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12:01 am
Tue April 17, 2012

A Poem Store Open For Business, In The Open Air

Originally published on Tue April 17, 2012 6:43 am

Zach Houston runs his Poem Store (on any given sidewalk) with these items: a manual typewriter, a wooden folding chair, scraps of paper, and a white poster board that reads: "POEMS — Your Topic, Your Price."

Houston usually gets from $2 to $20 for a poem, he says. He's received a $100 bill more than once. The Oakland, Calif., resident has been composing spontaneous street poems in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2005. Five years ago, it became his main source of income.

"I quit my last conventional job on April Fools' Day, 2007," says Houston, 29. "They didn't believe me, because I said I was going to write poems, on the street, with a typewriter — for money." It was no April Fools' joke.

On most Saturdays, you can find Houston at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Passersby eye his sign and watch intently as Houston types away on his Swiss-made, green 1968 Hermes Rocket.

"Straight out of Switzerland, man," Houston says. "And it's my purse full of language. I love it."

A woman visiting from Olympia, Wash., gives Houston three ideas for her poem: spring break; road trip; and Olympia. Houston starts typing away immediately. In roughly 60 seconds, he pulls out the small, asymmetrical piece of white paper from the typewriter and reads it aloud:

"Where the Greek gods live with history and trees
protecting patience of rainforest
where it doesn't rain
simmers, fog, moisture
worship her, mother nature, newly wed
every year to visit a season
is called spring
forever returning to its source"

"I've always loved poetry. I've always cared about how language works," Houston says.

His mother claims that Houston carried a dictionary around when he was little. But even though he loves writing poems, his motivation wasn't "bringing poetry to the world," Houston says. Rather, he thought, "I love writing poems. I bet I could make a few dollars and survive off of writing poems."

"Believe it or not, it's not totally a reliable income. Who knew?" he says with a laugh.

But the career choice has its advantages. Last year, Houston's work was featured at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and at SF Camerawork in San Francisco.

As Houston stretches his back between writing poems, someone has been standing behind him for quite some time, paying close attention: 10-year-old Miles Fogler of San Francisco, who had been walking down the street with his family when he noticed Houston.

"I really like typewriters," Miles says, "and I wanted to see someone write on a typewriter, because I haven't seen anybody do that." And when Miles saw that Houston was writing poems, he decided he wanted one. His topic of choice? Legos (he's building a big structure at home).

Houston is delighted. "Legos are amazing," he says. "What a wonder. Discrete units, man." He starts typing.

Listen to the poem Zach Houston composed for Miles Fogler:

Houston says he's written thousands of poems in the past seven years on his Hermes Rocket. He gives them away to his patrons. He writes his e-mail address on the poems and asks them to send him copies. Some do.

In the past, Houston could be found regularly at Bay Area art festivals, coffee shops and farmers markets. These days, Houston primarily shows up at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. The rest of his time he now devotes to more private writing.

He also toys with the idea of going back to college, Houston says, so he can "get into arguments with poets about how they're using words all wrong."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Now, in honor of National Poetry Month, we want to introduce you to a hardworking poet. We caught up with Zach Houston at a farmer's market in San Francisco, sitting on a wooden folding chair, banging away at a typewriter perched on his lap. A sign beside him reads: Poems: Your Topic, Your Price.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER)

ZACH HOUSTON: I compose spontaneous poems on a manual typewriter - 1968 Hermes Rocket, straight out of Switzerland, man - and it's my purse full of language. I love it. Do you guys want a poem? What are the first three things you thought of?

ANN: I have to go home today.

HOUSTON: Where do you have to go home to?

ANN: Olympia, Washington. So...

HOUSTON: (unintelligible)

ANN: Spring vacation or spring break, road trip and Olympia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER)

ANN: My name is Ann. I'm from Olympia, Washington. I just bought a poem from Zach. It's a little, ripped piece of white paper. It too him, like, what, 60 seconds to pound it out on the typewriter. It's very cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER)

HOUSTON: Where the Greek gods live with history and trees, protecting patience of rainforest where it doesn't rain, simmers, fog, moisture. Worship her, mother nature, newly wed, every year to visit a season is called spring forever returning to its origin - or source. To its source, or origin. Which one do you prefer?

ANN: To its origin.

HOUSTON: Good job, 'cause that's what I wrote. Did you read that, or did you...

ANN: No.

HOUSTON: No, good job.

ANN: Thank you.

HOUSTON: I usually make five, 10, 15, 20 a poem. I started doing this in 2005, quit my last conventional job on April Fool's Day, 2007. And they didn't believe me, because I said I was going to go write poems on the street with a typewriter for money. Believe it or not, it's not a totally reliable income. Who knew? So, you want a poem, too?

MILES: A poem about Legos.

HOUSTON: Legos are amazing. What a wonder, discrete units, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER)

MILES: My name's Miles, and I'm from San Francisco. I was walking down the street today, and I really like typewriters. And I wanted to see someone write a typewriter, because I haven't seen anybody do that. And then I noticed you were writing poems, and I really wanted you to do one.

HOUSTON: Here's your poem: The Lego glow took a while, total monument to construction, corporate crossover to get products diversified across markets that miles are a measure of light in total darkness, a candle underground, an engine of systems inside of instructions deified and defied, simultaneously toy and vinyl sidings. There you, buddy. There's your poem.

MILES: Thank you so much.

HOUSTON: Enjoy yourself.

MILES: There you go.

HOUSTON: Thank you, good sir. Patron of the arts, man. You're a collector now. I've always loved poetry. I always care about how language works. My mom claims I carried a dictionary around when I was child, but my motivation was less bringing poetry to the world and more like I love writing poems. I bet I can make a few dollars and survive off of writing poems. But basically, it makes me want to go back to college and get in arguments with poets about how they're using words all wrong. What do you want a poem about?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bubbles and clouds.

HOUSTON: Bubbles and clouds.

NEARY: That's poet Zach Houston at the Fairy Plaza Farmer's Market in San Francisco. Tell us about the poems you love. Have you memorized any poems? Go to our Facebook page and tell us which ones. There you can also find a link to a game testing your skill as matching NPR personalities to their favorite poems. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.