'A project in empathy': Poems on the spot for mall shoppers

Brian Sonia-Wallace at work at the Mall of America.
Brian Sonia-Wallace at work at the Mall of America.
Hannah Kangas | MPR News

Reclining easily in a posh white bean bag chair and clad in Gatsby-era attire, Brian Sonia-Wallace read a poem in the middle of a bustling corridor of the Mall of America.

"We are all this messy contradiction,

bodies and souls jumbled so we confuse one for the other..."

He appeared to be the poster child for juxtaposition. His message: in a world that can be tough to make sense of at times, the abstract nature of poetry is exactly what we need.

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Messy contradictions were one of the many topics of the poems Sonia-Wallace wrote during his weeklong commission at the mall as its first ever artist-in-residence. He was selected out of around 4,300 applicants to record insights about the mall to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

These insights are not his own, however; he made it about the stories of the people who come here. He wrote poems about a wide variety of topics, from chickens and family relationships to spirituality and Dippin' Dots. He switched easily between English and Spanish as he talked to shoppers, using his language skills to write poems in both languages.

Sonia-Wallace, 28, is an artist based in Los Angeles. After a theater gig fell through, he decided to try to make that month's rent solely with money earned from his poetry. Three years later, he continues making rent with the project, writing at events across the country and setting up his typewriter on streets, offering his poems on a "pay what it's worth" basis.

A featured poem by Brian Sonia-Wallace.
A featured poem by Brian Sonia-Wallace.
Hannah Kangas | MPR News

The perspective that Sonia-Wallace brought was in real time: he sat down with mall guests, spoke with them for a bit, and invited them to sit in the same comfortable, white bean bag seats. He then rolled up his sleeves and began to create a poem for them on his blue Olivetti Lettera 32, a typewriter from the 1950s.

In four days, he wrote about 70 poems for mall-goers. And he got quite the reaction: according to his count, over a fourth of the poems brought tears to the eyes of their recipients.

What is it that can make nonchalant shoppers, from corporate executives to small children, suddenly so overcome with emotion? What is it that makes a good poem?

Sonia-Wallace says he doesn't feel qualified to answer that question. He doesn't even consider himself a poet. Rather, he says, his strength is in his ability to connect with people.

"What it ends up being, really, is a project in empathy. And a project in witnessing people and hearing their stories and in responding to them. And I find that when I'm writing poems in response it's not necessarily the 'best' poems that gets the biggest reactions. It really is about where that person is in their life and what they need seen in that moment."

A non-poet who had people lining up to have him write a poem is another apparent contradiction that surrounded Sonia-Wallace. Amid Fitbits and cellphones, he kept the time with a pocket watch that hung from a chain on his belt, and he nodded at passers-by with a smile beneath a newsboy cap. And in a mall with touchscreen directories that markets copious amounts of technology, Sonia-Wallace wrote his poems for guests on a typewriter.

"If you sit at a public space and you have a typewriter you're saying 'I am a weirdo,' and you should find out what I am doing because what? ... There's something incredible, in a world where we can erase anything that we've just done ... the idea that whatever I'm writing, it's the first and the last time I am going to write that exact thing, and you have the only copy of it."

Sonia-Wallace ended his weeklong residency at the mall on Sunday. He says his next commission is at a music festival in Michigan where he will be writing on-the-spot poems for lucky visitors who stumble across the entrance to the secret poetry tent that is disguised as a fridge door.