Friday, September 10, 2010

Portland's Poetry Peddlers

A few weeks back, P&PC did a short profile on a personalized poetry business that had set itself up on the waterfront in downtown Portland. At that time, we somewhat rashly proclaimed that the age of the locally-sourced poem had dawned on Stumptown and that lovers of the local could now find appropriate reading material to go along with their farm-fresh eggs, all organic cracked wheat bread, and homemade Marionberry jam. Start your day off right, we implied, by drinking responsibly from your watershed, eating responsibly from your foodshed, and reading responsibly from your poemshed.

The P&PC office isn't about to retract any of those statements just yet, but we will offer a tiny qualifi- cation that perhaps the locally-sourced poetry movement has been in Portland longer than we first thought and has emerged more, uh, organically than we might have indicated. Take the man in the white hat pictured above, for example, whom we encountered peddling his wares—serious, funny, sad and glad poems—at the Saturday Farmer's Market where all the foodie boys and girls go to get their fennel on.* He was busy and we were too uncaffeinated to deal with his customer's pink jacket, striped tote bag and silver flip-flops, so we didn't stop to chat him up. We simply assumed the green newspaper dispenser in the background would serve as caption enough: he and others like him are the Vanguard of the new localism.**


*Many people associate the act of peddling with small wares and commodity items, not with poems. However, the earliest descriptions of peddling relate to books and verse not to knick knacks and doodads. The Oxford English Dictionary traces "peddling" back to references in Sir Thomas More's The confutacyon of Tyndales answere (1532) ("The pedelyng knaues that here bring ouer theire bookes, grispe aboute an halfepeny") and Thomas Nashe's Pierce Penilesse his supplication to the diuell (1592) ("Who can abide a scuruie pedling Poet to plucke a man by the sleeue at euerie third step"). So maybe More and Nashe didn't exactly hold poetry peddling in the highest esteem, but that doesn't change the fact that Portland's perigrinating poets don't come from a long tradition.

**While the term "new localism" has gained currency of late, it too has poetic origins, as Vachel Lindsay—a poetry peddler in his own right who traded poems for food and lodging as he crossed the U.S. on foot—used the term in the first couple decades of the 20th century to describe his vision for the arts in America.