in a jazz club)…I think there’s a bit of vaudeville in it as well.  It’s almost as if the longer you take in this sort of situation, the worse the poem is.  Timing, timing, timing.  The typewriter, to me, as an instrument, feeds of off spontaneity and mistakes.  It has a rhythm that you feel, you hear, as you use it. It’s basically a word saxophone.

Did you keep copies of your poems?

KR: We discussed how, if we’d wanted to, we could have purposely kept no copies and considered that act of totally letting go part of the project and the process. In the end, though, we decided it was important to keep a record of our work (we plan on setting up a Tumblr) and although we had carbon paper just in case, we documented the poems with digital photographs.

DL: The Tumblr is actually up (  But it’s still in the process of being built.  I’m not sure if Tumblr is the best vehicle for poetry since it seems like there’s so much pornography, internet trolling, and negativity going on there, but I think it’s a worthwhile experiment, and well, those three things are basically the internet.  We’ll see how it goes. We’ll have most, if not all, of the poems up by the end of July. A lot of customers asked for additional copies of the poems since they were afraid to destroy their poems while attending the fest, drinking beer and being merry, but to me a giant beer stain on a poem artifact only makes it more special.  I really like how these poems are from a one time thing.  It’s a souvenir of your day.  Let it get crinkly and put your gum in it.

What were some of the most interesting topics suggested? Were any of them repeatedly requested, by different “customers”?

KR: We got asked to do an elegy for Amy Winehouse, which was both interesting and sad, and we also got asked to do a super-mean insult poem from a friend to another friend. A lot of our clients requested poems to commemorate specific occasions—engagement, wedding, and anniversary poems were popular, as were birthday poems (including one request from a German tourist for a poem in honor of his ex-wife’s birthday), and several people requested poems about the heat wave/weather. My favorite poem—and maybe the hardest one for me to write—was one where a woman asked for an elegy for her sister and sister’s partner who had both died recently and left a son behind. It can be easy to “go funny” with impromptu/improvisatory writing, but it’s less easy to go sad, and the variety of people’s requests really forced us to try to “make it new” as Ezra Pound said and not default to standard tropes or moves.

DL: So true, it’s much easier to do these quick poems as lighthearted affairs.  We had a gentleman write a paragraph of notes for a poem he planned on giving his fiancee: he had served a tour in Afghanistan with the Royal Army, had been sent to Chicago for a job, and was about to move back to the UK to move in with his fiancee for the first time.  His absolute affection and excitement sopped through the notes.  It was an honor to write that poem for him.

Do you think you will participate in another poems-while-you-wait event in the future? Do you recommend it to other poets?

KR: Yes, we’re already strategizing about where we could set up the typewriter next. The response to the project was so positive that it will be fun to see how it might go somewhere else. And I’d recommend it to other poets who are interested in conceptual writing and stunt poetry, especially since there was a certain David Blaine-style element of physical intensity and endurance to the experience of doing poems on demand, especially during the hottest parts of the day and the busiest times.  I’d also recommend it to poets who are into the idea of bringing poetry to places where people didn’t expect to encounter it, and who are intrigued at the prospect of writing not for some distant, imaginary, potential future reader, but of writing for an audience that is in many cases right there as you’re conceiving of the work. That said, in order to enjoy the experience as a poet, I suspect you’d have to be comfortable with not writing from the perspective of the “lyric I” and also with the idea that not every single word you set down will be “perfect.”

DL: I think David Blaine is the perfect way to categorize this event.  Say what you want about the dude, he’s captivating, and he pushes the human body to strange places.  Now, sweating in a chair writing rhyming quatrains isn’t exactly the same thing as suspending yourself above the Thames in a cage, but, y’know, to a writer’s physique it is.  I think it’s a great exercise for poets to see subconscious tendencies in their craft that can either be eliminated or amplified. I mean, out of the 20 or so I wrote, I have at least two I’m gonna give a spin in redrafting.  I used to do this same exercise in Miami with the Miami Poetry Collective ) and I’d say that the way to flourish while doing this is to not care about yourself or your work as a poet, but to care about your audience.  I don’t think poets ever consider an audience when they write, unless the poem is epistolary in nature.  Having an audience, a person who gives you 5 bucks and smiles at you, runs off to go tell their friends about these crazy poets…it gives you a nice perspective.  It always makes me feel like poems matter again.

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3 thoughts on “Playing the Word Saxophone
by Alba Machado

  1. Grace says:

    I’m not a big poetry consumer, but I think that if I found it in more places I would read it and I might even like it or learn something from it. It’s important to have more art in public spaces and I think that often people just think of visual arts. Writing and performance as public art is just as important and , often, more urgent. Hope this grows!

    • Alba Machado Alba Machado says:

      I completely agree, Grace. I remember reading once that the shopping mall phenomenon had a major impact on public art and discourse. With a town square, you’d have individual stores that were private but the outdoor space would be public and people could perform, give soapbox speeches, or try to get signatures for a petition. Not so with malls.

  2. Grace says:

    We need less malls and more markets. But I don’t think it’ll happen in this country. We’re not a market country. We’re a mall country.

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