I’ve considered myself a poet for a while now, but not the kind who writes so many poems. I’m the kind of poet who mostly thinks about writing poems; who has the occasional fleeting poetic thought, but almost never commits it to the page for fear that it might turn out less spectacular than I’d imagined. I’m holding off on my masterpiece until I gain more “life experience.” A lot of people think that’s lazy, but Jorge Luis Borges said that the work of a poet never ends; that even our dreams are part of the work. So really, when you think about it, it’s a pretty stressful profession I’ve chosen for myself.
When I get heat from my friends for not writing, I go to great pains to defend my “poet” title. I guess that comes with the territory. But it’s something Burlington poet Ben Aleshire never has to worry about. He’s my antithesis: the kind of poet who’s always writing, who never stops. If mine is a full-time endeavor — in Borges’ view — his is an all-consuming one.
Perhaps you’ve seen Aleshire: This summer at the Burlington Farmers Market, he and his poetic colleagues have been typing up personalized verse on an old manual typewriter. As people walk along the edge of City Hall Park, fresh produce in hand, Aleshire watches from behind his machine. “Do you want a poem?” he asks the passersby.
They stop and turn, moved by the novelty of the question. How can you say no? Aleshire asks them for a topic — any topic — and tells them to come back in 10 minutes. When they do, their poem is waiting. You can read it and pay him what you think it’s worth — from one dollar to a million.
It’s a pretty romantic setup — and occasionally brings people to tears, says Aleshire — but it turns out also to be a smart business move. See, Aleshire is also editor of Honeybee Press, which he founded in 2007 to “fill a void” in Burlington, he says; at the time, in his view, the town had no literary magazine that sought to bridge the gap between the “gutter and the ivory tower.” Honeybee Press publishes the Salon, which attempts just that.
Aleshire prints the magazine himself — on homemade paper, no less — which takes a lot of time but also saves a lot of money. Last year Honeybee received a generous grant from the Vermont Arts Council, but lately the mostly volunteer-based press has been supporting itself on magazine and book sales alone, Aleshire says. He notes that the farmers-market project has revolutionized the way he writes, making him less of a “memory poet” and more of an on-the-spot bard. But it’s also no accident that he has the magazine displayed for customers as he cranks out their personalized poems.
Anyway, I had heard of this Ben Aleshire guy. Being a great-writer-in-the-making myself — and thus a bit competitive — I decided to go check him out. On Saturday morning, I walked up to City Hall Park and nonchalantly approached the poet’s table. I already knew who he was, but he didn’t know that.
“Do you want a poem?” he asked me.
“Oh…” I acted surprised. “Well, um … sure!” This guy doesn’t know what he’s in for, I thought, eager to stump him and prove to myself that nobody could write a real poem that fast.
“OK, just give me a topic,” Aleshire said as he finished his last poem and handed it to a blushing young girl.
“Well, let’s see…” I thought. “How about … falling in love with … er, no … maybe, flowers in the … or, how about … an impending nuclear holocaust as seen through the eyes of a puppy?”
Much to my chagrin, Aleshire didn’t bat an eye. He told me to circle around the market and come back. When I did (admittedly at a faster-than-normal pace), my poem was waiting.
Now, look, being a poet myself, I’ve met a lot of “poets.” You know the type — the hacks, the wannabes. Well, I read my poem twice through right then and there, and I’m here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, this man is a poet, indeed.
My walk home was bittersweet. On the one hand, my mission to flummox the poet in the park had failed, and I now felt less sure that I was the best poet in town. But on the other hand — or, more accurately, in the other hand — I had this beautiful poem, written (in the heat of commissioned inspiration) just for me.
My shining wet eyes
saw it all coming;
the moment of terrible light
followed by eternal night.
I had heard them whispering
in the parlor for days,
frowning at the glowing screens
they came to love
more than me. Believe it
or not, I don’t miss them.
I never needed them
in the first place.
Now I am growing up.
I am growing
into a wolf.
Ben Aleshire and fellow Honeybee poets appear at the Burlington Farmers Markets on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., through October 27; they’ll also be at the Burlington Book Festival with typewriters on Saturday, September 22, and Sunday, September 23, at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center. Aleshire will also read on Thursday, September 20, at 6:30, at the John Dewey Lounge, Old Mill Building, University of Vermont, as part of the WRUV Reader book launch. honeybeepress.org, burlingtonbookfestival.com, mainstreetlanding.com/performing-arts-center