Wednesday, February 22, 2012

P&PC Heroes: Till Gwinn & His Personalized Poem Business

A year and a half back, in August of 2010, P&PC was playing tour guide for parents visiting Portland's famously crafty and idiosyncratic Saturday Market, and we happened upon a Personalized Poem service (pictured here) that even Don Draper couldn't have failed to love. "Complete with a menu ranging from a $1.00 haiku to a $5.00 slam poem and performance," we wrote on this blog shortly thereafter, "this mobile, briefcase-sized start-up may not be making any IPO's soon, but it's got our vote for best new business in town."

The woman sitting against the wall in the picture wasn't the brains behind the project, however. We waited around a bit in hopes of meeting the poet-typist-owner, but he or she never showed. At first, we thought maybe this absence was meant to be a clever statement about the death of the author, but then we figured, hey, maybe even personalized poem services are governed by federal regulations mandating regular breaks in the working day. So, lured by the promise of knick-knacks like blown glass ornaments, funky handmade hats, and flower vases made out of things like test tubes, we moved on, resolved to the fact that we might never meet the face behind the operation.

Imagine our surprise, then, a year and a half later and during a casual conver- sation with a couple of students in the WU campus coffee shop about the public profile of poetry, in discovering that P&PC actually knows the entrepreneur behind the operation. Here's how it happened. We were sitting with two English majors (Angela and Till) and mentioned, in a sort of offhand way, the Personalized Poem service we'd seen in PDX a few years earlier. Till (guy holding the ukulele in the picture here) got an odd look on his face and said it was funny—he himself did a Personalized Poem service in PDX for a while, and how weird it would be if someone had stolen his idea. Next thing you know, the laptop gets opened and P&PC's August 2011 posting is pulled up on screen and, wouldn't you know it, we're looking at a picture of what turns out to be Till's own business! Not only did P&PC know the person who started the biz, and not only was he a student at Willamette, but he was our own student too—a creative writing major who'd been in our English 332 (Intermediate Poetry Writing) class two years before and who's part of this semester's section of English 441 (Poetry of the Pacific Northwest)!

It took a day or two for all of us to find our more-than-metrical footing after that unlikely discovery, but then things pretty much returned to normal. Nevertheless, P&PC sent out one of its office interns to catch up with Till—a native of Oregon City, a current member of the Bearcat rowing team, and already no stranger to poetic controversy—and ask how his business, carrying on a tradition suggested by the picture here, is going. Here's what he had to say:

P&PC Intern: So how's business going?

Till Gwinn: Pretty well: on an average summer day I'll type up 10 to 20 poems. That brings in around $40 if I set up before noon and stay until around 5.

P&PC: What's it like being a poetry vendor? Do you need (ahem) a poetic license?

TG: It's pretty fun though overwhelming at times: when you have a line of folks waiting for poems on a wide variety of subjects, it gets tough to focus. The only people who disapprove are security guards and event staff who are picky about where I set up. I have been asked if I have a license to sell poetry and was subsequently moved out of the designated vending area at Saturday Market.

P&PC: How do people react to seeing your set up?

TG: They're usually pretty happy. Even if they don't buy a poem, I get delighted smiles all day long.

P&PC: Tell me about your menu. How did you arrive on a price breakdown?

TG: The menu is a hybrid of poetic forms that I'm familiar with and those I assumed people would want. The pricing is based on the ease of writing each form: free verse is 25 cents a line, heroic couplets are $2, sonnets (I quickly learned) are under-priced at $4 each, and a slam poem is $5. I want to change the menu around in the future though: jack up the price of traditional metrical forms and add a children's poem.

P&PC: How did you come up with the idea of selling poems in the first place? And why set up in Portland and not at the markets in Salem?

TG: Like with all good poetry, I stole the idea. I saw a girl selling "Poems of the Day" at the farmer's market in Arcata, California. I set up in Portland because I figured tourists would be most interested in buying poetry, and the Saturday Market seemed to have the highest density. As soon as the weather improves, I'll give Salem a shot.

P&PC: Do you have investors? I imagine there could be, uh, verse ways to spend money these days.

TG: Not really. The only expenses I have are bus fare, paper, and ink ribbons. So far I've only made a profit one day, but I figure more time means more business.

P&PC: What can you tell us about the type of poetry people want?

TG: Most people want Portland poems, poems about their kids or significant others, and poems about nature in general. The oddest, and probably my favorite, request came from a couple of teenage boys who wanted a heroic couplet about Zombraham Lincoln.

P&PC: Can you give us a free sample?

TG: Unfortunately I don't keep any copies. It makes me sad because I've written some (like the Zombraham Lincoln piece) that are pretty good on their own. At the same time though, I like how each piece goes out into its own universe separate from me.

P&PC: Um, where'd you get the typewriter? I didn't think anyone under 40 could use one.

TG: I found it in House of Vintage off of Hawthorne. Some folks are surprised I own one, being so young, but I think the more media one uses, the more one can find in his or her writing.

P&PC: So, what's the future have in store?

TG: More poems. I'm going to keep setting up at Saturday Market primarily, but by the time summer rolls around, anywhere with sun and a poetically appreciative populous is a viable space.