WINCHESTER — As poet Joseph Jablonski wades through the happenings of the coronavirus pandemic, the words of a fellow poet linger in his mind: “You are the historian of how it feels.”
Jablonski, known as the Walking Mall Poet, has been writing personalized poems for folks on the Loudoun Street Mall with his typewriter in tow for a little over a year. But with stay-at-home orders in place in the midst of COVID-19, he has found other ways to connect with residents and share his work.
“I love the idea of people using this as a time to explore their interests in art, because people will always remember the art created during this time,” Jablonski said. “The art that is being created right now is what people will always look at when someone asks how people felt during the coronavirus pandemic.”
On the mall, he’d set up a small table with one of his 20-some typewriters and get to work. Now, he’s doing it from home via live streams and apps like Zoom.
The process remains the same, though.
“I love to mine for what people are feeling in the moment. I’ll ask them what they’re interested in or what’s going on in their life. My favorite question to ask is, ‘What’s exciting you right now?’” he said. “That open-ended question will lead a lot of people to talk about loved ones or projects they’re working on or challenges. After talking for a few minutes, I get to writing.”
Next, he asks himself a question: “What does someone need from my words.”
“Art is about creating beauty in the truth of the moment. We’re all looking for something, especially right now. When I write a poem for someone, on one hand it’s taking their life and putting it on the page, but it’s also about what will help them feel comforted in this moment,” he said. “When you tell someone you’ll write a poem for them about how they’re feeling, you’d be surprised to see how many people will open up about the deepest parts of their life.”
Jablonski is working on a project called Letters From The Light with a group that includes two other poets from around the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area. The poems are described as “poetry in the midst of a pandemic.”
The group does commissioned poetry after meeting with a customer via video chat to work on personalizing the poem toward its intended target. Half of the proceeds go toward helping first responders, medical workers and those in need.
According to the website — typewriterpoets.com/custom-poem — half-sheet, 5.5x8.5-inch poems are $50 while full-sheet, 8.5x11-inch poems are $80.
The community seems to be responding well to their efforts, Jablonski said.
“One of the things that I’m starting to see is people bridging the divides that have always been there. They’re really taking advantage of the technology that’s available to connect with artists,” Jablonski said. “The more that we work together and create art together, the more we can combine our strengths and show people art is alive and well during this time.”
Though writing is a side job for Jablonski, he has had a passion for it since he was a teenager, when he was a self-described “angsty teen writing about my crushes.”
He started looking into getting published a few years ago, but found it was a difficult and complicated process. Through that process, he discovered he just wanted to be able to share his work with others.
So, after some brainstorming with his theater-teaching wife, he began setting up shop on the walking mall and dubbed himself the Walking Mall Poet.
Jablonski said he loves his time spent on the mall.
“It’s not just about the writing. I love Winchester, the center of town, the relationship between the businesses, the bricks, the art community that’s there,” he said. “I’ve always loved writing and was interested in trying to connect more people with my art. When I started writing poems on the walking mall, I realized it was the best way to write something for someone in the moment, have that in-person interaction and bring to life these antique machines (typewriters) that bring back so much nostalgia.”
Jablonski said his poetry could be tailored to those of all ages and that he’s still currently accepting requests through his website at walkingmallpoet.com. Poems can be finished in about 10 minutes.
Though things may sometimes seem bleak, Jablonski said the arts will inevitably show the real story.
“We use art to be able to express the feeling of the time. There’s something very valuable for pieces that are going to be created during this time. So, I’m saddened for what’s happening, but I’m excited to see what comes out of this,” he said. “There is so much to celebrate and there are so many tools to use to celebrate good things in our life right now. I just hope I’m doing my part to make that happen.”