The Wandering Bard: An Interview with Street Poet Ben Aleshire
It’s a beautiful day in the French Quarter of New Orleans and the streets are bustling with musicians, tap-dancers, living statues, and tarot readers. Tourists and locals alike stop to enjoy the sights in the warmth of the late-afternoon sun, and, perhaps, to hire their own personal poet. Ben Aleshire, hat cocked on an angle, a flower in his button hole, bends over his typewriter fulfilling request after request. It’s a busy day, but he makes time to chat with Bayou’s Associate Poetry Editor, Kia Groom about his life, his work, and of course, his poetry.
Kia Groom: When did you start writing poetry? What’s the earliest poem you remember writing and what was it about?
Ben Aleshire: I started writing poetry when I was 17. The earliest one I remember was called, ‘Sincerely, Me’ and it won a little contest that the bookstore ran in my town. It was a goofy little love poem.
KG: Did you study poetry in college?
BA: I’m a bit of an academic fallen angel. After (barely) graduating high school, I traveled around the world and worked for a few years while studying poetry and photography independently and occasionally working in the theatre. Then I talked my way into an advanced poetry class with David Huddle at the University of Vermont as a non-traditional student. It had a wonderful effect on me, but it was awfully expensive, and after a couple months I dropped out and ran away with the circus.
KG: How did you go about deciding to become a street poet?
BA: I started working as a street poet a few years ago. I had some writer friends in Vermont who also worked with Honeybee Press who had been doing it for years. It was so shocking and thrilling that I decided to hire them to set up at the press events and release parties – but I never considered myself able to do it. I always thought I was in the camp of writers who let experiences percolate through them for years and then sweat bullets over draft after draft, etc. That was my process.
But then one day I was at a party and my ex-girlfriend dared me to write a poem about the moon for her. I said, “No, I couldn’t, I’m not that kind of spontaneous writer.” She said, “What are you…afraid?” So I really thought about that and the answer was: Yes. Terrified. But she was able to goad me into it, and after the poem was done, I had that same post-coital energetic feeling that so many writers describe, after they finish something that they think it is successful. And she read it and loved it, and suddenly, all the fear and self doubt evaporated, and I never looked back.
KG: What’s your process like? Do people give you prompts? How does it all work?
BA: Every poet-for-hire has a slightly different process. Me, I bike to the Quarter and sit at a small folding table and chair in the street with my typewriter. Then I smoke a cigarette and wait until someone comes up and asks for a poem – or, if people make eye contact and seem interested, I ask, ‘Would you like a poem?’ Which is such a strange and wonderful question for people to hear; it’s so foreign. It’s a bit like performance art, just that one simple question.
They give a topic or a word as a prompt: love, hate, blue whales, cunnilingus, existential dread, all sorts of things. I tell them to come back in 10 minutes, and then they read what I’ve written and they pay whatever they think it’s worth. Sometimes they ask me to read it aloud, or sometimes they declaim it to the street themselves without even reading it first. I use carbon paper so I have a copy too.
KG: Tell us about the people you interact with. How do they respond to your work?
BA: All of the reactions I’ve had are positive. I’ve never had someone be disappointed. I have a money-back-guarantee, which nobody has ever taken me up on. The best experiences are when the customer gives a really creative topic: ‘Apology for a Dandelion,’ ‘What the Foot Said to the Shoe,’ ‘How I Dislocated my Girlfriend’s Ankles Using Only My Tongue,’ things like that. The ultimate reaction is when someone is so moved that they weep openly in the street in front of me and all the other strangers, and we embrace.
KG: How do you think people feel about poetry today? Is there a renewed awareness and appreciation of it in your opinion?
BA: Honestly, I do think there is a renewed awareness and appreciation for poetry – it’s just not in the typical way that we expect. People are always bemoaning the state of poetry, but when they bemoan, they are usually bemoaning the academy or the MFA system or declining readership or funding. But, poetry is being consumed by society in a totally different way these days. Hip-hop and popular music in general are the main expressions of poetry today, and that form of poetry is doing extremely well and finding a massive audience. Lauren Hill, Bob Dylan, Talib Kwali, Johanna Newsome: these are some of the poets who are being listened to, who will be remembered.
KG: Who are your favorite poets? Or your favorite poems?
BA: Neruda, Dylan, Mos Def, Alastaire Reid, Emily D, Ginsberg, Rumi, Cummings, Edie Rhoads…the list goes on!
‘Growing, Flying, Happening’, by Alastair Reid, is my favorite poem of all time.
KG: Do you publish work elsewhere? Where can we find it?
BA: Yes, I also publish in journals and do residencies, anthologies, lectures and panels, stuff like that. I have some poems in the new anthology, So Little Time (Green Writers Press, 2014). There’s a funny video that Goddard College did for my reading there at the Alternative Media Conference, which you can find on Youtube. My book, Currency, will be at Maple St. Bookshop soon, or you can find me on Royal St behind the cathedrals in the afternoons, if it’s nice out.
– for Carrie, 4.2.14, Royal Street
I am what you tattoo
with the name you give yourself
with the name of the man
you would speak to
if you could look him in the eye or
if miles & mountains didn’t bloom between.
Love & confusion course through me:
(strange electricity I carry ferry
through my sealed lips)–
Give me your tongue.
Plaster me with the faces of the dead
& I will sing I will sing
for whoever you want me to.
BENJAMIN ALESHIRE is an artist based in New Orleans. His poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Poetry East, the Gambit, and many others. He won the 2009 Nor’easter Playwright Competition, and 3rd place for the Neil Shepard Poetry Prize. He is the recipient of grants from the VT Arts Council and residencies from the BCA Center, the New City Galerie, and Bluseed Studios. Benjamin serves as assistant poetry editor for the Green Mountains Review and is the founding editor of Honeybee Press, which uses traditional paper-making and letterpress. He also works for the Mudlark Public Theater and tours with the Vermont Joy Parade. His latest book is Currency, a collection of spontaneously commissioned typewriter poems.