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Will Write for A Living: Traveling poet writes on the spot

Instead of getting kicked out of the Providence Flea Market for being too close to the action, the poet Ben Bernthal was invited to be a part of it. He set up there with his portable typewriter, his triangular table and his small rectangles of paper, doing what he’s done for several years now: Writing poems for people on the spot.

Unfortunately, tragedy would soon strike. His typewriter took a dive, one of many it had sustained over his three years of owning it, but this was to be the last. So it was that our first meeting was delayed, his Instagram message (@bbernthal) filled with hopeful resolve he would be getting a new typewriter and would be back to work soon despite the dreary rain outside.

The new typewriter, like everything else in the set-up, is tiny. It fits on his triangular table, along with his tiny dictionary and his phone, behind which is his chair. All of this fits on the travel racks of his bike, which also was carrying, touchingly, a second chair for me on the day we met. We posted up on the corner of Meeting and Thayer streets, the long, dark, food court of the soul, and waited, chatting as the aspiring hypebeasts and summering high schoolers scooted by. Sweet summer rain fell and we moved Bernthal’s entire set-up into the doorway of an out-of-business outdoor outlet. Portability is essential, and we made the move in less than a minute. Soon enough, Ben landed his first catch.

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Illustration by Dan Shay

A college student was drawn in by Ben’s well-honed, low-pressure pitch. She supplied the handful of words that would be the basis for the poem: Light, sustainability, rain, hope. After a brief gestation, Bernthal got clacking on the mint green keys of his typewriter, murmuring to himself, stopping only to give another interested passerby the pitch, and soon enough he read a cheerful, brief poem in a soft, swinging cadence. The student was enchanted. Quickly she pulled out her phone, a mere 1% of battery left, and scanned the QR code to Bernthal’s Venmo. He told her she could tag it #strangerspoemproject on Instagram. She resumed her search for a sewing machine, poem in hand, and Bernthal got cracking on the next patron’s piece.

Bernthal, like both his sales pitch and his poetry, is gentle and approachable. He’s about my height (short) and dressed top to bottom in earth-toned natural fabrics. Each pitch I overheard was something along the lines of, “I don’t have a set price, but it’s how I make my living, so whatever you’re willing to give I’m happy to receive,” which I thought was honest enough. In a good session, he’ll crank out 20 or more poems, especially during peak euphoric events like Brown University graduation and Pride. When he’s not writing for the good people of PVD and elsewhere, he tutors international children in English via VIPKid and tries to edit his work down to a manuscript, though he worries he may have lost some editing chops in putting so much emphasis on turning out new work.

Still, if his old poems are as good as the ones you’ll find on his Instagram and his website, strangerspoemproject.com, he should be in luck. His work is thoughtful, playful and sticks to the ribs. Lately he’s been focusing on work in the second person, which he finds puts the reader in a receptive state. From what I saw for person after person, this was definitely the case.

He’s honed his skills in cities all across the country. In New Orleans, he told patrons, “The tourist in me recognizes the tourist in you.” Other street writers would pass along hidden lines of poems in a take on the exquisite corpse game, hiding each line from each other to create a wild and exploratory piece. Before too long, he’ll be off to his next destination.

Ben’s wife, a traveling nurse, was summoned by Rhode Island Hospital after a management shakeup lead to a diaspora of staff. The nomadic nature of her job has lead the couple through Asheville, New Orleans, and to Providence, where they’ve stayed longer than they thought they would. Extension lead to extension and they’ve seen the better part of a year go by in RI, but soon enough they’ll be traveling on to the next town where hospitals need nurses and people need poetry. Keep track of him — I know I will.

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