Custom poetry for Valentine's Day

Those who lack fluency can hire it on the Internet, commission it at college

February 14, 2003|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AMES, Iowa - The ambience is not exactly ideal: The room smells of microwave popcorn. The decor is beige-and-floral, hotel-suite bland. The fluorescent lights buzz persistently. But - amid the crusts of onion pizza - romance is in the air.

Jim Coppoc taps out a lusty iambic pentameter with his thumb. Colin Rafferty chews his pen furiously, then scribbles a rhyme of sly seduction.

Molly Jo Rose, pushing aside her greasy napkin, fills a pale-pink page with passionate longing - for a man she has never met.

They're Cupids on commission, cranking out trembling confessions of ardor for five bucks, cash.

"Give your Valentine a gift from the heart this year," their campus fliers read. They didn't specify whose heart.

So these graduate students at Iowa State University - aspiring writers all - have gathered in a lounge to scour their own souls for the sweet nothings that will make a stranger's wife swoon or a classmate's boyfriend blush.

"I can't do this!" Ayana Rhodes wails. "I write angry political poetry, not love poems."

But she buckles down to an order requesting a valentine from a young man to his girlfriend, an accomplished weaver: When you thread your fingers through mine,

I am reminded of your braided hair.

And I picture the first time we kissed,

Lips moving over and under. I wonder at how artfully

Our paths have been woven."

The Writers' Bloc mailed 26 such gems in time for Valentine's Day on behalf of tongue-tied romantics who see their whole world reflected in their sweethearts' limpid eyes - but have no idea how to say that.

There must be quite a few lovers in a similar fix. Web sites selling personalized stanzas and songs for $30 to $275 drew thousands of customers this Valentine's season, with men and women commissioning the odes in roughly equal measure.

The love poem, it appears, has been outsourced. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

The trend distresses Harryette Mullen, an acclaimed poet who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"We've been convinced only experts can do these things," she says.

On the other hand, she adds, brightening: "If it helps poets pay the rent ..."

A number of books and Web sites offer advice on writing declarations of love, such as the 38 words that best set a mood of romance (try "delirious," "velvet," "voyage" and "temptation"). But the sad fact is, "most people don't have the ability to write something that sounds good," says Pat Veit, who sells hundreds of original verses through PoetryGifts.com.

That's why Hallmark offers 1,700 Valentine's cards to choose from. And why, for those with money to burn, commissioned poems are all the rage. Men will spend an average of $126 this Valentine's Day; women, $38.

"It's like going to a shoemaker to have your shoes repaired. This is something you want a professional to do," says Sam Truitt, a published poet who sold several dozen Valentine's verses this year through SayLoveSay.com.

Turning your romance over to a stranger, however briefly, does have its pitfalls. Iowa State Professor Sheryl St. Germain was stunned last year when several secretaries in the English department congratulated her on her engagement the week after Valentine's Day.

It turned out the campus newspaper had printed the poem she commissioned for her significant other - and the line about being leashed, a reference to her habit of walking dogs, had been rather misinterpreted. "They kind of overanalyzed the metaphor," she says, ruefully.

Stephanie Simon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper

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