Meet the Man Who Writes Poetry for Strangers in the Park

“Ideas are worthless if you don't act on them”

Last week I strolled through Washington Square Park in New York City with my friend Samra. We had just shared a Thai meal nearby and couldn’t forgo the wonderful weather as we headed back to the train. The usual street performers, frisbee throwers and skateboarders marked their territory with their crafts. A woman shouting “sign up to vote” was drained out by a violinist playing in the middle of the square. With all that was going on, my eyes fixated on a large cardboard sign. "ASK ME FOR A POEM" it read, in thick black Sharpie. Samra and I headed over.

Peter Chinman, better known as The Park Poet, asked me for a topic. “Love,” I told him. Immediately realizing that word could mean anything, I vented to him about a short yet fulfilling relationship I once had with another poet. Behind his thick-rimmed glasses, I could see he was paying attention to my tale, finding rhyming words to put my story into prose. Within a few minutes, the 29-year-old writer handed me a sheet of paper with a shockingly well-written poem about a lost love. I sent him $20 on Venmo because he works on donations. 

Chinman has been working as The Park Poet since April 2017. Writing anywhere between 20 to 60 poems a day, mostly on the topics of the beautiful absurdity of having a body, the limits of language and death in its richness, he’s been making a living and growing a following from his full-time freelance gig. We caught up with Chinman to learn more about crafting poems for strangers. 

ONE37pm: When did you first get into poetry? 

Chinman: I was around 19 years old and loved books—but had no exposure to poetry, beyond the sort of things they make you memorize in high school, “Two Roads Diverging,” and “Shall I Compare Thee,” etc. I do remember loving “The Raven,” but definitely poetry seemed like a dead, archaic medium.

But then in college, friends and professors and lovers started turning me on to the good shit. Someone lent me a book of Jack Gilbert's poems, The Great Fires, and that hit me hard. I stole a copy of Rilke's Duino Elegies from a Barnes & Noble and read that until it fell apart. It felt like my world was splitting open. These poets were expressing things that I didn't know were possible to express. I wanted to do what they were doing.

What were you doing before you became The Park Poet?

Chinman: I graduated college in 2012 and moved to Austin, Texas, with the band I'd been in since high school. We rented out a house, and I committed myself to getting good at guitar. I fell in love, worked a shitty serving job at a sports bar, and the band moved back to Boston. The woman I loved started medical school in San Antonio. Our drummer and bassist decided to leave the band, which, at the time, felt like such a huge betrayal. Only Francis and I were left, so moved to a little beach house in Scituate, Massachusetts, where we knew no one.

That's where we really started to get into a good groove. There were no distractions. We each worked just a few days a week online and were cranking out music with our free time. We got to a point where we were starting and finishing a song every two weeks. I was waking up at dawn, doing yoga and journaling for an hour or two every morning. It was lonely and severe but so good creatively. I think isolation is one of the hardest but most important gifts to give yourself as a young artist.

We spent two years there. I would run away to San Antonio in the winter to be with the woman I loved. And then it all fell apart. I got dumped and was so broken up I couldn’t make music. Then we found out we had to leave the beach house. I had some friends from college who were moving into a brownstone in Brooklyn and suggested I join them, and so I did. I self-published a book of poems—At the Marsh House—from all the journaling I'd been doing. I was still just working a dumb, online customer service job and had no idea what I was going to do with myself, until I got the idea to try writing poems in public. 

What was the scariest thing about leaving your job and starting your own business?

Chinman: It feels very exposed sometimes. If it rains for a week, I can't work for a week. I have to make sure I save up to get through the slow months in the winter.

Who are your two favorite poets and why?

Chinman: I love Anne Carson—she wields language in a way that is both so severe and so tender. Walt Whitman is a big spiritual daddy for me. His ecstatic, manic moments drop open the trapped door inside me and suddenly I am the universe in its unfurling.

What is a normal day like for you?

Chinman: I usually wake up and have a slow morning reading and writing. If the weather's decent, I'll get to the park sometime in the afternoon and stay usually until after it gets dark. During the summer, I'll stay out until 11 or 12 sometimes, just writing. I usually write around 20 to 60 poems, depending on how busy the day is.

Tell me about the most interesting interaction you’ve had while writing poetry for someone.

Chinman: I’ve had so many beautiful interactions. One time this guy who seemed to be carrying around all his world possessions came up to me for a poem and in exchange gave me the pet fish he'd been carrying around in an open glass bowl. "I'll just lose him anyway. I lose everything," he told me. Another time I wrote wedding vows and officiated a wedding for a couple who had just met. The woman was supposed to fly out the next day but ended up skipping her flight and staying in New York and moving in with the guy. 

What’s next for The Park Poet?

Chinman: Mostly I just want to keep writing the best poems I can. Business-wise, I have a Patreon, where people pay $5 a month to get a poem every morning. I'm trying to grow that more. I'm thinking about getting into tattooing poems on people. I'm also thinking about getting into embroidering poems on clothes. Park Poems, Year Three, will be coming out next spring. I think I'd like to leave New York City at some point and live someplace more embedded in natural geography. I want to be able to go hiking and have a garden. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business? 

Chinman: People can tell when you're trying to trick them, so don't. Don't sacrifice your humanity for the sake of your brand. Ideas are worthless if you don't act on them.

How do you take your coffee? 

Chinman: Hot and black. 

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