My friend and fellow poet, Dorothy Fletcher, and I are sitting in a Florida coffee shop and sharing a piece of pumpkin bread. Actually, we are here on serious business. Today, we are surgeons for poetry.
Dorothy and I are fortunate poets. Our publisher produced both our books traditionally. That means that someone else risked investing in publishing our books. But that also means we have to come up with budget-conscious ways to connect with readers. This coffee shop lets us hold author events on a regular basis. We don't expect to sell a lot of books today. The point is to promote recognition of our work.
Since February contains the holiday when all hearts beat for love, Dorothy and I came up with the idea of having a free love-poem clinic. And on a cool Sunday when we might curl up before one of the only fires we are likely to light this winter, we are instead sitting in the coffee shop, surrounded by our books, bookmarks, and some classy magnets Dorothy designed on her computer.
The public has been notified by way of news releases and printed fliers. We have invited people from the community to bring in drafts of their love poems, and have promised to help craft those verses into respectable odes to their loved ones.
When we came up with this idea, we envisioned starry-eyed youth bringing in lines of confessional poetry on tattered pages torn from spiral notebooks. (Poets are supposed to be visionaries, and I'd like to think that Dorothy and I have visionary moments.)
But our first "client" is a woman who looks to be about 40 years old. Her teenage son is along for the ride and the latte. He fidgets with Dorothy's magnets as his mother alternates between telling us about her boyfriend and telling her son to stop messing with the magnets.
"Why don't we take a look at your rough draft?" we ask.
She doesn't have one. So we quiz her about her boyfriend, and we craft a half dozen rhythmic lines that make her very happy. We chat about books for a few minutes, and, thanking us profusely, she leaves, son in tow.
I've noticed a man and his daughter sitting at a nearby table. Every now and then they look up from their cups to glance our way. So, since Floridians are fairly friendly folk, I say hello. The daughter confides they're here today because they saw our announcement in the newspaper. "My dad wants to write my mom a poem," she says.
So they pull up a chair, and we begin to ask questions about his wife. Is she a strong-willed woman? Does she work outside the home? Pets? Hobbies?
The man tells us she is a wonderful wife. They like to work in their yard together, and she is a grower of things that bloom. She nursed him through two hospital stays. She works, but she cooks supper every night. When he comes through the front door, he can smell what's cooking, and his dog Ollie races to meet him.
"Does Ollie jump?" I ask.
"It's more like he rolls," says the daughter.
Our pens scribble furiously, and we come up with a pretty good poem, considering that we won't take it through the countless revisions Dorothy and I prescribe for our more literary-minded work. Poetic visions do not come without serious amounts of red ink.
I read the poem aloud, and the man looks at me, love in his eyes – not for me, but for his wife. He is so grateful. His daughter tells us she'll help him put it on some nice paper.
We talk to a few more people, and one of the coffee-shop employees walks over. She is a lovely young girl with long, dark hair and big, brown eyes. Her shift is ending. She tells us that her fiancé, who's in the military, has just been deployed to Afghanistan. She asks if we can help her come up with a poem to send him.
I'm elated, because I already have a very nice sonnet I wrote for my husband when he and I were apart for an extended period. I give her a copy of my book and point out the poem. She offers to pay me, but I refuse.
By now, it's time to shut down our clinic. Our operations have been fairly successful. Dorothy sold two books. I didn't sell any, but I had fun with the poetry and the people.
Three days later, my phone rings. It's Dorothy, who, besides being an author, teaches at a large public high school.
"A girl came up to me at school today and told me her sister saw me Sunday," she said. "And I just had to tell you this. Remember the man who came in with his daughter?"
I tell her I do; he was very nice and so was his daughter. I rejoiced in the fact I'd met a man still in love with his wife after 25 years of marriage.
"Did his wife like her poem?" I ask.
"She did," Dorothy said. "She loved it. It took her 10 minutes to stop crying after she read it."
I smile, not just a thin on-your-face curve, but a deep crescent waxing from heart to lips – although I realize the incongruity in feeling joy over another person's tears.
This is a moment I didn't envision, but it's visionary just the same.