- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
Every week, Austin musician Bob Schneider feeds his Poetry Machine, tossing out a few words to a circle of friends, then collecting poems containing that phrase that roll from their pens and keyboards.
Schneider fired up the engine on his machine eight years ago, after talking to a longtime writer friend. “We both realized that we had at some point stopped writing any sort of poetry,” Schneider says. “We had become too busy or just found it unnecessary to write any. That’s when we came up with the idea to use this method that I had for writing songs and apply it to poetry.”
The machine grew over the years, as Schneider invited writers he knew, then other creative types — “musicians, mainly, but also, photographers, artists, girls that I met, basically anyone that had an interest in it” — to contribute.
The rules are simple: Schneider sends out a prompt. Writers have a week to craft their poems, which must contain the phrase, in its entirety, somewhere in the body or title. Schneider compiles the submissions and returns them to the group, along with the next week’s trigger.
Early on, he used a random word generator on the internet to pick the prompts. Now he mines favorite poems or song lyrics for interesting phrases. They vary wildly — “a frank exchange of blows,” “bored to a crisp,” “last week was a mistake,” “I became a lesbian,” “red leather booth” and “safety last” all have made the rounds. Last week, the group riffed on “scientific silence.”
“That’ll be the seed that the rest of the poem comes from,” Schneider says. “I will say, the ones that I usually like the best are the silly ones. The worst thing I think you can do is take yourself too seriously when you are writing poetry. Even if you write something heart-wrenchingly sad, it goes down even better with some irreverence.”
Group members say the weekly literary exercise limbers their poetry-producing brain cells the way leg presses strengthen quad muscles or curls hone biceps. It also gives them the satisfaction of creating something.
“I love making things, and I especially love making art, and poetry is pure art,” Schneider says. “You can’t make any money doing it, so you have to do it because you love putting words together. You’re not doing it so you can buy a house. You’re only doing it to show how beautiful or clever or smart or funny or whatever else a human being can be.”
Schneider has self-published four books of his own poetry spawned by the Poetry Machine, and Awst Press in Austin recently published a small hand-sewn “chapbook” containing 15 more of his poems. (The book sells for $5 at awst-press.com). Singer and songwriter Hayes Carll says he got a line from “Love Is So Easy,” a song from his new album, as a result of participating.
A few of Schneider’s poems have evolved into song lyrics, too. “It doesn’t happen that often, but it has yielded some surprisingly good songs,” Schneider says. “One of my favorite songs off my last album (“Dirty Feeling”) came from a poem (“Ice Burns”). (See how one transitioned to the other at awst-press.com/library/bob-schneider/dirty-feeling.)
Most weeks, he doesn’t even begin with the phrase when he writes. “Once I’ve written something, I’ll kind of cram the phrase into the poem somewhere. It makes for some interesting twists and turns occasionally,” he says.
The idea is to write quickly. Schneider usually pens his contribution just before distributing the previous week’s poems. He reworks it and makes a few last minute changes, gives it another edit or two, and it’s done.
“There’s always something that can be improved upon or taken out,” he says of the process. “If it’s not interesting or isn’t necessary, I try to get it out of there. The main thing that separates the great from the good is knowing what to take out and leave in, really.”
Almost 100 people — including musicians Charlie Mars, Carson McHone and Jason Mraz, writer Owen Egerton and visual artists Terry Allen and Guy Juke — participate, although they all don’t turn in poems each week.
Visual artist and actor Gareth Maguire published a collection of poems last fall featuring pieces he wrote through the Poetry Machine, but the first time he submitted something, he could barely press the send button on his computer.
“I was nearly sick turning it in, thinking, ‘Am I just going to be ridiculed for submitting such rubbish?’ Any writer or artist, we do that, scrutinize ourself. But there’s no failure in effort. The real failure is in not trying,” he says.
Sometimes the poetry flows naturally, and sometimes it feels like someone dropped a wrench into a sputtering, growling hunk of machinery. For Maguire, the process doesn’t differ much from the way he paints, sloshing layers on top of layers and scraping others away.
“I paint over and paint over and paint over, and that’s how I write poems — I add and add and take away,” he says.
Sometimes, Schneider even doles out a rare word of praise to the cogs in his Poetry Machine. They get noticed.
“What we do remember is when Bob gives us a compliment,” says Maguire. “If he ever says anything nice about your poem, we’re all, ‘Hey, (expletive), he liked my poem.’”
One of the newest members of the group, poet and writer Felix Morgan, joined about six weeks ago. She’s already earned high praise from Schneider. “I like it because it keeps me regular in writing,” she says. “If you don’t keep that muscle active, I think it can atrophy, at least somewhat.”
Part of the beauty comes in seeing how differently each writer interprets the phrase, says actor, writer and activist Turk Pipkin, a long-time participant.
“If you take one week and look how Gareth interpreted this poem … it’s going to be filled with Irish guilt and blame and general resentment of the queen or a wonderful piece about his kids. You see a lot of who people are in their poetry, and everybody’s different, so the pieces are different,” Pipkin says.
Even if the machine tosses out a lug nut now and then, it doesn’t matter. It’s the challenge and the process, Pipkin says, that makes it worthwhile.
“It’s Bob’s thing and you have the honor of participating,” he says. “I’ve written 150 pieces of original poetry I would not have written, and that’s hard to beat.”