The Poetry of Strangers is a refreshing yet relevant read for 2020. It doesn’t just cover the journey of a typewriter poet and his residencies throughout America, but the ecology of the places and more importantly, the people, he meets along the way.
Despite the depth of the subjects this book travels through, it is a light read; Brian Sonia-Wallace doesn’t paint a bed of roses, but he doesn’t stomp on one either. He draws connections between commerce and art, job and identity, as well as society today and the various wounds of the country. The Poetry of Strangers is a study and a practice of human interactions, a collection of testimonial essays—accounts the author either experienced or bared witness to. Threaded throughout each chapter are the poems he has written for strangers, each one more beautiful than the last.
I appreciated the honesty throughout this book as Brian Sonia-Wallace is a reliable narrator, never withholding. He expresses his route, how his practice came to be as well as his inspirations and opportunities, which he shares humbly. He explores the concept of being an artist in America in modern times, and how one grapples with “the need for a job to be not just a job, but an identity” (pg 66). He sheds light on his personal doubts, both in content and context—having to write short poems without an eraser, in the span of a few minutes, while creating a space for poetry within the service industry. The need for perfection dissipates as he embodies the essence of poetry by becoming a “mirror,” focusing on the individual, their griefs, and his moment with both (pg 147). On page 65 he writes, “My role, I quickly realized, was to just grant people permission to express the emotions they kept under wraps in order to get along in public space.” Sonia-Wallace asks strangers what it is they need a poem about, not want.
You do not have to be a writer or a traveler to enjoy The Poetry of Strangers. You must, however, have an interest in humanity as Brian Sonia-Wallace takes quite a bit of philosophical turns to further discuss bigger issues within the country. He is led there by the personal accounts he has truly listened to. In this digital age, where most people display their lives on social media, Brian Sonia-Wallace’s approach of typewriter poetry demands the need to be present, in the moment. The Poetry of Strangers is the culmination of many tales, snippets of America.
Review by Brandi Spering