Art & Labor’s Family Reunion

We’ve been delighted to have Kathleen Rooney and the Poems While You Wait poets at Dose crafting custom poems. For a free-will donation to Rose Metal Press or 326CHI, attendees of all colors and stripes can commission a poem written just for them on a vintage typewriter.

We’ve been infinitely honored by Kathleen’s reflections on Dose (in prose this time) as she muses on the role that art and commerce can play in focusing our attention on creative experiences. We’ve modestly drawn from Kathleen’s words below; please find her essay in its full elegance here.

It is ten o’clock on Sunday morning, and sunlight is streaming into the River East Art Center in Chicago, Illinois. Dave Landsberger, Eric Plattner, and I are surrounded by four elementary school girls ordering us to write them poems on the subjects of “cats,” “school,” “chocolate” and “sisters.”

We poets are here doing Poems While You Wait, which you could say means that we are making artisanal poems.

The goal is to find places where people are not anticipating an encounter with poetry, but where they are engaged in an activity that they identify as expressing their values, and where those values are congruent with the ones you associate with poetry: a desire to learn, to be entertained, to make distinctions in terms of taste and experience, and to communicate.

Dose is a forum that presents attendees with an opportunity to be more mindful of their consumption, and to think about their purchases as an expression of their openness, receptivity, and capacity for close attention. The effort is very John Ruskin, a potential remedy for alienation insofar as it combats the division of labor described—and decried—by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice:

We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense.

At their best, venues such as Dose provide thought and labor a chance to have a family reunion.

There is a longstanding contention that monetary commerce is inherently deadening to art… Yet today, at Dose, we will find that we cannot keep up with the demand from people who want to pay us for poems.

The fundamental appeal of Poems While You Wait seems to be its restoration of, as twentieth-century social philosopher Walter Benjamin described it, “the aura”—the sense of a work of art’s uniqueness, and the instant of wonder that is supposed to grip its beholder, and “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

What we do is so human and moving not because we think we’re amazing poetic geniuses creating deathless works of art, but because our customers are so touching in their intentions for the poems that they’re buying: friends with upcoming birthdays, lovers, gifts for the holidays, even elegies.

For even when our customers are obviously hiring us because they feel they cannot say in words what they need to say, they are still our collaborators.


Please find Kathleen’s essay, published in full, at The Poetry Foundation.

All photographs courtesy of Nathan Michael.