If you frequent the Princeton Flea Market or Oshkosh Farmers Market, you may have seen Paul Wiegel, founder of the Fox River Poetry Company. He’s the one wearing a Panama hat, hunched over a 1957 Smith Corona Sterling typewriter. A chalkboard sign next to him reads “Poems $5. Any topic while you wait.”
“I’m partial to Smith Coronas because that was the first [typewriter] I came across on Craigslist for $10,” he says.
During the summer, Wiegel lugs his typewriter to events and festivals around Northeast Wisconsin, writing poetry on demand for intrigued event attendees. “Most people come to me with an open mind,” he says. “You don’t go up to a guy with a typewriter unless you’re willing to chart unknown waters.”
Wiegel explains his process. “Basically, you give me a topic and then I ask you questions to get details, usually three to five details will do.”
Those details drive the poems which are usually between 10 and 20 lines. They can be about a special person, place or memory. No topic is off limits. It’s about a five to 10 minute process all told, so customers can either wait for their personalized poem or they can retrieve it later. Wiegel abides by a pay-what-you-wish philosophy – $5 is a decent place to start, but he’s gotten much more (and even less) depending on the customer.
Wiegel founded the Fox River Poetry Company in 2012 after hearing an NPR segment about San Francisco poet Zach Houston, who makes a living composing spontaneous, custom poems on a manual typewriter.
“I got home from work and thought, ‘I could do that,” says Wiegel, who teaches high school English in Ripon. Unlike Houston, Wiegel, who has won numerous poetry awards for his work, has no intention of quitting his day job. He says his made-to-order poetry is fun for him and he enjoys the challenge.
“I think people are drawn to it because it’s different,” Wiegel says. “Seeing a guy with a typewriter sitting at a table makes people stop. Part of it also has to do with the fact that they are getting something that is a one-of-a-kind thing based on their ideas.”
Find Wiegel this summer, typewriter in tow, at the following events: Oshkosh Farmers Market, Princeton Flea Market, Waupaca Arts on the Square on August 24 and Artstreet in Green Bay, August 26–28. Visit his website at www.foxriverpoetry.com.