The Starbucks Poetry Project
Ever spend a few hours in a local Starbucks? It's a haven for writers who need space, a change of scenery, or a really good writing prompt. It’s also a public space that people think is private. A friend started posting some of the fascinating lines she's overheard. Others have started to share their lines with me. I turned them into this project: one poem from each borrowed line.
September 12, 2013
Overheard: Woman talking (loudly) into a cellphone: I’d go anywhere with you.
Where it took me: Well, the typical me would write some sentimental poem of loss and longing from this, and maybe when I’m in a more introspective mood I’ll do that. But I wanted to avoid that, wanted to try a different perspective. Which put me in mind of a prompt from a friend last month to write in the voice of something that doesn’t have a voice. Which then put me in mind of a very funny moment in a shoe store, and a promise to her to write a poem from the point of view of those shoes. Promise kept.
From the moment you requested
a size 9 and raised me from the cardboard box,
unwrapped the tissue
like a birthday gift saved for last,
understood the beauty
of my hand-stiched uppers,
exclaimed that my exact shade of butter
and sunshine was just what you had to have
in a shoe,
I knew I would go anywhere with you.
I had it planned.
I was perfect for the office,
for weekend afternoons in the hip parts of town,
even for movies on Saturday nights.
We would do it all, together.
You carried me home,
on your shoe shelf,
to your black flats.
I didn’t know you had a reputation.
Image © Ilham Rahmansyah
Image © Jean Kleisz
September 10, 2013
Overheard: Mother and her two kids, a girl about 8 and a boy about 5.
Mom: Will you remember two things for me?
Daughter: Yes! I have memory talent.
Mom: Apple sauce and grass seed.
Where it took me: I loved the phrase ‘memory talent.’ I’ve tried for a while to work it into a poem but so far, it’s not coming. As for memory, although I have a good one, I find more and more that I can’t keep hold of details in my mind. So that topic interests me. But I still needed a way to get into this poem. I searched online for poems about remembering things and found one called Failing Memory. The plan was to write lines in response to its lines. Instead, its first line ‘As the potato grows’ led me to begin with ‘Grass seed,’ and the poem took off from there.
Grass seed, you asked for.
New, so it can gain
footing in earth
while ideas fail to reach
the tip of my tongue,
while I first forget the name
of the movie
and then lose the context
that brought it to mind.
Apple sauce, also.
Sweet, so it can return
memories of childhood,
while I flail to recall
the taste of what I ate
while the phone’s keyboard
returns my blank stare
and I cannot call to tell you
what I forgot.
Image © Rula Sibai
September 3, 2013
Overheard: Customer to barista: Surprise me.
Where it took me: When I started to write from this prompt two weeks ago, I ended up with a long poem that I realized was actually two poems. I posted the first one 10 days ago; this is the second. I’m not yet sure it’s finished, but I’m happy with it for now.
The Names of Flowers
Tell me the names of the flowers
that grew in the yard of the house
where you were born.
Remind me what kind of car the neighbours drove,
the brand of cigarette your mother smoked.
Describe your first bike,
the sound of its bell.
Recite the street signs
that marked your path to school.
Show me where your family bought groceries.
Explain how it felt to live on the wrong side of town.
Read me the last page of your favourite book.
Tell me the most horrible thing
that happened to you at summer camp.
Sing me the chorus of your favourite song
from seventh grade, the one you waited to hear on the radio.
Tell me how you got that scar.
Tell me everything that scares you.
August 22, 2013
Overheard: Customer to barista: Surprise me.
Where it took me: Although this line made me laugh, I chose to use it as a prompt, separate from its context. I think I’ve ended up with two poems; I’ll post the other next Tuesday.
August 20, 2013
Overheard: Couple in their 20s, she to him: Are we back at that?
Where it took me: Being so much older and wiser now (yeah, right), I know that most couples fight about the same few things. The words and intensity might change, but the main points of difference usually stick. This realization prompted me to write a list poem with a vague subject (‘that’) that somehow feels specific because it is so relatable.
Back at That
August 15, 2013
Overheard: An older gentleman sits alone sipping coffee and looking out the window. A young woman, frazzled, comes in with a baby in a stroller and sits next to him. The baby is shouting and banging loudly. The mom apologizes to the man but he says the sound “is like music to my ears,” and tells her about his wife “who has passed” and his children who are “much older than you I suspect.”
Where it took me: I’ve been trying to write something from this prompt for a while, but the result was very bland. So I took the scramble approach to see what would happen when I reorganized the straightforward telling of the story. I was extremely surprised at the musicality of the final version. I didn’t know that was in there.
Alien Baby Jazz
August 13, 2013
Overheard: It’s been a long day.
Where it took me: I was recently given a prompt to write a poem that imagines the way a common phrase might be misunderstood. Then I heard this line. Our lives are marked by how we remember time, and moments in time. What would it mean if we didn’t have a standard to measure time?
A Long Day
August 8, 2013
Overheard: Maybe if she gave him what he needed he wouldn’t have to go elsewhere.
Where it took me: How little we know the truth about one another’s lives, how easily we judge, how easily we forget the grey areas. Life is complicated. Life is lived in the way we react to people and things around us. I wrote this poem using a scramble method: write a narrative, then break it into sets of three lines, then rewrite it using all the first lines, followed by all the second lines, followed by all the third lines. The result is a text with very strong lines and unusual juxtapositions. I edit from there.
Maybe If She Gave Him What He Needed
August 6, 2013
Overheard: (In July, in a city where school begins after Labour Day): As I get ready for back-to-school…
Where it took me: I love summer. I love heat and being sweaty and I love it because it is so short-lived. I can’t do anything about crappy summers like this one where we’ve had 2 weeks of nice weather, but I can refuse to move on to fall when the first month of summer isn’t yet over. I’m also endlessly hopeful that the nice weather is just around the corner …
Don’t Talk to Me About Endings
August 1, 2013
Overheard: But the thing is, I have a big tent.
Where it took me: I’d been observing (okay, staring at) this couple, mesmerized by trying to figure out their story. Were they on a first date? A date at all? Were they married? Something about the way he was dressed made me think date. Then I heard him say that line and it just struck me as really funny.
July 30, 2013
Overheard: But grandma, I really, really want it. And you always give me everything I want.
Where it took me: Grandparents may indulge for the joy of the present, but some do it, too, to make up for the past.
Love Is No Object
July 25, 2013
Overheard: Woman searching for something to eat in the food case. Barista sadly says: “No, everything’s carbs.”
Where it took me: Pet peeve: the culture of fear. Western society is suddenly afraid of everything from ordinary weather to enjoying what we eat. It’s life, people. Be aware and thoughtful. Celebrate when you can (lesson learned from my dad). And eat a damn cookie. It won’t kill you.
Tornado watch. Snowfall warning.
Heat alert. Wind advisory.
The Kate wait.
Shoe removal. Liquid by the ounce.
Red light cameras.
Sweatshops. Boil-water orders.
Green tea. White tea. Skinny bitches.
West Nile. Sunburn. Cooling centres.
Terrorism level. Pandemic.
July 23, 2013
Teen 1 studying for exam: Finally it will be all over after tomorrow. I can't wait!
Teen 2 studying for exam: "Yah. I guess. But then it's OVER. It's the summer and then everything changes. We'll never be in high school again. We won't be together like this ever again.
Where it took me: Right back to that life-changing moment between childhood and adulthood. When I started writing from this prompt, the words came out it in a rhyming, sing-song cadence, like spoken-word, like an echo of the way we talk at that uncertain time in life.
It’s Summer, then Everything Changes
July 18, 2013
Overheard: Between a couple in their 70s who visit frequently, he to her, quietly: “You are so amazingly beautiful.”
Where it took me: An incident that I had completely forgotten from the summer I travelled in Europe when I was 22, and very innocent. I’ve written this as an “I remember” poem, a type of list poem that I often use to get my writing going.
You Are Amazing
July 16 2013
Overheard: Another poem prompted by the conversation initiated by the stranger who crossed the line.
Where it took me: A poetry challenge to write two sentences per line has become a form I like to use often. It makes me think of how I punctuate my ideas, and how punctuation can change the meaning of a line. This poem is a cheat, since not all the lines have two sentences. Every word counts, and I didn’t want any extra words, even if they helped perfect the form. The poem brings up painful memories for the speaker; the short sentences feel like breaths that are hard to take.
July 11, 2013
Overheard: Not exactly overheard; instead, a conversation started by a stranger in Starbucks.
Where it took me: Many of the lines in the poem are taken directly from the conversation. The coffee shop is now the village square, and we will sometimes come across people we wouldn’t invite into our living room. For this poem, and the one coming next Tuesday, I tried to put myself in the place of the ‘other,’ to see the world from a different point of view.
Dear Creepy Personal Space Invader
July 9, 2013
Overheard: That’ll be seven dollars.
Where it took me: I wondered what meaning we ascribe to something we buy (rather than make) to eat, and whether its price makes us expect more of it.
July 4, 2013
Over-50 guy #1: The problem with dating women over 40 is you can't tell them apart.
Over-50 guy #2: *snicker* Yah. Or they all look like old Italian men. Hardy har har!!
Where it took me: The friend who overheard this one gave them a piece of her mind, to the benefit of women everywhere. Turning this scene into a poem, though, took some time. I’ve probably written about 10 versions of it. In the end, I went with trying to capture the sound of real conversation, hoping to make a point without getting too cartoony.
He Says/She Says
July 2, 2013
Overheard: Do you mind watching my baby while I go to the washroom?
I’ll be quick.
Where it took me: I was struck that the first 8 words could mean something completely different from the actual sentence. This alternate meaning suggested short sentences to me, and also sentences that could have a different meaning if you only read part of them at a time. The choppy sentences and short stanzas also suggested to me the desperation of a parent afraid he or she can’t cope with parenthood.
While I Go
June 29, 2013
Overheard: Grande, non-fat, extra hot, half-sweet, no whip, extra caramel, caramel macchiato.
Where it took me: Ordering at Starbucks is a language of its own. Some of us have it down pat. Others (like me) have total anxiety about getting all the words out correctly. I wanted to consider, without ever seeing the person who placed this order, what the order might say about the customer.
How to Order Coffee
June 28, 2013
Overheard: Even nerds want to have sex.
Where it took me: This is one of those lines that nearly speaks for itself, but buries one tiny truth beneath its basic meaning. Just right for a haiku; a tiny, perfect poem of only 17 syllables.