Poet-for-hire Zach Houston works at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. Houston says he is paid about $2 to $20 for each poem.April 17, 2012
Zach Houston runs his Poem Store (on any given sidewalk) with these items: a manual typewriter, a wooden folding chair, scraps of paper, and a white poster board that reads: “POEMS — Your Topic, Your Price.”
Houston usually gets from $2 to $20 for a poem, he says. He’s received a $100 bill more than once. The Oakland, Calif., resident has been composing spontaneous street poems in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2005. Five years ago, it became his main source of income.
“I quit my last conventional job on April Fools’ Day, 2007,” says Houston, 29. “They didn’t believe me, because I said I was going to write poems, on the street, with a typewriter — for money.” It was no April Fools’ joke.
On most Saturdays, you can find Houston at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Passersby eye his sign and watch intently as Houston types away on his Swiss-made, green 1968 Hermes Rocket.
“Straight out of Switzerland, man,” Houston says. “And it’s my purse full of language. I love it.”
A woman visiting from Olympia, Wash., gives Houston three ideas for her poem: spring break; road trip; and Olympia. Houston starts typing away immediately. In roughly 60 seconds, he pulls out the small, asymmetrical piece of white paper from the typewriter and reads it aloud:
“Where the Greek gods live with history and trees
protecting patience of rainforest
where it doesn’t rain
simmers, fog, moisture
worship her, mother nature, newly wed
every year to visit a season
is called spring
forever returning to its source”
“I’ve always loved poetry. I’ve always cared about how language works,” Houston says.