Your subject, your price

By Ilona Wallace

You’ve seen the dude who plays a PVC pipe instrument with a pair of thongs; you know Izera, his luscious locks, and his keyboard; but have you ever met a busking poet?

Mark Niehus (ex-web designer, former postal worker), has set up shop in the Central Market’s popular Zedz Café. Part of the national ‘Café Poet Program’, which connects bright-minded writers with accommodating venues, Niehus has been stationed at Zedz for nearly five weeks. He arrives at midday on Thursdays and Fridays, sets up his table, his typewriter, and his prints. Then he waits.

‘YOUR SUBJECT, YOUR PRICE’ a small sign in a donation bowl proclaims. There’s a little pile of cash in there already when I arrive.

Warm and friendly, Niehus is easy to talk to and genuinely engaged. It’s confidence he’s built over the last few weeks. Necessary confidence. We talk a lot about fear, but here we also meet its enemy: bravery. It takes a lot of courage to stand up in public, declare you’ve quit both your day and night jobs, and turn 100 per cent of your energy to your art.

He interviews his clients and gets a feel for who they are. Then he asks for their subject, and they chat a little more. The client leaves and Niehus writes. He types the poem immediately. There’s no middle-man loose-leaf for a draft—the poem is fresh, raw, and spontaneous. When he has finished, he goes to the recipient’s table, crouches at their side, and reads his words.

It’s a whole performance, and a unique experience. Nothing says ‘worth every cent’ like a for-your-ears-only poetry recital.

Niehus tells me that he has a few regulars. For one man, a painter just returned from Coober Pedy, Niehus wrote a poem about driving through the country. The next week, the man returned with his wife and they commissioned two more poems as gifts. Then yesterday, they came back again.

When your policy is ‘any subject, any price’ the topics can be obscure, or worse: dull. Niehus explains that the biggest challenge he has faced has been writing poems about young children he’s never met.

‘“Well, what does he like?” I’ll ask, and they’ll go, “Bananas”.’

In between ‘baby’ and ‘new car’ poems, he gets little gems, like the statement ‘Pluto is no longer a planet’. Of course, it isn’t all stardust and fruit. Every struggling artist has to fight for respect sometimes.

His very first customer was sceptical and a little hostile.

‘His subject was “Life”, and he grabbed a chair and pulled it right up next to me,’ Niehus explains. ‘He sat, looking over my shoulder, and he said, “You’ve got five minutes.”’

Since then, the sailing has been smoother and Niehus has been enjoying the game. Intellectual puzzles, a race to write a poem before a client finishes their coffee, and placing complete trust in himself that it will turn out okay in the end.

‘What I love about poetry is it’s a quick burst,’ he begins. ‘When I’m connected, it’s instantaneous. It’s such a great experience. Ten minutes of pure bliss. You know when it’s successful at the end. That’s why I like it; you don’t have to labour over it too much.’ He laughs. ‘I’m a bit lazy, I think.’

Sometimes poems come harder than other times, and he admits that maybe ten minutes is too short for some subjects. But he doesn’t delete and he doesn’t restart.

‘I made an agreement with myself that I wouldn’t do that,’ he says. ‘What comes is what comes. That’s part of the philosophy of doing it in this context. It’s spontaneous, it’s brave, I guess, and it’s honest.

‘Using a typewriter,’ he continues, ‘you can’t edit. You can backspace and “X” over a word if it’s really bad, but you just have to trust yourself. The more you trust yourself, the more consistently good it is.’

The poem he creates is all about that first impression, and believing that those instincts are the most truthful.

With that in mind, he reveals that accurate instincts best develop with practice.

‘Write and write and write. Overtime, something emerges from that. It gets better, the more you do it. I love it so much; I feel really lucky to have this.’

The parting advice from the man who traded in jobs to feed his passion?

‘You’ve just got to keep writing. Writing for that mysterious reason that got you started in the first place, whatever that was.’


How Do You Want The Fire To Leave You? by Mark Niehus is available from Imprints and his website

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