"Are you interested in good poetry?"
In the last year, if you've walked past Elliott Bay Book Company, or strolled by Pike Place Market, or taken a respite near the fountain in Seattle Center, then you're likely to have heard Anthony Hickerson Jr. bellow out that phrase in his theatrical cod British accent.
If you answer his question in the affirmative, he offers you a deal. You provide a topic or a word, and then he freestyles a poem based on that prompt.
Over the past several months, and during my reporting for this profile, the poems I heard often returned to the same theme: Life is a journey. Some people will happily join you on that journey and some people won't. That's how it is. If you're not quick with a buck after his verse, he'll tell you that he's homeless and needs money to help feed his family. Some people give him money and some people don't. That's how it is.
But his loud voice startles me, and his persistence feels quarrelsome. If I answer "Are you interested in good poetry?" by saying no, then he'll ask if I'm interested in bad poetry. He'll ask if I'm interested in [insert whatever word is on my shirt] poetry. I can't win.
As with canvassers, I see him halfway down the block and feel trapped. I know he's going to ask me about poetry. I know I'll have to engage in some way. I know that I often don't exactly enjoy the kind of poetry that he specializes in (more on that later) and especially not when I'm hurrying my little way through my privileged, non-homeless life.
And when I see him perform his poetry for other people, I imagine myself in their position and feel embarrassed. In her conceptual piano concerto For You, pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama performs an entire concert in a concert hall for only one person. Some of the people who experienced it were stunned into tears. "It's too much responsibility for one person," she told me when I interviewed her back in May.
When Hickerson does his performance for me or for anyone else, I feel as if I'm taking on too much responsibility. I don't feel as if I'm watching a performance by a man named Anthony Hickerson Jr., I feel as if I'm watching a performance called The Homelessness Crisis in Seattle and am reminded of how little I do to help solve that problem.
I could, of course, just ignore him after a glance—as I do with that guy who sells visual art near Dick's on Broadway, or that person who sells handmade crucifix jewelry, or those twee folks at the farmers market with their typewriters—and continue to walk by. After all, he's a salesman and he's selling something I don't want.
But he won't be ignored. His persistent and almost comically polite questioning knocks me out of my world and draws me into his. So, as long as I'm there, I figure I should learn something about him.
CANS OF SIMILAC ARE NOT CHEAP
Hickerson told me he wakes up every morning in a motel in Lakewood, a city south of Tacoma. The woman who runs the motel confirms that he lives there with his girlfriend and a newborn baby.
First thing he does, he said, is tend to the baby's needs before catching a bus up to Seattle. He likes Seattle for the foot traffic, which he said Tacoma doesn't really have.
Performing poetry just barely puts food on the table and formula in the bottle.
"Those cans of Similac are not cheap," Hickerson said. His girlfriend receives assistance from WIC (the Washington State Department of Health nutrition program for women, infants, and children), but he said the program allots only nine cans of the baby formula per month. Usually one can will last about four or five days, but Hickerson claimed that the heat has increased the baby's appetite. Now they're going through a can every two days. The motel charges approximately $300 per week, he said.
"It's all about making enough for the motel," he said. "If I don't have enough for the motel, then I'd have to expose the baby to a shelter. The shelter has a lot of other kids, and my baby doesn't have all of its immunization shots yet. It'd be real dangerous for the baby to move to the shelter."
He said his girlfriend works in the bakery at a Safeway in Tacoma. She's on maternity leave right now, and so the family primarily relies on the income he makes from his poetry.
He won't tell me how much he usually takes home at the end of the day because he's afraid such an announcement would limit the amount of money he could make. Sometimes the people he meets invite him to perform at weddings and other events, which helps financially.
He claimed he's done all kinds of work before, "temp jobs, housing renovation, fast food, hotel work," but said he prefers performing poetry. He loves it and he believes he's good at it.
He started writing poetry in 1992 at the suggestion of his psychotherapist.
"I was abused as a child, and I didn't know what to do with those emotions," he said. "And [the therapist] told me to just write all my emotions out." The poetry he produced impressed his therapist, and so he continued on with the craft.
NONE OTHER THAN WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE HIMSELF
In 1996, Hickerson was a junior at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Maryland. He told me an elaborate, cinematic story about the time poet Nikki Giovanni visited his school to give a poetry reading.
There he is in front of the senior class. The students are being rowdy and Principal Brown is having trouble quieting them down for the famous poet. Hickerson slips a note to the principal, promising him that he can shush the class. Mr. Brown invites Hickerson to the stage. The crowd goes silent.
"It was like a dream," Hickerson said. "So I tapped the mic to see if it was on. And I heard it resound."
He reads two poems—"Black Diamond" and "Cleo Katrina"—that he'd brought with him at the request of his English teacher, who thought Hickerson might want to have the poems on him during the reading. After reading the poems, he returns to his seat.
Nikki Giovanni approaches the microphone and asks Hickerson to stand. "I tried to stand, but my knees were so watery, I had to sit back down," he said.
Giovanni went on. He remembers she said, "Friendly High School should feel blessed, because they've witnessed a moment in literary history. For I can no longer call myself the best of the best poets in the world, for, Friendly High School, you have one of the best poets sitting with you in Mr. Hickerson. If you were to read your poetry all over again, and I had closed my eyes, I would have thought it was none other than Mr. William Shakespeare himself."
When Hickerson tells the story, he falls into an old rhythm. He's told it before. This is not his first interview with a newspaper. But the truth of the story only matters to me inasmuch as it matters to him. Poetry allowed him to lasso his trauma and quiet the chaos of his peers. Poetry for him is the way he exercises some power over the world.
DO YOU LIKE GOOD POETRY?
Hickerson said he began performing poetry on the street 15 years ago outside Woodruff Park in Atlanta, Georgia. He was reading some page poems to passersby. A woman listened to one of his poems, gave him some money, and then offered him a deal.
She told Hickerson that the reason she stopped for him was because she'd recently seen the movie Before Sunrise. In it, there is a homeless poet who would freestyle a poem based on one word or one subject from his audience, and he would accept payment based on whether his audience felt it was good.
She proposed Hickerson do the same. Hickerson said he'd give it a try. So the woman stopped some people walking by and asked them: "Do you like good poetry?" They said yeah. He freestyled. Hickerson said they gave him a $50 bill.
He claimed he gets the line he always uses, "Do you like good poetry?" from her, and that he adds his little accent to it because he fears that people won't take him seriously if he uses his regular voice.
When he found out that his father had been living in Tacoma for the last 28 years, he said he decided to move to the area. He claimed not to have seen his father until Father's Day of last year, which is when he says the two met.
Hickerson said that if his father were able to help him out with money and with childcare, then he would have time to find another job and he wouldn't have to do freestyle poetry on the street. Even if he does get another job, though, Hickerson said he'd continue performing in order to supplement his income.
THE CONSTRAINTS OF FREESTYLE
Though his freestyled poetry might sound simple and straightforward at first glance, the kind of work Hickerson is trying to accomplish is incredibly difficult.
In a 2012 issue of Harper's, Ben Lerner described freestyling as a "radically formal activity in which the pressure of rhyming in real time forces a speaker to prioritize the material attributes of language, its sounds and stresses, while still performing narrative tasks." He added that "freestyling isn't about fitting preexisting content into rhyming and rhythmic forms but rather about discovering content, what's sayable, in the act of composition."
By asking audience members for a topic or word, Hickerson constrains his ability to "discover what's sayable," which is the hard part of his art, the thing that makes his work unique. Your word or phrase might evoke an associative cloud from which Hickerson can produce language, sure, but that cloud also reduces his options. Trying to create an artful, rhythmically compelling, coherent, original lyric about "wanting to get a baby out of the sun," say, is challenging. On top of all that: When I interviewed him outside of Elliott Bay Book Company last week, during his performances he twice casually assisted cars in their efforts to parallel park. The guy is doing a lot of multitasking.
Perhaps as a result of all that multitasking, the poems I heard Hickerson perform never sounded very polished or particularly alive with linguistic agility, but sometimes he'll hit a good run. When I asked Hickerson to compose a piece about The Stranger, for instance, he snaked around a narrative for a while, but then he landed on this bit of gold: "Dan Savage brings the scoop on sex like no other / allowing him to melt butter / even when it's in the refrigerator."
In those three lines, I love the way the end rhymes (other/butter/refrigerator) chime less and less as the sentence becomes more and more detached from reality, more metaphorical. Dan Savage, as everybody knows, does bring the scoop on sex like no other. That's real. Sometimes his opinions are so hot that they melt butter? Okay, metaphorically, yeah, I can see that. But then the metaphor intensifies: His advice is so hot that it can melt butter even when it's in the refrigerator. That's absurd, but the line works. I laugh. I give him $20.
That's enough for one can of Similac.