AUSTIN, Texas — At a farmers market, you'll find plump organic tomatoes picked the afternoon before. You find goat cheese, hibiscus tea and grass-fed beef, lamb, pork and chicken. What you don't expect to see is a poet for hire, hammering out a poem just for you, on the spot, while you shop.
But that's what you'll find at Barton Creek Farmers Market at Barton Creek Square on Saturdays. Meet the full-of-life wordsmith and lover-of-people Jena Kirkpatrick.
On a manual 1970 Olivetti Studio 45 typewriter that she bought for $5 at a thrift store in Kerrville, she writes poems for whatever people will pay her. Musician Harve Howell hired her in writing a poem about his 12-year-old son, John.
"Man, you did it again," the misty-eyed Howell tells the barefoot Kirkpatrick while reading "What's That Dad."
A line from the poem: "My son ink eyes dark whispering curls like mine."
"What Jena does is turn facts into feelings," says Howell. "The fact that I gave Jena about my son is that he has dark brown eyes. She writes he has 'ink eyes.' She's perceptive, like a big antenna. And to do that on the fly within an hour is special."
Kirkpatrick makes a living with poetry, whether she's in the parking lot of Barton Creek Square or in the classroom. She conducts poetry workshops in several Austin and Del Valle elementary schools through Austin nonprofit organization Badgerdog Literary Publishing. She also tours with Trio of Poets (Kirkpatrick and two poet friends), conducting poetry workshops and performing. In January, she says, they opened for Leon Russell in Fort Smith, Ark. In July, she's working with students at a music camp in Kerrville through the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Texas.
But around Austin, the 41-year-old former Plano resident and onetime owner of the AllGood Cafe in Dallas is known as the poet who writes beautifully assembled poetry within minutes (www.jenapoetforhire.com).
"My poetry is accessible. It's written for you, and you walk away with it," she says. Typewritten. "I stole the idea when I saw a TV news story of a guy in California doing poems in a grocery store," she says.
The process is simple. People talk about the subject of a poem. It's usually about a loved one, even a pet. She scribbles notes and will ask questions to get a visual image. "People like to talk, and they usually get very emotional," she says, as Howell did.
"Harve told me a story about losing his son at the airport. I took that thought and turned it into a positive vision. In the poem, I took John's hands and turned them into wings so that he can take flight on his own," Kirkpatrick says.
The poet-for-hire gig at the farmers market is purely for the love of her craft. Some people, often children, will pay her nothing, which does not discourage her in the least. "And there's the guy who wanted a poem for his wife and emptied his wallet of $75. But it's never about the money. I've had a parent tell me that they took my poem and hung it over a baby's crib. That's worth a lot more to me than any amount of money," she says.
Kirkpatrick will write for pay at most events. She was a hit at her mother's Christmas party, where she wrote personal poems for guests.
Until recently, the last she saw of her poetry was when she sold it. But she's begun taking close-up photos of her one-page creations. She's keeping a scrapbook.
She's written poetry since the age of 6, when she penned "Green," about all things green: "Green is the lime in lemon-lime Sprite," is one line she recalls. At 19, she was pushed to read onstage at a Dallas coffeehouse, and that turned her world from merely writing for herself to sharing her work with whoever wanted to listen. She gained an artistic family, a group of musicians and poets who listened to each other's work. She hosted salons on Sundays where musicians and poets performed their work and received critiques.
Poetry dominates her being. "It's everything to me. It comes from the heart, and I'm connected to it," she says. "I wake up wanting to write. I can't drive. I miss turns because I'm always daydreaming, and it's usually a poem."
And she loves passing it on to children. Teaching second-graders at Barrington Elementary School recently, she read from "Yertle the Turtle" by Dr. Seuss: "Start with one idea and let it blossom," she tells the children.
Her teaching is fundamental: Write. It is the essence of communication, but do it with feeling.
"I like to ask children if I have their brain. No, they will say. I'm trying to teach them that we all have different thoughts and ideas, and that is a big part of storytelling and poetry," she says.
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com