A beloved pet, seeds, the sunrise, springtime, a pregnancy announcement, a marriage proposal, gardening, a loved one.
Give Tina Lentz-McMillan any topic and, on the spot, she'll tap out a custom poem on her 1950s Optima Elite typewriter in a matter of minutes.
"That kind of poetry exchange is really about shared community. This person will come up to me and they'll give me a word and sometimes it'll be as serious as like 'existential crisis' or as silly as 'a yellow cat,'" she says. "But I feel like this exchange of energy and community in that moment everything is important, even the yellow cat."
And yes, she's written tons of poems about love, each one entirely unique.
Lentz-McMillan, who moved to Tucson in May 2020 from Austin, was first introduced to typewriter poetry after attending a workshop hosted by Typewriter Rodeo, an Austin-based group of poets who typewrite custom poems at events throughout the country.
"The community really responds to this in-the-moment, tactile kind of experience and I just got hooked," she says.
She joined Typewriter Rodeo for about a year, writing poetry at seven different events while living in Austin.
Now that she's living in Tucson and community events are happening more frequently, Lentz-McMillan has started her own typewriter poetry project and can be found on Instagram @papel_poet, where she can also be booked for events. She doesn't charge a fee to appear at an event nor for the poems she writes for people.
So far she's set up at two pop-up events and has two more scheduled in May.
"I really just love sitting across from someone and hearing what's important to them right at that moment," she says.
People will often freeze and have to take some time to think about what topic to request. There's also the rare occasion when someone will choose a topic to try to stump her — like that time at a tech event where someone asked for a poem about a specific coding language.
But mostly people make requests for topics that are universally meaningful, she says.
"You'll go to these events, like the one for coders, and they'll still be like, 'write a poem about my cat, write a poem about the sunrise,'" she says. "I think it comes back to what does everybody really care about, what's really the thing they carry in their hearts and want you to touch upon or write about."
If a person asks for a poem about a specific person she'll ask for some more details about that person. Or if they offer additional information about the topic they've chosen Lentz-McMillan will jot down a few notes to incorporate them into the poem.
But for the most part once she's given a topic she jumps right in.
"The beautiful thing about this type of poetry is really about letting go of your fears and writing and understanding a universal kind of human experience that we all feel," she says. "The images that mean something to me, I have to trust when I write them that they'll mean something to the other person and this is really what it means to have this universal humanity we share."
She recalled a recent experience writing a poem requested by a mom for her son about the way he lights up a room.
"I just had this image of oranges bursting off of a tree, like mini suns. So I wrote a poem about these mini suns and the tanginess of an orange and biting into that and the ritual of picking something off a tree and thanking the tree, and it meant something to me," Lentz-McMillan says. "So when I handed it to him he read it and said 'this is amazing, I love this poem, how did you know?' and I was like 'well, I didn't know 100 percent that it would resonate with you, but since it resonated with me I knew somewhere you would sense that when you read the poem."
Lentz-McMillan has been an avid reader and writer her whole life and was initially drawn to writing fiction. But it was poetry's ability to capture the human experience and feelings that captivated her. And in January, after years of hearing she should pursue a graduate degree in poetry she started a Master's of Fine Arts program online through Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina.
"In our lived human experience we all have these feelings and emotions like love, fear and loss. But when you think about the word love or fear or loss it's a really abstract word, it's kind of out in a void," she says. "Poetry to me was really the way in which we can create a scaffold around this word so that we can look at the thing itself."
If you go
Follow Lentz-McMillian on Instagram @papel_poet to keep track of which events she's attending.
Here are two events she's currently booked for in May:
What: Night Market at Crooked Tooth
When: Saturday, May 2, 5-9 p.m.
Where: Crooked Tooth Brewing Co., 228 E. Sixth Street
Find more information on the Crooked Tooth Facebook page.
What: Mercadito del Barrio Pop-Up
When: Saturday, May 8, 1-4 p.m.
Where: Galeria Mitotera, 1802 S. Fourth Ave.
Find more information on the Galeria Mitotera Instagram page.