He Went Viral Making Spontaneous Poetry for Thousands. Now He's Considering a New Chapter

On a recent sunny afternoon in Manhattan's Washington Square Park, many visitors likely spotted Peter Chinman sitting patiently in front of the fountain, just as he has since 2017

Published Time: 27.06.2024 - 16:31:18 Modified Time: 27.06.2024 - 16:31:18

On a recent sunny afternoon in Manhattan's Washington Square Park, many visitors likely spotted Peter Chinman sitting patiently in front of the fountain, just as he has since 2017.

The 33-year-old New Yorker wore a wide-brimmed hat in Curious George yellow and a sandwich board sign on his chest, inscribed with a simple request:

“Ask me for a poem.”

In the last seven years, Chinman has built a bit of a viral following as “The Park Poet,” which he describes as an independent street project with one goal — producing spontaneous poetry for any passersby who request one.

After engaging in brief conversations with strangers, he puts pen to paper based on their interaction, asking in return for anywhere between $5 and $20.

For one customer, Chinman wrote, "Poem is permanent / no matter what you do to the page / tattooed into the skin of the day," and for another, "To make my mind feel new / wandering with you & nothing / in particular to do, perfect Sunday afternoon."

“I sit there and I try to keep this sort of empty sense of possibility. Ideally, I’m not having any linguistic thoughts and then someone comes up and we meet eyes and have some moments together,” Chinman tells PEOPLE. “And from there, I don’t know how the poem creation really works — I just sit and wait for the first few words to come.”

Fans have flocked to his project (Chinman has more than 10,000 followers on Instagram), even as he now finds himself contemplating a surprising career change as he looks back on how he carved out a place in the park to begin with.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, he says he has encountered an increasing number of apparent copycat acts with similar signs and even typewriters, which he finds to be “gimmicky.” ("Having a contraption always seems to attract old men," he says.)

The hustle and the growing competition have left Chinman dejected — even, maybe, a bit uncertain — about his passion, he says.

“The thing is, I sort of hate all of the other street poets. They make me feel so bad about what I’m doing,” he says. "I like some of them, but a few of them I find to be really clownish in a way that feels like it destabilizes my ability to do it wholeheartedly."

He's been rethinking his priorities for his life and what he wants to do with it. In January, he posted on Instagram that he was looking for new work after deciding that his poems were not financially consistent enough to pursue full time.

“For seven years I’ve made my entire living writing poems for strangers — and, more recently, selling my candles & ceramics,” he wrote on Instagram. “I think when I started this I thought that devotion would be enough. But there’s been no ‘big break’ — I consistently scrape zero and the work feels more and more precarious. I used to be the park poet — this summer there were six, and it seems like only a matter of time before they evict all the artists.”

Before 2020 and the pandemic, Chinman says there weren't many vendors stationed at the park. Nowadays, however, Washington Square’s fountain is constantly surrounded with sellers of all sorts standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

“It’s much more of a circus,” he says. “And it’s harder to stand out.”

Chinman -

says his love for poetry blossomed during his time studying literature at Pomona College in California, where he was introduced to it through friends and professors. “We all use words. ... But somehow poetry uses them to create incredible objects," he says. "I didn’t know it was possible to construct those sorts of things with language."

And so, he says, "I dedicated my life to it at the age of like 19 or 20.” 

A Boston native, Chinman moved to New York City in 2016. A chance decision to take a train that broke down in lower Manhattan left him wandering around until he came across Washington Square Park. 

It became his second home: a place where he befriended locals, eventually shared his art with thousands of people and even officiated an impromptu wedding. “We need people like poets,” says Antonio Garcia, a painter, public speaker and a park regular who has known Chinman since the pandemic. “He brought back the heart of what it means to be an artist in Washington Square Park.”

Over the past seven years, Chinman says he has written thousands of spontaneous poems — during the best of times, sometimes producing up to 50 a day. He takes photos of the poems he finds particularly exciting before handing them to their recipients. Those works are then considered for a yearly compilation of his favorites that he self-publishes.

But the act of street poetry hasn't just been a job for Chinman — it’s been a way of life.

“There’s this whole personal mythology about how he identifies himself and what he’s doing and the meaning behind it,” says his girlfriend, Abigail Rappaport, a painter, photographer and graphic designer.At the same time, Chinman's decision to transition to a new career has been in the making for a few years, Rappaport tells PEOPLE. His anxiety and changing attitudes about the park and his place in it have spurred important conversations between the couple.

“He said things like, ‘It’s really cute when you are 26 years old, but not so much when you’re 34,’ ” she says. 

This year, Chinman started implementing a new element to his daily routine: coding. His days start by making coffee and journaling, followed by three hours of learning to code through free online courses. Then — if it’s a nice day — he will go to the park for a few hours before ending the day with some sculpting.

His plan is to continue his online program learning to code through December and, come the new year, he will begin applying for jobs in web development. By next spring, he wants to be working full-time in that field.

That doesn't mean Chinman wants to end his street poetry entirely. For now, visitors can still arrive to the fountain each day; he's still there with his hat and his sign. The poet part of himself will always exist, he says.

He admits he'd "rather do street poetry than work any sort of dumb retail job." But, honestly, he's okay with the compromise of changing in exchange for the money he hopes to make.

“It’s a compromise that makes me sad sometimes when I face it, but this is the status of most people,” he says. “You just make it work.”

Follow Us