By Amanda Jesse
On a typical weekend evening in Deep Ellum, outside the El Jordan Café in the Bishop Arts District, Fatima Hirsi sits with her typewriter. She does not try to advertise or attract people’s attention due to the understanding that this “puts people off.” Instead she relies on people’s natural curiosity to pull them in her direction. What these people receive for their curiosity is the chance for a custom poem, typed before their very eyes by Hirsi and her machine.
“They’ll come up to me and ask ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘What’s going on here?’” Hirsi said. “I’ll tell them that I’m writing poetry for the people, and that I can write about any topic they choose. Once they choose a topic or a person, then I’ll ask for one unique truth about that topic. I try to encourage them to go beyond adjectives, something that would really personalize it.”
After establishing the topic, Hirsi spends about 10 minutes on the poem before presenting it to her client. She asks that in form of payment they give her the equivalent of what she has given them.
Janet Baker, a 54-year-old Dallas resident, came across Hirsi in “a little charming spot with her little charming typewriter” on Saturday, March 14, while walking along the street in Deep Ellum with her husband. After receiving a poem, she was immediately struck by Hisri’s intuitive ability.
“I think she’s very gifted,” Baker said. “Her poems go much deeper than the words you’re saying. She’s very intuitive with a gift to read people in a brief time.”
Baker also commented on the emotional impact the poem had on her.
“She put the way I was feeling into words,” Baker said. “That was very touching to me.”
Hirsi said she too appreciates when her poems affect people in an emotional way.
“When people cry and want to hug you, that’s an experience,” Hirsi said. “It makes me feel valued, like I’m doing something good. It makes me feel connected to people.”
When asked about one of the challenging aspects of writing street poetry, she talked about the trouble of unwanted male attention.
“I can’t walk away because I have all my stuff with me, and I can’t make them leave if they don’t want to,” Hirsi said. “In addition to just not being nice they’re also taking away from other people’s interactions with you.”
Hirsi’s love for poetry began in fourth grade when she was introduced to the works of Shel Silverstein. She began writing her street poetry in May of 2014, after receiving encouragement from a friend, A.R. Rogers, who writes street poetry in Austin. Now she hopes to earn her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry and spread her passion by continuing to write, and she plans to pursue teaching in the future. She also cares for her two eight-year-old cats, Frida and Diego, named for the artist couple Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Hirsi’s website, flowerwordspoetry.com, features photographs of her typewritten poems. Here, it is possible to glean a sense of her poetic style, as well as the nature of the topics people ask her to write on.
“I’ve had some of the weirdest stuff,” Hirsi said. “I’ve had someone ask me to write about a potato, to write about eggs. I’ve had to write some about cats, some about Jesus. I’ve had some really intimate things too. When you’re on the street, people have no barriers.”
Even with various and peculiar topics, Hirsi achieves unexpected profundity considering the brief time she takes to write these. She writes in free verse, and often uses the formatting of the poetry to reflect the subject matter. At times she changes the color of the ink to make a word stand out, or indents lines to give the poem a physical shape. Sometimes she puts single words in a line so as to change the way the reader perceives them.
Photographer Karlo Ramos received a poem for his wife to commemorate their anniversary after happening upon Hirsi on Valentine’s Day. He later commented enthusiastically on her website about how impressed he was with Hirsi’s poetic ability.
“She [my wife] cried a little when she found it in the morning,” Ramos said. “It was a great experience and Fatima did great capturing it with her gift of words.”
Hirsi can be found in Deep Ellum from 6 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, where she is grateful to have found a niche in the Bishop Arts District.
“That community is so supportive,” Hirsi said. “I never expected to, but I kind of found a home there.”