Writer | Listener
"Sonia-Wallace does on the page what he does on his typewriter...he charms us."
- The New York Times
What do you need a poem about?
I've asked this question to thousands of strangers. It's a key. People open up about their loves, their losses, their questions in life. I've written for weddings and anniversaries, for memorials, and for a rather surprising number of dogs.
I'd love to write for you, too, and to share some of those stories captured in my new book.
My Book: The Poetry of Strangers
"Full of optimism and wide-eyed wonder...It’s a book that should give comfort to any parent whose kid utters those blood-will-run-cold words, “Mom, Dad — I want to be a poet.” Sonia-Wallace proves that not only can you make a living at it; you might even change people’s lives." - The New York Times
The Poetry of Strangers is a deep dive into what communities across America reply when asked, "what do you need a poem about?" and the deep desire to be heard that the author found.
View the book launch from June 30!
Video of the first Typewriter Poets' Roundtable Sept 20 4pm PT
Our first nationwide roundtable navigates building personal connection in a pandemic - with keynote speaker LAMARKS of Ars Poetica.
About the Book
It might surprise you who’s a fan of poetry — when it meets them where they are.
Before he became an award-winning writer and poet, Brian Sonia-Wallace set up a typewriter on the street with a sign that said “Poetry Store” and discovered something surprising: all over America, people want poems. An amateur busker at first, Brian asked countless strangers, “What do you need a poem about?” To his surprise, passersby opened up to share their deepest yearnings, loves, and heartbreaks. Hundreds of them. Then thousands. Around the nation, Brian’s poetry crusade drew countless converts from all walks of life.
In The Poetry of Strangers, Brian tells the story of his cross-country journey in a series of heartfelt and insightful essays. From Minnesota to Tennessee, California to North Dakota, Brian discovered that people aren’t so afraid of poetry when it’s telling their stories. In “dying” towns flourish vibrant artistic spirits and fascinating American characters who often pass under the radar, from the Mall of America’s mall walkers to retirees on Amtrak to self-proclaimed witches in Salem.
In a time of unprecedented loneliness and isolation, Brian’s journey shows how art can be a vital bridge to community in surprising places. Conventional wisdom says Americans don’t want to talk to each other, but according to this poet-for-hire, everyone is just dying to be heard.
Thought-provoking, moving, and eye-opening, The Poetry of Strangers is an unforgettable portrait of America told through the hidden longings of one person at a time, by one of our most important voices today. The fault lines and conflicts which divide us fall away when we remember to look, in every stranger, for poetry.
Available for Purchase Now!
Images from my travels
strangers need poems in the strangest places...
Want to read a bit?
The Poetry of Strangers Excerpt: Railroad Writer
Before the railroad, church clock towers struck the hour based on a noon when the sun was directly overhead, so all time was local. The train companies were the ones who pushed for a universal time, set off a standard maritime clock which before had been essential only for sailors charting course. On the 18th of November, 1883, telegraph lines transmitted time signals to all major cities in the United States at noon on the dot, wiping out over 300 local times.
As we pass Albuquerque, a middle aged married couple and the wife’s mother get on and strike up a conversation about the typewriter I’ve had in front of me for nearly an hour. We do the typical train small talk – where did you get on? Where are you going? Why the train? Jo Ann, the wife, answers instantly. “I don’t fly!” It’s a common refrain.
Jo Ann and her family are visiting kids and grandkids, and are celebrating with Bud Lights at 11:30am. Once we’ve broken the ice and they’ve expressed openness to me writing a poem to commemorate the trip, I ask Jo Ann, “what do you need a poem about?” Her response is as instantaneous as it is dreaded.
“Sadie!” she quips.
In my experience as a poet for hire, what unites us across the entire United States, red and blue, is our urgent need for a poem about our dog. I swallow my snobbery and start to write. I’m halfway through my next poem when Jo Ann’s mother interrupts – “I didn’t tell you about my dog! I call her Miss Daisy, and I drive her!” A pause for laughter.
But then the woman gets more thoughtful. “I speak to Miss Daisy in Spanish,” she woman tells me, “I don’t speak in Spanish much anymore, but I do it for her, for whatever reason.” The language of childhood, youth, family. I suddenly have a glimpse of this woman’s life in an air conditioned desert bubble, older and not getting out much, with a little dog as a tether to her humanity.
As I’m writing, a young woman who’s been sitting behind me slips me a piece of paper with her topic on it. “I’m Dori, I’m a writer, too. Maybe I can write you one…” I grin. The car has transformed into a pop-up poetry salon, passengers at different tables reading and writing. Two little girls with their grandmother pass and type their names on the typewriter. I overhear, from a few tables away, grandma saying, “let’s play ‘make a poem!’” as they sit down. The game lasts just a few minutes in their attention spans before they turn to something else.
“Art is what we take care of,” a librarian I sit with at lunch tells me.
A text we have been dreaming of - the act of empowering invisibilized peoples, literature and human beings in danger.
An enlightening project that exposes how alike we are in our differences.
Earnest and soulful....Readers will be heartened and inspired by Sonia-Wallace’s artistic and spiritual coming of age.
[Brian's] voice in writing about poetry in human lives is endearing, smart, captivating, humane, compassionate--everything I wish our country were, every day.