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In an instant, poems on demand

They turn strangers’ stories into verse. We tried to do the same with theirs.
 
Merk the Moment poets Kelley Johnson, top, and Jessica Merker, type poems for people during the Shopapalooza Festival at Vinoy Park on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in St. Petersburg.
Merk the Moment poets Kelley Johnson, top, and Jessica Merker, type poems for people during the Shopapalooza Festival at Vinoy Park on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in St. Petersburg. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 26, 2023|Updated Nov. 27, 2023

She tells the poets, “I’d like one, please.”

A pretty heavy topic, the woman warns.

Under a white tent, at a table draped with moss-colored linen, behind historic typewriters

Two verse-makers nod and listen

For words to wrangle the stranger’s story into a summation, a gift.

A custom poem, created in an instant …

Sunday, Vinoy Park is packed: Shopapalooza.

More than 300 vendors hawking answers to holiday wish lists:

Bamboo door mats, beaded cell phone bags, brooms and blooms

Clean your gutter? Sharpen your knives? Pose with a princess?

And there, between local honey and kangaroo jerky: Merk the Moment

During the mid-day drizzle, the writers are listening ...

“Everyone has a story to tell,” says Jessica Merker, 35.

Within every story, there’s a poem.

“We just have to find it.”

A quick epic conversation: Dreams? Worries? Relationships?

Making connections, searching for meaning, playing with syntax, rhythm, tone …

As strangers spill, the scribes start shaping …

“My partner’s mom is in her final days,” the woman tells the poets.

Searching for something to give her, to honor her, for her to hold onto

So she will know she is loved.

“What do you hope for her?” asks Kelley Johnson, 33.

That she knows that we know that she did her best.

At first, it was an experiment …

Neither had composed a poem in public, on deadline

Or taken on another’s tale.

Merker, a lawyer, knows the impact words can carry, chooses each carefully.

Johnson, a teacher, wants her middle school students to love language.

Both wrote for themselves, mostly free verse, seldom shared.

Until last summer when Merker bought “The Grey Lady,” and took her outside…

A canvas stool, a few sheets of paper, her new vintage Olympia SM3 typewriter

At Walter Fuller Park one afternoon, searching for inspiration

A man walking his dog, “What are you doing?”

“Writing poems,” she replied. “Would you like one?”

Ode to freedom and grass, connection and companionship. Dog.

When he read her poem out loud, she knew …

Writing is private, dredged from your own mind and heart

Creating custom poetry is interactive, communal

“A really powerful way to commemorate important moments in our lives,” Merker says.

Typing at festivals from St. Petersburg to Seminole Heights, while you wait

Verses for baby showers, vows for weddings, even eulogies: beginnings to endings.

Chandra Farlow describes her partner's mother to poet Kelley Johnson, who will craft a poem about her, at Shopapalooza in St. Petersburg's Vinoy Park on Nov. 26, 2023
Chandra Farlow describes her partner's mother to poet Kelley Johnson, who will craft a poem about her, at Shopapalooza in St. Petersburg's Vinoy Park on Nov. 26, 2023 [ LANE DEGREGORY | Times staff ]

Tell us about your partner’s mom …

A godly, quiet woman. Funny, says Chandra Farlow, 40.

Greek and Filipino. Signature dish: spaghetti and meatballs.

A nurse who raised six kids, who adore her.

Throws birthday parties for her dog, Odis. Murder shows soothe her.

Corazon: Her name means heart. “We call her Cora.”

If you ask for a price, they ask you to decide …

Sunny Saturday, 29 people purchased poems

More than $400 in donations covered the booth rent.

Sunday, more lines; keys kept clacking in slow staccato.

Instead of talking to Chat GPT, which spits out strings of words

Folks wanted real writers to turn their emotions into art.

“I wanted the poem to be uplifting,” Johnson said, “filled with hope …”

* * * * * * * *

Mi Corazon:

There’s a window where the light shines through. And in a blink it becomes a door to let the laughter flood every room; forget the floors: muddy puppy paws touch well-loved hearts, gathered ‘round the murder/ mystery table to share simmered sauce, or Odis birthdays – know that we have all been healed by knowing you; feel this home, submerged in love.