Amid Nashville’s storytelling culture — which tends to come out through song — a new experiment has emerged. It’s called “poetry on demand.”
A group of writers hangs out at events, including this weekend’s Southern Festival of Books, and quickly writes poems based on stories shared from passers-by. Whoever wanders up answers a few questions and then the poets go to work.
It’s a new endeavor for a Nashville writers’ collective called The Porch, which typically hosts workshops, retreats, and readings. But with this interactive project, they often come across fresh material. Like Susannah Felts, a co-founder, who heard one family’s adventure while renovating an old home in 12South.
“So this story was about the dad of the family was up on the roof, repairing the roof or working on it, and he fell through,” she said.
“What Happened To Daddy?”
My child, you want to know
Your shrill cry wrests me from the shower
Still sudsed after a morning of spackle and floor refinishing
This house brings us to our knees again and again
This time it’s a full pair of legs dangling from the ceiling
Patches of blue where the sky shines through
Your father, trapped between two worlds
Being put on the spot is the challenge and the reward for the poets. They’ve heard from kids, listened to a man who grew up in Detroit loving Motown music, and got a confession from a woman looking for love.
And then there was the yarn spun by East Nashville Baptist pastor Napoleon Harris.
He shared the story of getting into his first fight as a child while growing up in Cleveland. His parents taught him not to, and other than play-wrestling, he didn’t have a clue what a fight was.
“My closest frame of reference was Mr. T. and Hulk Hogan from wrestling,” Harris said. “It never dawned on me that these were things people would do to each other with the intent to hurt each other.”
Poet Joshua Moore loves the story and sees universal themes.
“I think there’s something in there about your parents teaching you not to fight, like the ‘Do as I say, not as a I do,’ but then also him needing to defend his cousin,” Moore said. “I think it’ll be a good poem, but right now it’s definitely in the formative stages.”
When such a story surfaces, Moore takes a little more time.
Hear Moore deliver the finished poem:
Harris isn’t bothered when the poem doesn't immediately get handed to him. He marvels at how quickly the writers bring shape to a story.
“It was just refreshing to watch the whole process,” Harris said. “As a writer, I mean I write every Sunday, as a pastor of a church, we write a sermon, and it is art … and the process is very similar.”
Harris said he went away with the beginnings of a real connection with some of Nashville's poets.