This Philly woman distributes 12,000 poems a year - to strangers

Nina Schafer, right, offers a poem to Mohammad Ali, a food truck vendor in Center City April 10, 2018. Schafer hands out about 12,000 poems each year to people with whom she interacts.

Lola Fallon just wanted a beef bacon cheeseburger.

She got a side of happiness — or rather, “Happiness,” a poem by Jane Kenyon about the feeling of felicity that shows up when you least anticipate it, unbidden and undeserved.

“Would you like to have a poem by a famous American poet to read sometime later today?” asked Nina Schafer, who had just ordered a gyro from the food cart at 21st and Market. While both women waited for their orders, Schafer drew a flamingo-pink, folded-in-fourths rectangle of paper from the zippered pocket of her purse.

“Yeah, I’ll take one,” Fallon said. She glanced at the poem, then smiled. “My boyfriend is a rapper. When he wants to communicate, he writes poetry. Then he reads them, in his deep voice, the kind that makes you just melt.”

Camera icon TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Inquirer
Lola Fallon accepts a poem from Nina Schafer.

For Schafer, creator and sole ambassador of the Unexpected Poetry Project, the encounter was a victory — a small moment of communion between a woman who’s crazy about poetry and a stranger who was willing to receive.

Schafer, 70, has been at this for 4½ years, distributing poems in the course of her daily travels around the city: to the scheduler at the endocrinologist’s office, the teller at the bank, the host who guides her to a cafe table. Thirty-five poems handed out every day, more than 12,000 each year.

She is a proselytizer of poetry, a messenger of meter, an envoy of expression. What she gives is the ultimate free verse.

Camera icon TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Inquirer
Nina Schafer keeps colorful folded poems ready in her handbag.

Schafer didn’t always love poetry. For the first 40 years of her life, she was — like most Americans, she suspects — “terribly afraid” of the poems that came her way in high school and college classes, the traditional canon of Keats and Whitman, Dickinson and Frost.

“Poetry was like a code that had to be deciphered. It was all very clinical,” she says. “No one asked, ‘How did that poem make you feel?’ ”

It wasn’t until adulthood — after a graduate degree in philosophy, a marriage and a move to St. Thomas, where she developed educational programs — that she rediscovered poetry in a writing class at the College of the Virgin Islands. “I kept writing these terrible poems about love, hate, peace and war. The teacher said, ‘Make it particular. You have to tell a story.’ ”

Schafer began to explore contemporary poetry: a piece by Louise Glück in which the speaker argues with God, and one by Hayden Carruth about the late short story writer Raymond Carver. “The speaker of the poem is sitting at the kitchen table at 3 o’clock in the morning, and it reminded me of my stepson, Joel, who died in 1985. Something in the poem gave me that connection, and that sadness, and I cried and cried.”

Schafer began attending summer poetry workshops at the Frost Place in New Hampshire; she taught poetry for book clubs and in a university extension program, an all-male class composed mostly of scientists.

When she moved to Philadelphia 4½ years ago, she wanted to share her delight in poetry. She headed to a festival on the Ben Franklin Parkway, a sheaf of poems on white copy paper in hand.

But the people she approached recoiled before she could even say the word poem.

“I looked like someone who was unstable, or who wanted something from them, or who was advertising a product. I would say it was a 95 percent rejection rate. I had no idea what I was doing wrong.”

Gradually, Schafer tweaked her pitch. She printed the poems on colorful paper. She folded them — “more intimate, more like a little gift instead of a flier.” And she adjusted her opening line to assure recipients that she wasn’t promoting her own work or expecting them to respond immediately.

On a brisk April Tuesday, after a volunteer stint at Manna, Schafer handed a copy of “When Giving Is All We Have” by Alberto Rios to a fellow volunteer. She gave “Hurry” by Marie Howe to a woman waiting outside their yoga class at Mindful Elephant.

After the class, she offered “Dawn Revisited” by Rita Dove to Hyea Jin Kim, a recent Temple grad who does work-exchange at the yoga studio. “This is my third poem [from Schafer],” Kim said. “It’s so colorful. I see it in my bag and think: Oh, a poem!”

Camera icon TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Inquirer
Nina Schafer (left) offers a poem to Angela Kittrell, during a trip to Trader Joe’s in Center City.

The pharmacy tech at CVS got “The Word” by Tony Hoagland. Andre Bivens, a cashier at Trader Joe’s, pocketed the Rios poem. “I love poetry,” he said. “I like to see how people think.” Angela Kittrell, in line at the next register, clutched the Dove poem along with her groceries. “I write poetry now and then,” she said. “Something inspirational. About black women.”

Schafer’s Fairmount apartment doubles as Unexpected Poetry Project headquarters. One room holds towers of neon-bright paper from Staples — she buys reams of it on sale — and two copy machines. Shelves are lined with poetry books, most of them feathered with sticky notes to mark favorite poems.

Where other people might park a bowl of candy, Schafer has a ceramic dish of folded poems. Other poems flutter from the light switches. If Schafer goes to a dinner party, she takes a book of poetry in lieu of wine or flowers. Sometimes, she tucks a poem into her Peco bill.

“I don’t even know if somebody’s going to get that,” she says. “They might throw it away, but they might not. You never know.”

That possibility animates her days. So do the indelible moments when recipients share their reactions to the poems: The bank teller who became teary-eyed reading “Happiness” (which refers to a benevolent uncle) because she’d just returned from her own uncle’s funeral. Or the two guys who, despite their waiter-white shirts and crisp slacks, helped Schafer change a flat tire, then refused any payment but accepted a copy of Rios’ “When Giving Is All We Have.”

Two weeks ago, Schafer found herself on an elevator in a medical building at Eighth and Walnut. As the doors closed, she offered poems to the six people riding with her. Each chose a different color — a sky-blue Emma Lazarus, a lemon-yellow Carl Sandburg. There was no sound but the crackle of paper as they all read, silently, together.

“I don’t think this is going to make poets of people or make them study poetry,” Schafer says. “But it’s about realizing that a poem can hold them up. It may be just for the moment, and that’s OK.”