WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — What kind of poem do you need today?
From June 11 through June 13, nearly two dozen LGBTQ+ poets will give anyone who calls a special hotline a free, personalized poem in honor of Pride weekend.
The Pride Poets are a collective of LGBTQ+ writers who, for the last two years, have set up shop at West Hollywood pride events, creating flash poetry, live and on the spot — with assistance from WeHo Arts' One City One Pride grants. Brian Sonia-Wallace, who organized the events, has been working as a "typewriter poet" — creating personalized poetry on the spot for people, using classic portable typewriters — since 2012. The idea took root with him while on a trip to Salem, Massachusetts, visiting with friends that had formed a transgender witch collective.
"I thought, this is so cool: people organizing around a shared identity, with some sense of history and magic, and I feel like literature has that same potential," Sonia-Wallace said. Seeing that group resonated with him — he feels he's of a generation where the queer community has been subsumed by online living and has found that traditional gay spaces are "very white and very male and prioritize one body type — it's like a stamp," he said.
Pride Poets then became an umbrella under which people from a broad range of identities could sit together and connect with a shared love of literature.
Creating poems together in public spaces with strangers ties into a larger purpose of connecting people in a deliberate, occasionally emotionally intimate way.
So the question to strangers seeing poems is not what kind of poem they want — but what kind of poem they need.
"I think that is sort of the magic of it: that it really is about a connection, and that's something that was and has been said to the new poets," said Molly Thornton, a member of the project who co-organized the hotline this year. "The advice of remembering that the poem that is created by you and this person is between the two of you."
These poems, Thornton said, exist in the space the poet and the caller come to together — the poet finding the words and images from the caller and the caller entrusting the poet with their story and their needs.
The pandemic, unfortunately, shifted the way that the poets and their patrons would interact. Two years ago, Pride Poets bopped around West Hollywood, typewriters in tow. Last year, owing to the pandemic, the project went digital.
This year, the idea for a hotline came about in no small part because of Zoom fatigue — but also, a telephone conversation offers a greater depth and connection than the digital realm.
"It's so nice to talk on a phone; we don't have to be at a camera, and I think we're in a moment of very serious mental health crises," Sonia-Wallace said. "And there's been a proliferation of warmlines and hotlines, and this idea of who you call when you need things."
It's designed to be a quick process (from five to fifteen minutes) with a short conversation between the caller and the poet, followed by writing on the spot. The poet will then share the poem on the line and then offer to email it to the caller. Or, if the caller prefers, they can have the poem mailed to them as an artifact of the conversation or, possibly, a gift for a loved one.
The question an outsider to the LGBTQ community might have is, how is a project like this connected to Pride?
Sonia-Wallace thought about that himself at one point after a previous event, asking his fellow writers: How is this gay? Is it really gay?
"They were like, no!" he recalled. "A lot of stories revolved around queer celebration, or self-love and acceptance…(but) I think we would have written similar things had it been a different crowd."
That is to say, there isn't just one LGBTQ community, or life experience — "that's why they call it a salad, this is why it's LGBTQ-plus: it's a multiplicity of experiences, and I love the idea that it's a queer thing, maybe, because it is a multiplicity of experiences, there isn't one poem that is the poem. Everyone needs their own, and is on their own journey."
The Pride Poets hotline, 202-998-3510, is active June 11 through June 13, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, visit pridepoets.com.