The Mall of America has 520 stores, 18,000 parking spaces, shark tanks and amusement park rides. Starting this week, it also has a poet.
Twenty-seven-year-old Brian Sonia-Wallace beat out 4,000 others for a shot at the Mall of America writer in residence position, celebrating the Bloomington, Minnesota, mall’s 25th birthday.
“I took a big risk,” Sonia-Wallace tells Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “The initial application was just a couple paragraphs — biographical info, what you think you’ll do. And then they asked for a follow-up application, 800 words, and they called it an ‘essay,’ but I thought, ‘What I’m gonna be proposing is poetry, so I should write an 800-word poem outlining what I’m planning on doing,’ and so that’s what I did.”
It was an all-or-nothing strategy, he says.
“Either they’ll love it, or they’ll put it aside and say, ‘We don’t know what to do with this.’ And it paid off.”
Sonia-Wallace, who calls himself the “rent poet,” isn’t new to crafting poetry in offbeat locations. He participated in an initiative called “Poets at the Polls” in downtown Los Angeles on Election Day, conducting “poetic exit interviews” with voters.
He’s also participated in the Amtrak Residency program, and worked with the National Parks System, Shuar Nation of Ecuador and Dollar Shave Club.
Sonia-Wallace says his poetry in his new position will focus less on shopping and retail, and more on the Mall of America as a unique backdrop for human stories.
“I don’t expect many retail outlets will actually make it into the poems. And I’m a little bit smug about that,” he says. “I think that that’s a nice thing, to be able to write in a mall and think about, ‘What are the human stories that happened there?’ Like who has their first kiss, who’s just visiting, who’s the bored teenager in the headphones who hates it and thinks that commercialism is the downfall of society?”
Sonia-Wallace says he likes to think of the approach as “site-specific poetry.”
“I think it is a really interesting situation that I play on a lot with my poetry that, as online shopping and online experiences get easier and easier, how do you create a physical experience, an in-person experience, for people?”