Using poetry to enhance Flint's magic

FLINT, Michigan -- The concept of “Poet for Hire” is simple. Poets set up their typewriters in busy areas. They interact with curious passersby, engage with them, ask some questions, and write a personalized poem based on the conversation.


The idea might be new to Flint, but in true Flint fashion, there is creative talent here comparable to much larger cities, so that made Kady Yellow’s job easy when organizing a Poet for Hire event downtown Flint last week.


Yellow, the Flint Downtown Development Authority’s Director of Placemaking, recruited five local poets to participate in the event. Instead of the talent pool of poets being a limiting factor, something else was -- the need for more typewriters.


“Out of the 10 places I’ve lived, I’ve never seen so much raw talent as I have in Flint,” Yellow said. “There are a lot of great poets here, we probably could’ve had 25 (at the event), but right now, we have enough typewriters for five poets.”


Ashley McIntosh, a University of Michigan-Flint student who performs as Empress, participated in Friday’s event and a previous Poet for Hire event that was done in the Carriage Town area as part of Porch Fest.


“It’s awesome,” Empress said. “It gives people a sense of, hey, Flint has this. You don’t have to go to bigger cities for it. Flint has culture right here.”


Poet for Hire as a concept simply inspires interaction. The artists and participants take it from there. Poets wore costumes and talked with people as they walked down the street near Churchill’s, across from the UM-Flint campus, during Flint’s Friday Art Walk. Organizers added unique touches, including allowing recipients of the poems to go pick their own paper from a case before the poet began writing. The costumes, the typewriters, and the setup creates an atmosphere of curiosity, which leads to meaningful conversations between the poet and the person receiving the poem.


“The goal is to showcase the artists with a program that can provide some magic and remind folks that there’s a lot of creativity here,” Yellow said. “The conversations are a really powerful part of the experience. People can forget about the outside world for a minute while interacting with these poets. You really only have to ask two or three questions before people get comfortable and establish connections. You hear about divorce, death, insecurities. We had four people who literally got up crying because the experience is powerful. As an artist, that’s what drives you.”


The response to the presence of the poets was strong. In three hours, the five poets wrote 74 poems while adding a unique, interactive element to a busy sidewalk. Yellow envisions Poet for Hire becoming a regular feature of Flint events and that participating poets take the concept and add their own twist to it.


“Poet for Hire is just one of the many activations we’ll do,” Yellow said. “I hope, residually, they’ll independently go and do this in their neighborhoods too.”


An added benefit of Poet for Hire in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it provides an opportunity for safe, outdoor interaction with a stranger -- the types of social occurrences that used to happen all the time but are now significantly limited.


“I miss running into colleagues and having chance interactions,” Yellow said. “There’s always this invisible wall now even if you run into someone you know. This lets you have those interactions in a way that’s safe and contactless.”


The event was part of Yellow’s greater vision for placemaking in Flint, one that is driven by both resident input and a desire to elevate and promote talented local artists and creatives.


“I’m here to listen to residents of Flint and what they want,” Yellow said. “That’s the impact Flint has had on me -- its spirit of innovation. So we’re going to add unique twists to existing programs like Poet for Hire and Porch Fest. Flint inspires me to be innovative.”

Yellow is also looking for vintage typewriter donations to help expand the program in the future. Anyone interested in donating can contact [email protected].

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.