Meet Marshall James Kavanaugh, a busker who writes poems on demand for passersby.
— Strange verses: “Philly has definitely given me a good range of weird topics … Gritty has come up a few times for sure.”
— On using a typewriter: “It’s something you can punch and slam and it goes ‘Ding!’ at the end of each line. There’s character to it.”
Marshall James Kavanaugh had been set up for about an hour in Rittenhouse Square — with a typewriter, a framed photo of James Baldwin, and a yellow sign that read “PICK A TOPIC GET A POEM” — when Jules Skodzinski walked up on a recent Friday.
Skodzinski, 58, a burly guy as Northeast Philly as they come, told Kavanaugh his mom died recently. It was tough, he said, but it also brought him and his siblings closer. Could he maybe write a poem for him about strong bonds?
And in about five minutes, Kavanaugh, 32, of West Philly, did.
tested in night and day
the bonds of a family
through the storms
that attempt to push them away.
Skodzinski marveled at the poem, which he said he planned to share with his siblings.
“He’s an artist but also a technician,” Skodzinski said of Kavanaugh. “I think this is like the difference between saying something and singing it.”
A few minutes earlier, Kavanaugh had written a poem for a woman about breadsticks. Before that, there was one about asparagus. Later, there would come one about being black and blessed.
“The topic could be one word, or they could tell me their whole life story and I’ll turn it into a poem,” Kavanaugh said.
The suggested “donation” for one of Kavanaugh’s poems is $10 to $20. Since he’s a modern poet, he also takes credit cards, Venmo, and PayPal.
Working in heavily trafficked spots like Center City’s Rittenhouse Square and West Philly’s Clark Park, Kavanaugh — who makes his living as a poet — averages 30 to 40 poems a day, three or four days a week. It takes him just three to five minutes to compose each one.
“My process really is to just shut my brain down, stop thinking, almost get into a meditative state or trancelike state, and just the first word that pops forward is the word I put on the page and I keep doing that as each new word comes,” he said.
A native of Trenton, Kavanaugh studied literature, creative writing, and philosophy at Dickinson College before moving to Philly in 2008. He got the idea for his poetry service, which he calls “Dream Poet for Hire,” in 2011, when he read about a poet doing something similar in New Orleans.
After traveling the country and living in Taos, New Mexico, as a poet for hire for a few years, Kavanaugh returned to Philadelphia in 2018 and began setting up around the city earlier this year.
Across the country, requests for poems about love, pets and new beginnings are popular, but in Philadelphia, Kavanaugh has also noticed many requests for poems about Gritty and specific food items, like Di Bruno’s cheeses and beef jerky.
While some people walk away when Kavanaugh starts writing, others stare him down. One customer smoked a cigarette, stood with his phone a few feet from Kavanaugh’s face, and livestreamed him the entire time he was writing his poem. Kavanaugh was not phased.
“I actually don’t mind the pressure,” he said.
The novelty of using a typewriter draws people in and makes Kavanaugh’s production a more memorable experience. No matter that his weathered typewriter’s letters don’t come out evenly on the page anymore. There is poetry in that, too.
“I get to feel the beat of the poem come out as I type it, but also the person receiving the poem is seeing this tactile impression,” he said.
One of the most interesting parts of being a street poet, Kavanaugh said, is the number of people who share with him deep emotional experiences, like losing a child or struggling with suicidal thoughts. Then, they ask him to write about it.
At first, he was afraid to do so.
“I’d fear that I’d write the wrong thing or that I’d go too far,” he said. “But I’ve found that people want that realness. They want that experience. They want to be seen. They want to be reflected.”
In just minutes, Kavanaugh can create for strangers, and for himself, what so many of us long for — connection, validation, and concrete proof through art that whatever else may come, this moment in time mattered.
“I think we need more poets,” Kavanaugh said. “We don’t need a society of a bunch of people bludgeoning each other on the head. We need people just trying to figure out the words to connect to each other.”