Rent a Poet and More at the Wrightwood Arts & Wine Festival

by Timothy Green

The local mountains will be full of art this spring, as the Wrightwood Arts & Wine Festival is finally ready to launch on Saturday, May 21st,  after two years of pandemic-era postponements. Over 30 visual artists are participating in a juried art show in the cozy mountain town, but the festival will also feature gourmet food, live acoustic music, wine tasting, and a large literary component. 

The idyllic setting won’t be unusual for one of the featured authors. “RENT Poet” ( Brian Sonia-Wallace has spent years touring the country with his portable typewriter, compositing poems for strangers in gigs as varied as Amtrak, the National Park Service, and the Mall of America. He’ll spend the day doing what he loves to do, manning his booth in the literary corner, asking passersby his favorite question: “Do you need a poem?”

Last year, I interviewed Brian for episode #67 of Rattle’s podcast and quickly came to admire his perspective. After being laid off from a job, he decided to try paying his next month’s rent with a Kickstarter poetry project. When that proved successful, he tried his hand at busking poems in public parks, which morphed into paid jobs at corporate events and a series of writer-residences.

Brian sees poetry as a kind of service industry, “part therapy, part fortune-telling.” Removed from the stuffy halls of academia, there’s something universal about poetry, something deep in our bones stretching back into the oral tradition of prehistory. We all have stories that are worthy of words. “People respond to the act of being asked what they need a poem about,” he explained, “and being listened to.” 

As RENT Poet, Brian has made an art of listening. Strangers tell him stories, and he absorbs them, then taps away at the keys until he can return with those stories as poems. Mostly he’s asked about the things that go unspoken in our day-to-day lives: love, loss, forgiveness. Through the poet, a daughter tells her father, a long-haul trucker, how much she appreciated his sacrificed hours away from home. A widow remembers her husband. A teenager confesses his true love. Whereas most poets are looking inward, Brian uses his typewriter as a tool to engage with others, putting his fingers on the pulse of humanity. What he’s learned over the years is chronicled in his inspiring book, The Poetry of Strangers (HarperCollins, 2020). 

Festival-goers can ask Brian to write them poems throughout the day, but that’s only a taste of the literary offerings in the works. Award-winning poets Nicelle Davis and Alejandro Escudé will be leading writing workshops during the day, with a reading planned for late afternoon. Space for the workshops is very limited, so be sure to register early. 

The festival closes with a crowd-favorite—the 5th Wrightwood Poetry Slam, where performance poets are welcome to compete for a $500 first prize. 

This year’s competition is headlined by Brooklyn-based slam legend Taylor Mali, who will not only perform a set and help keep score, but will also lead his own performance workshop during the day. Taylor’s viral poem “What Teachers Make” is one of the most beloved of the 21st century, but he’s also an accomplished page poet, having won, among many other accolades, the Rattle Chapbook Prize for his heartbreaking book, The Whetting Stone. 

Presented by the Wrightwood Arts Center, the festival will be open from 10 AM to 5 PM on the streets of downtown Wrightwood, with the Slam beginning at 7 PM. All the events are free to attend, but the poetry workshops require a $25 registration fee. Admission is also free for the Wrightwood Poetry Slam, but performers must pay $10 to compete. Subscribe to the newsletter there for updates and profiles on some of the featured artists. 


Watch RENT Poet in action:

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