Thursday, September 24, 2009

From the Poetry & Popular Culture Mailbag: Gumball Poetry

This week, Rachel Dacus writes in from the Bay Area, giving Poetry & Popular Culture a little bit of history to, uh, chew on for a while: poetry gumball machines once distributed across eight states by the innovative Portland-based publishing operation Gumball Poetry.

For a while, somewhere between 2004 and 2006, it seems, you could get your hands on a poetry gumball machine stuffed with the work of ten or so poets for as little as $300 each (plus extra for the stand).
Here, Dacus takes a moment to reflect on what was—and what could have been.

Dear Poetry & Popular Culture,

Poetry in unlikely places is one of my favorite things (which makes P&PC one of my favorite blogs, of course), and I'm writing to share an example. On my bookshelf sits a row of plastic capsules that were part of a really original poetry-publishing experiment—the poetry gumball. Instead of finding a Bazooka Joe bubble gum comic inside each capsule, you get chewable gum and a short poem. A real poem.

But Bazooka didn't launch or even adopt this project. I mean, pick the two most incompatible cultural artifacts you can think of, and poetry and chewing gum might be there at the top of the list. But Gumball Poetry didn't see it that way, and neither did I. When I first heard of the gumball poetry-delivery mechanism, I thought, I just have to have my poem combined with my favorite childhood chew-toy: my very own Bazooka Joe Brodsky.

That was the grand plan, at least, and I could hardly stand the excitement. But then I discovered that the culturally chic Bay Area didn't boast a single Gumball Poetry machine. To buy poems and gum, I'd have to take my fifty cents—my two quartets?—all the way to Portland where Gumball poetry was making its grand offer: "Would you like a Gumball Poetry Machine in your cafe, bar, dance hall, office, hospital, library, school, bathroom, art gallery, clothing store, car, community center, life, church?" The one that really intrigued me was the church—it really rang my bell. All the quarters go into the coffers. The pearly whites meet the pearly gates. Saint Peter meets David St. John.

But, alas, Gumball Poetry is no more. The website remains open—now an artifact of a really cool cultural concept—and if you go there you find this note: "This is all just here for historical purposes. In case any of our memories go. Gumball Poetry is on hiatus (likely permanent). We miss you too. It was the best fun we ever had."

Looks like even popular poetry's bubble can burst.


Rachel Dacus

Rachel Dacus' poetry books are Another Circle of Delight, Femme au chapeau, and Earth Lessons. She blogs at Rocket Kids.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the coolest ideas I've ever heard. Maybe we can get it started in fortune cookies, instead? :P

I really love the stories this blog is telling. I've already linked to you once, but I'm sure it will happen many times in the future.

denny hoffman said...

Have to agree with Keith - this is definitiely the COOLEST idea around. My thank to both Rachel for writing this and Mike for presenting it to us.


denny d;-)

Tom C. Hunley said...

They published one of my poems in their Heavy Metal Issue in 2000. The editors wrote to me to say that someone purchased a gumball machine for their wedding containing 200 copies of my poem. Pretty cool. Sorry to hear that they're defunct.

Jessie Carty said...

i'd stumbled across this idea when working on a book review for the developer of the idea. his book COUCH is fantastic!

i love the idea of poems in fortune cookies though :)

pork fried rice and a side of haiku

Ben Parzybok said...

And it was a really excellent poem, Tom, a pleasure to publish.

Sadly, something seems to have happened to our last 5 issues or so. They're strangely blank. I'll look into it.

I remember Carlos Reyes said once about Gumball Poetry, to our dismay, "These things last as long as the founders have energy and then they seem to die." We thought: What? This is going to last forever!

There are a few posts on Gumball Poetry here:

Including where a few of the machines went. Also there's a mention of Callithump!, which is doing great things too.

(and thanks Jessie!)

Salem's NoMaSoFa Neighborhood said...

Since posting Rachel's letter last week, I've heard from people who have seen poems distributed via used cigarette machines (Vermont) and vending machines (Iowa). Looks to me like Gumball Poetry is due for a comeback!

Ben Parzybok said...

I believe Artomat was the first: A very cool project.

Gumball Poetry started in 1999 and ran until 2006.

Sandra said...

I was very proud to publish a poem with Gumball Poetry back in the day...and I still have a few plastic "bubbles" neatly archived with my other contributor issues. Thanks for the flashback!

Radish King said...

I had a poem published in Gumball Poetry then drove to Portland and purchased a machine and gave it to Richard Hugo House. Once Gumball Poetry went under (to my sorrow), I retrieved the machine and donated it to Jared Leising's poetry class at Cascadia Community College where, as far as I know, it remains. The only thing I asked of Jared was that he used the gumball proceeds to support small presses and donate the books to the college. I don't know what the class is doing with it these days but I'm sure they're stuffing it with poems on a regular basis.

Rebecca Loudon

Radish King said...

I've also had poems on buses and on coffee cans (Story House Coffee.) I agree with Rachel, poetry in surprising places is a great joy.