At the Mall of America on Wednesday, somewhere between the giant Lego models and the Nickelodeon roller coaster, Brian Sonia-Wallace sat facing his typewriter.
The image seems strange. But it’s no problem, according to Sonia-Wallace, the MOA’s first-ever writer in residence. “I’m used to writing in very weird contexts,” he said.
The 27-year-old poet based in Los Angeles was chosen out of thousands of applicants from across the country for the residency. He will be banging out poems for curious shoppers in different wings of the mall through Sunday.
In return, he gets $2,500 and a $400 gift card to use in the food court. He is staying at the Radisson Blu at the mall’s south entrance and will turn 28 on Saturday while writing there.
“The mall itself as a muse is cool,” he said. “But it’s human stories that are interesting for people to read.”
Will he go crazy inside the MOA? “Probably,” he joked.
Raised by a family of writers and academics, Sonia-Wallace began scribbling poetry as a child. To this day he looks up to towering figures such as T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda, as well as his peers from L.A.
He decided to make a living writing poetry in 2014 after hearing a story on the radio about a man who had done the same. He applied for residencies and other temporary gigs, often gravitating toward corporate events.
“I think it’s really interesting … to look for capitalist approaches to poetry and art,” he said.
“What are the real ways that this art form can practically enter people’s lives and bring revenue to artists?”
He has worked residencies for Amtrak and the Dollar Shave Club and even done stints in Grand Forks, N.D. When the Mall of America announced its writer’s residency in February to celebrate its 25th birthday, he applied along with 4,300 others.
Dan Jasper, MOA’s vice president of communications, read every application — twice.
“My eyes hurt at the end of it,” he said. The pitches came from writers who wanted to pen children’s books, haikus, screenplays and even Twitter storms.
“We could’ve gotten an artist with a big ego or an agenda,” Jasper said. “This is an artist that sincerely wants to tell stories and connect with people.”
The New York Times wrote a profile of Sonia-Wallace after he was selected for the residency, deeming him “disappointingly normal.”
To him, that’s an honor.
“We have this very overblown ‘Van Gogh’ idea of artists … and that’s beautiful for folks who can do that,” he said. “In some ways it becomes almost a social justice issue, who is allowed to be an artist.”
For Sonia-Wallace, blue-eyed and with a seemingly perpetual smile, poetry is as much about the performance as it is about the words on the page.
Typical garb for him includes a brown flat cap, paisley tie and a yellow vest that his mother, a weaver, tailored for him. Think newsie from the early 1900s.
His writing tool is a blue Olivetti Lettera typewriter made in Italy in the 1950s. A Smith Corona typewriter, which he painted marigold for the occasion, is positioned away from him for passers-by to type along.
“Having an element of performance can help,” he said. “As soon as people see a typewriter, they’re into it.”
Not long after noon on Wednesday, Sue Zaleskas stopped by Sonia-Wallace’s station while walking the mall with her husband. She asked him to write her a poem about her 1-year-old granddaughter Annabelle.
Sonia-Wallace asked some follow-up questions and jotted down notes in a little book. Then he got to work, focused and clanking away at his typewriter.
The poem was done in five minutes. He read it to her. She left with tears in her eyes.
“Poetry is musical,” said Zaleskas, who plans to frame the poem. “It just touches the heart.”
Some mall employees stopped by and asked Sonia-Wallace to write them poems for Father’s Day. He expects to get a lot of those requests throughout the week.
One of the best feelings, he said, comes from seeing the faces of children who have never touched a typewriter before.
A group of boys approached his table, their interest piqued by the yellow Smith Corona. Sonia-Wallace encouraged them to write with it.
“Thomas is the best at football,” one of the boys wrote. Treyvion Starnes, 7, typed his name and a lengthy line of dollar signs.
After goofing around for some time, the boys left. Sonia-Wallace placed a blank piece of paper on his typewriter and waited for the next visitor to stop by.