Last week I found myself in the same boat as many other college seniors, avoiding the inevitable cram for finals on the sea of self-loathing procrastination. This particular evening I was indulging my instant gratification monkey with some undeserved time in the dark playground that is Reddit. I did not expect this little venture to be fruitful in any way; I was just killing time before time killed me.
So I was delightfully surprised when, while sifting through the sadly underpopulated subreddit known as /r/poetry, I stumbled onto someone’s delightful little project – Crossword Poems. This someone was taking the words from the New York Times crosswords, and constructing these three part poems out of them. Then, placing said poems in these textual graphics on Instagram and Tumblr. They all have little annotations embedded with tiny text into the poem indicating where they got the different words. It’s all very controlled and structured. The first section is composed of words he gets from the “Across” clues. The second is strictly the “Down” clues. The last section of the poem comes from the answers – like so:
At first, I thought “that’s cool”, upvoted and went about my day. But the idea stuck with me. It was just such a cool little project. I had so many questions. Who is this guy? How’d he come up with this idea? What was his story? I had to know more about this project, and about the poet behind it. So, after finals were over and I had the free time, I went about finding the man behind the Crossword Poems. Here’s what I found: that man is a playwright, screenwriter, poet and father. He grew up in California, lives in Brooklyn, and in his Facebook profile picture he is holding a rooster.
Peter Valentine was having morning coffee one day, over a decade ago and doing the crossword puzzle. Rather than trying to race through the crossword, he was “sort of zoning out on the words in the clues” as he puts it. “I started playing with different combinations of words and then scribbled a line in the margin of the paper… and then a poem. I did it again the following day and kept at it for about 3 years” says the word bubble next to the picture of Valentine and his rooster.
When asked about the poems’ unique structure, he replied:
“The first couple poems I wrote started out as two-part poems: clues and answers. That made sense at first, however within a couple days I broke it down further to a three-part poem. As you said: across (words found in the across clues), down (words in the down clues), answers (words from the answer grid). The title of the poem can take words from any part of the puzzle” (Valentine)
Valentine believes, rightly so, that a “great trick” to writing is self-imposed structure. He and his rooster tell me that “limitations push you to explore new ideas, topics, [and] styles that you might never consider.” He wrote these every day for three years starting in 2003. When he started posting them online, it was before Facebook and Tumblr made it easy:
“In 2003 there wasn’t social, but I already had a website for all my quirky little flash movies, so I just put them there too. There must be over 600 crossword poems there.” (Valentine)
He took the practice up again in 2012 and has been using social media for the project ever since. He has a Tumbr, Facebook, and an Instagram. He just recently began posting the poems to /r/poetry where he claims he had his first bout with criticism, which is unsurprising. Redditors are relentlessly critical. It’s not a bad thing, though. Writers grow from criticism like the kind you get on Reddit, as much as we hate to receive it.
I spent my Friday evening sipping on a Summer Shandy and chatting with Valentine and his rooster about poetry and life ambitions. “The thing right now is completing my second screenplay and selling my first.” Valentine types. I assume it’s him typing and not the rooster. Though, you never can be 100% sure of anything. “Also trying to push forward a couple of collaborative music and media projects with my best friend and creative partner Matt Cornwall.”
When asked about what he hopes the future brings, he tells me “a book of my poems would be nice”. Indeed it would be, I think. After that the conversation died down and trailed off into small talk. I was on my third Summer Shandy and starting to feel a bit of a buzz, so we toasted to serendipity and parted ways -And by that I mean, we stopped typing at one another, but in all likelihood we both never left our seats. I stayed up and typed this out, and he likely stayed where he was and did whatever it is that people do.
The internet is weird.