An old woman dressed in all black walks down Park Avenue and stops in front of Williams & Sonoma. But she doesn’t peer into the store. Instead, her feet led her to a blond, blue-eyed young man sitting on a bench along the sidewalk.
“How much for the poems?” the older woman Pauline, asks.
“They’re priceless,” Paul Felker responds as he always does.
Albeit quirky in manner, Felker can’t reiterate enough that his poems are free. He can’t charge before he writes the poems or ask for donations after he reads them because that would be solicitation. However, should a poem recipient take a shining to Felker, he or she can leave some money behind.
It’s more important to self-enforce these rules since the Winter Park City Commission passed Ordinance 3023 in December, which bans “the public display of and composition or creation of crafts, sculpture, artistry, writings or compositions,” among many other art forms.
He’s also made an appearance at UCF, and can sometimes be seen on the wooden walkway behind the Student Union banging out stanzas on an old mechanical typewriter, his tool of choice.
Like all the rest who have visited Felker’s pop-up poetry table, Pauline looked around, astonished, trying to fathom whether it’s some kind of practical joke. The guerilla poet keeps it simple: All he needs is a word, or a few details, to get started and then it’s off to the typewriter to create a 16-line poem in under five minutes.
Even after he explains how it works, people are skeptical, but he assures them it’s the real deal. His very livelihood depends on his ability to write poetry.
“It’s like people are giving me a task. ‘Write about this.’ It’s not like I would write about it normally. I don’t want to say it’s a chore, but it’s a request I have to fill. It’s not something that I’m doing out of my own willingness. I would never write a poem about a monkey on rollerblades,” Felker shares after 12 hours of poetry writing.
He would write a poem for rent money, though.
Freshly single on Valentine’s Day last year, the heartbroken Felker decided to cope with his new status by writing poems for cute girls. With a tidal wave of approval and a realization that this could bring home the bacon, Felker found the confidence to make his “PICK A TOPIC, GET A POEM!” sign and old-school typewriter persona a staple around Park Avenue, and now, the UCF campus.
Some might call it imagination, while others would be quick to write it off as ridicule, but if there’s anyone who knows how to give a poem request, it’s a college student.
“I never take any animosity toward somebody who’s giving me a really hard topic because a lot of people think creativity is about pulling something from your brain, but true creativity stems from limitation,” Felker explained, taking a break between stanzas. “Somebody gave me the other day ‘weddings, golf and whales’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re totally gonna stump him,’ and I wrote it in like three minutes because it was just so easy. I had so few things to write about, so it streamlines the creative process.”
Amy Carew sips on a craft beer outside the Parkview a mere 10 feet away from Felker, who’s busy scribbling a poem for her to give to her new husband, an avid gamer. It’s been a few years, but she still considers herself a writer.
“I think it’s a really great opportunity for him to practice his writing and his poetry,” Carew said. “It’s a great inspiration, and I think it’s a wonderful idea to try and really get your talent out there.”
Later, Pauline returns to Felker’s table with her family. It’s her son Brett’s birthday, and she’s dragged him along to Felker’s table for a poem recital. She looks absolutely ecstatic to hear the results while her family impatiently shuffles around in confusion.
Nerves don’t boil to the top. Hands don’t shake. Felker’s poem echoes down Park Avenue.
As the night comes to a close, Felker packs his notebook and dingy Florida State University pillow that he sits on during every poetry-writing session. He clicks the typewriter box shut, folds the writing table up and walks down Park Avenue to head home.
He hears a few people sitting at a table say, “Hey Paul,” but he’s too tired and hungry to offer up another happy “Do well and do great things!” so he politely says hi and keeps moving.
Felker finally finds time for himself atop a dirty ledge outside of Park Avenue’s 7-Eleven. He’s scarfing down a slice of cheese pizza that he just bought thanks to one of his poems.
“I don’t want anybody to idolize me. I don’t want anybody to think I’m this super person … anybody can do what I’m doing with enough practice,” Felker said. “You just have to have enough courage, that’s it.”
Marissa Mahoney is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.