"Do you need a poem?" With this question, Brian Sonia-Wallace began his journey as the RENT Poet. Just "another unemployed millennial at the tail end of the financial crisis, looking for a purpose," he took a typewriter to a downtown Los Angeles street party and set up a folding chair and tray table with a sign: "POETRY STORE/ give me a topic/ I'll write you a poem/ pay me what you think it's worth."
When his first customer, a tough, tattooed, buzz-cut Chicana, softened before his eyes after reading his poem about her father, Sonia-Wallace was hooked. He "accidentally started a poetry business with a $20 garage sale typewriter and an impending sense of doom." Intending it as a performance art experiment slash practical joke, Sonia-Wallace proclaimed, "I'm going to pay my rent with poetry!" Since he was in despair and felt his life was over, why not do something stupid?
In The Poetry of Strangers, Sonia-Wallace shares how he not only paid his rent, but ended up with corporate jobs, Amtrak and Mall of America writer residencies, fundraisers, weddings and numerous other gigs. More interesting is that he'd never loved and doesn't consider his work poetry. It's about relationships, the "shrapnel interactions left behind, bits of other people" that left him less alone. While social connections were fraying, Sonia-Wallace traveled the country connecting with poetic empathy. "It was poetry that led [him] to discover a private America, an America where intimacy was possible, one person at a time." --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review