Paying the bills with poetry

Twenty-eight-year-old Brian Sonia-Wallace pays his bills by writing people poems on the spot from his typewriter. He considers his day job to be a deep investigation into capitalism and how we construct value in relationships. It’s about the conversations being exchanged, the feeling you get when someone offers to write you a poem.

“The academic side of me is as interested in that as the poems themselves,” he told me over a Skype interview.

He thinks many artists sell vicarious living. Perhaps patrons pay for this idea as much as they pay for physical art.

Before it became his full time job, Brian tried the “typewriter thing” a few times and a few places in his life, but three years ago he decided to do it full-time as a month long challenge and see if he could pay rent.

“Doing it in such a concentrated way kind of created the momentum to do it on a bigger scale,” he says. “I was very transparent with people, I’d say I’m taking this month long challenge to pay my rent using poetry. It was interesting how supportive people were. People were paying for the poems, but also there was wish fulfillment.”

He doesn’t mind the commercial element of what he’s doing, and still considers his work a literary pursuit.

“Shakespeare is my favourite example; he was shamelessly commercial, he absolutely played to his base. Most of what gets cut out of Shakespeare is dick jokes. I think there is a tendency to take literature more seriously than when it was when it was created,” he says.

Shakespeare knowledge aside, Brian didn’t do a poetry degree at university and studies poetry on the sly to enhance his typewriter practice. He refers to this study as remedial poetry.

“There are gigantic holes in my knowledge as poet. I’m trying to get entry into that formal knowledge of poetry,” he says. “I’m really fascinated when reading about poets becoming famous on Instagram, and is it good poetry, does it matter, can it matter? Do we believe a million people or experts when it comes to art? I think there’s a tendency to discount things when they’re popular or when they come up sideways. That being said there’s a lot of things that I don’t find that meaningful or deep that are out there. It’s a constant negotiation between, can I get away with a reference to The Odyssey if I include a Justin Beiber lyric.”

He believes poetry is undergoing a populist revival and wonders how we can create art in the age of Nicki Minaj. (Note this is also a line from a specific poem; he used her as a metaphor broadly for aggressive pop.) He’s not sayings she isn’t an artist, but he wonders what the implications from her will be.

I read Brian’s essay in The Guardian. In it he shares his experience writing personalized poems for people at a typewriter in the biggest mall in America. His story is both moving and ground breaking. Of course it pressed a key for me because I do the same thing in Australia (have yet to figure out how to make it a full-time job), but what I loved so much about it was his ability to take a shopping mall, a place for mind-numbing junk consumption, and humanize it. His piece addresses consumerism without demonizing it. Instead the reader questions what shoppers are ultimately searching for. I won’t go too much into it, just go read it, everyone.

He’s currently writing a book of essays, and the piece in The Guardian is an excerpt from a chapter that’s about three times that length.

“I’m super excited for that and it’s daunting and terrifying and cool,” he says. “It’s a little bit of a travel story; it’s going around the US, particularly the underground communities but places people don’t think of as communities. The mall is a great example, or writing on the Amtrak train, a music festival in Michigan.”

With his essays he’s looking at poetry as an investigative tool.

“Poetry is the point itself, but it’s also the tool that lets me access these places and people. It’s very different than if I came to the mall and said ‘Hi I’m a reporter and I’d like to write a story about you,’” he says. “People share things with you because you’re a poet that they wouldn’t tell them if you said you were a journalist.”

I dabble in poetry, but prose is more likely to pay my bills. His observation about journalism made me think about how much I probably miss when trying to create intimate interviews with subjects. Unlike many interviews I conduct, Brian’s got deep and thoughtful pretty quickly, perhaps because he knew I write people poetry too. Maybe next time I want to do some serious investigative journalism, rather than asking someone a set of prepared sterile questions, I’ll ask if I can write them a poem.

I really appreciate Brian taking the time to share his thoughts with me, and I’m excited to watch and read his career path. To learn more about Brian and his work, you can follow him on Facebook and/or Instagram, or check out