FACETIME- Poems to go: Fresh from the City Market

Charlotte Matthews

On the hill at the City Market on Saturday mornings sits a poet named Charlotte Matthews. She's not selling homegrown vegetables, herbs, or flowers; neither does she offer jewelry, homemade fabric purses, or little girl dresses. She's peddling poems. On-the-spot poems.

The sign over her head is a Peanuts cartoon. Everybody knows this cartoon. Lucy sits under a "The Doctor Is In" sign, and "psychiatric services" are advertised for 5 cents. Except Matthews has crossed out "Doctor" and written "Poet," crossed out "psychiatric" and written "expressive." The price remains.

"I tell people they can pay me 5 cents or 5 dollars," she says. "I just ask for contributions." 

Once, a little girl about three came by and said she wanted a poem about a fish. When Matthews finished the poem, the little girl's mother reached into her purse and asked how much the poem cost.

"I looked at the little girl and said, ‘Can you draw me a picture of a fish?' She did, and that's my best payment," Matthews laughs.

By mid-July she had made the City Market scene a half-dozen times and averages about $45 per Saturday. Her "booth" is a child's desk, a baby-bear chair, and a 1941 Corona portable typewriter, whose "clack-clack," she says, draws people to her.

Potential customers are asked to choose three words from a basket (mostly verbs and nouns like starch, propel, and candor) and three objects such as a key or a stuffed toy. Then, using those words and objects, she fashions a poem around whatever customers want.

"For Father's Day I asked that people give me a mental picture, a snapshot of the father," she says, "like a man leaning on a newel post."

Diminutive in stature and unassuming in nature, Matthews, 43, says she's not a natural hawker.

"It's weird doing it," she says. "You have to put on a persona."

Her first and second book of poems are on display at the booth, but she doesn't seem to think she could be selling them. "They're there for people to look through," she says.

A former English teacher at Tandem Friends School and PVCC, Matthews now teaches in UVA's Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, where many students become fans and follow her from class to class.

Local musician Mary Chapin Carpenter, in the introductory note to Matthews' first book, Green Stars, calls her a "celebrant of scent and sound" and says her poems are "the remnants of family: the bells that ring from childhood and the love that scars even as it binds, never letting us go."