Brian Sonia-Wallace was selected to pen poems at the Mall of America. In a shrine to consumerism, he regularly brought visitors to tears. This account was published in The Guardian Tuesday 10 October 2017
In March of 2017, I responded to a ridiculous post that a friend shared on Facebook.
“Apply now! Mall of America seeks writer-in-residence to celebrate its 25th birthday!”
A quick Google search turned up reams of articles skewering the residency as nothing but a shameless publicity stunt for the biggest mall in North America, deriding the idea that a writer would come and be inspired by a Nordstrom or its customers.
“Hey,” I thought, “if the supreme court says corporations are people, why can’t a mall have a birthday? It even has a parent company!”
Competing to stand out in the longest of long shots against 4,300 applicants for the mall residency, I wrote an 800-word poem and sent it as a PDF so I could include unsolicited pictures of my typewriter in action with crowds of adorable children. In corporate America, I understood literary merit wasn’t what I was selling. I was a photo op, an interactive novelty and, though corporate clients usually only learned this in retrospect, a budget therapist.
The poem with which I sold myself to corporate America ended with these lines:
is about writing as connection – poetry as a service industry.
This is a vision of poetry as it can be,
brought down from the ivory tower
and into the mall, out to the public,
bards spinning tales in Viking marketplaces …
What is a mall but the repository
of our collective desire?
… And what,
but the shortest distance
feeling and expression?
This was my setup: each day, for four hours, I’d be stationed at a different place in the mall. I’d arrive at the standard-issue mall-white table and chairs and set up my typewriters – a teal Olvetti for myself, and a Smith Corona I’d painted orange-yellow and decorated with roses, which I kept facing outward as an invitation for kids to try a typewriter for the first time.
Over five days, I would write poems for a hundred people who came up to me and answered the question: “What do you need a poem about?”
Every time I write for strangers in public, I’m nervous. I always wonder: will this be the time, the place, where no one wants a poem? But even at the mall, when we set up to take photos, people stopped and I breathed a sigh of relief. Poetrywould work, here, next to Wetzel’s Pretzels. When a middle-aged woman just passing by learned that I was writing poems based on any topic people gave me, she barked, “My word is Disney!” so quickly and aggressively that I jumped.
The first person I wrote for was John, my de facto boss at the mall. He started things off with a surprising burst of vulnerability.
John wanted a poem about his son. The son was a father himself, now, and this would be part of his gift for Father’s Day that Sunday. John told me about a trip to Disneyland for his 50th birthday that his son had surprised him with, about raising a kid as a single dad, and his hopes that the next generation would do better than he could. He and his son share a love for Disney, he told me, those Florida vacations a point of easy intimacy in a world where grown men are rarely allowed to show their feelings to one another.
When I asked their favorite Disney story, John said: “Peter Pan.”
The boy who never grows up.
I’d never been a Disney kid. Though I grew up just an hour from Disneyland in California, my one trip there as a kid with my mom ended up a disastrous slog through heat and endless lines, and we’d never gone again. Because my hippy parents refused to allow a TV set into our house, I even missed out on the perpetual loop of Disney classics on VHS that acted as surrogate parents to raise so many in my generation. Suffice it to say, I did not understand Disney.
But I at least knew the story of Peter Pan, and I had some ideas about dads. I digested everything John told me, through the typewriter, while he watched, into a poem that started:
We never stopped believing in faeries…
we were lost boys, both of us
There is no one
I would rather
not grow up with
I was about halfway through reading the poem out loud to John when he started to tear up.
All of his staff was gathered around, with a camera crew from the local news station to boot, and this silver-haired man, who was the reason I was here in the first place, just bawled and hugged me and disappeared.
Big, bold … and broken: is the US shopping mall in a fatal decline?
Day one, I’d made my boss cry, and he liked it.
But John wasn’t the last person to cry in front of me outside of Nordstrom. The mall team was keen that I track certain metrics so that they had fun facts to share on social media: number of poems written, number of steps walked around the building’s cavernous interior.
After my first day writing, I started keeping another tally – the number of people who cried. It happened every day, like clockwork: four or five people would come away from our interaction with water streaming down their faces, weeping openly in front of the Lego store.
In the end, 20% of all the people I wrote for in the mall wound up in tears.
When people come to a mall, especially this mall, they come to scratch an itch. People come to the Mall of America with intention. They are looking for something. Sometimes it’s ice cream, sometimes clothing, and sometimes it’s just reconnecting with family. Old folks who come for exercise in the morning give way to afternoon shoppers and diverse families in the evening, tourists and immigrants alike indoctrinating their kids in Americana. Everyone’s in a special state, somewhere between empty and full, invisible and seen. The mall boasts that it’s the number one tourist destination in the midwest, with 40 million annual visitors. It might not be the Happiest Place on Earth, but it’s big enough to be “of America”.
When I stalked the mall with just my notebook, scribbling observations, it earned me no end of sideways glances from families and shoppers. What could this dude be writing about? Us? This was a place for uncritical experience, not methodical reflection. I was a poor spy, and middle America, actively assimilating under their bindis and hijabs, shrunk away from me and my notebook.
But behind the typewriter, when people knew for certain that I was writing about them, I transformed from spy to priest. As the temporary darling of the mall’s publicity machine, pilgrims began to search me out. Some people came back day after day.
Empathy became addictive, beautiful moments stacking up, gift-giving and gratitude and people crying. People started bringing gifts themselves, making offerings, and gaining absolution: “I read about you in the Star Tribune,” or “I saw you on the TV.” They brought me their own poems, their photographs, newspaper articles they’d clipped out which they thought might interest me, handwritten lists of places I should go to write, birthday cards because they’d heard it was my birthday.
Poetry at the mall: ‘Twenty per cent of all the people I wrote for in the mall wound up in tears.’ Some of the people told me about other pilgrimages they’ve made, Tibetan meditation retreats to concerts in other countries. A young Korean American woman asked for a poem about her favorite Korean pop star. “My sister and I have been in this fandom for ten years,” she told me. “As a poor college student, I spent all my money to get to Hong Kong and Hawaii for concerts.” There was a comfort, she said, in admiring someone so much that you’d literally cross oceans to see them for two hours. Another woman stopped by a few days later with a story about a solo three-day trip to California to see her K-pop crush. She’d spent 13 hours in the sun arguing with security, finally breaking down in tears mid-concert at how simultaneously worth it and not worth it the whole experience had been.
The people who came to the mall seemed to have this terrible longing to speak and be listened to, to be witnessed. A base, human need to break from the constant impersonal bombardment of consumer culture that lives in that space and to sit, in silence, with a stranger who was there explicitly to care about personal stories.
Lots of people would ask how much the poems cost – in a citadel of commerce, unless the free thing is a sample to lure us into buying, nothing is free.
At dinner, John shared his story about hiring her, about how she’d worked all over the park in minimum wage positions, temping on this project and interning there, persisting. In this millennial world, to keep a job, the key was not to have the best credentials but to cling to the targeted employer and refuse to let go. The word “passion” scared me for what it revealed about the deeply held convictions corporate employees are required to hold.
But there was a homemade quality to the mall. I’d been afraid that the team would be corporate drones, but they were star-crossed lovers and single dads, and they loved kids and rollercoasters because they were kids themselves.
Abby and Nathan talked about finding each other, at last, after tough times, a relationship that blossomed despite painful reminders of the past. “Battle scars mean you’ve survived,” Nathan said. He was a single dad raising his son, a 10-year-old from a previous relationship with awesome green hair, until he met Abby.
‘I’d been afraid that the team would be corporate drones, but they were star-crossed lovers.’ told me that they were their own worst enemies, struggling against the self-doubt they carry. They had a pressed earnestness when they invited me to their family barbecue. What emerged was a realness desperately constructed through consumption and imitation, fandom not as a distraction but a weapon and a shield against the painful vicissitudes of family drama and divorce and the loneliness of drowning in a grown-up world.
The goal of the mall wasn’t just entertainment, what Abby and John and Nathan and the whole crew were trying to create, by making each mall experience a story, was feeling.
As the mall reached the end of its day, I made my way to Nickelodeon Universe to catch the end-of-day light show, designed to make getting through a day at the mall feel like a celebration. Nathan talked about the challenge programming a light show with a glass ceiling under an airplane flyway, trying not to blind pilots ferrying passengers to every corner of the United States.
Under the dancing lights, elementary-school age kids with faces painted like skulls jerked and cavorted while smoke rose from the ticket booth. A woman’s voice that sounded like it was ripped straight out of an animated kids’ movie crooned a pop song: “We’re always here – always heeeeeere for you!”
At the end of every day, the mall closed with this light show and song. In an age when malls are closing left and right, the story of physical experience abandoned in favor of online shopping, it was a promise.