"Our mission is to write haiku for everyone on the whole entire planet," says Lisa Markuson, the one woman in the poetry-writing trio The Haiku Guys.
This might seem a bit ambitious, but given how frequently Markuson and her cofounders, Erick Szentmiklosy and Daniel Zaltsman, are hired to write poems at events, this goal might not be too far-fetched. Over the last year, they’ve been booked for fundraising galas, wine shop openings, indie film nights, weddings, and countless other events. Big companies absolutely love them: Their corporate client list includes Bloomberg, Google, Barnes & Noble, Steve Madden, and J. P. Morgan. And they’re a fixture at music festivals like Sweetgreen and dance parties like Daybreaker.
On any given weekend—and most weeknights—one member of the triad can be found dressed to the nines, sitting behind a typewriter in front of a sign that says "Free Haiku," and entertaining guests by writing them poems carefully tailored to their mood or interests. Guests can request poems about anything their heart desires—marshmallows, snow, a billy goat—and they’ll produce a 5-7-5-syllable verse on a pretty little notecard that would look nice on a fridge or pinned up by a desk.
The idea for a poetry-writing business came about entirely by accident. In June 2013, college buddies Szentmiklosy and Zaltsman were playing with the idea of doing an interview series about entrepreneurship. They set up a little booth on a street corner in Williamsburg—which has the highest density of entrepreneurs per capita anywhere in the world—hoping to have focus-group-like conversations with anyone passing by. Since the two guys had a bit of a poetic streak, they thought they could write people haiku as a gimmick to draw them in. Little did they know that they had, in fact, landed on their own business idea. Within a week, they were asked to write haiku at a yoga festival. They agreed, and when they attended the event, they met Markuson, a performance artist who used typewriters and poetry in all her pieces. "It was amazing, like a unicorn bumping into another unicorn," Markuson recalls.
Together, they decided to collaborate and turn The Haiku Guys into a bonafide business. Their reputation spread by word of mouth, and soon everybody wanted to have haiku at their wedding, conference, or product launch. Markuson believes that people are drawn to them because poetry now seems like a foreign art; the slow process of poetry-writing often feels like a stark contrast to the fast pace of modern life. "People react in extreme ways when we write them poems," she says. "They cry, they laugh, they tell us we can see into their souls. It’s a very vulnerable moment that people seem to get a lot of catharsis from."
Charging between $200 and $250 per hour, The Haiku Guys are able to rake in serious money by writing poems at events, especially since they sometimes attend up to six a week. None of the founders have quit their day jobs yet, though: Markuson and Zaltsman work at social media startups, while Szentmiklosy is a business consultant. "We all have jobs that we really care about and that are really important to us, so we’re not planning to become full-time poets anytime soon," Markuson says.
But their poetry business is growing, and they’ve recently employed other poets to accommodate all the events they are asked to attend. These days, only one of the founders works events at a time, bringing along other poets to keep up the rapid pace of verse.
For Markuson, being able to pay professional poets to do their craft is really exciting. These days, after all, poetry doesn't really pay; poets don’t get big book advances and poetry magazines don’t make a lot of money. But with The Haiku Guys on their side, some poets can now make money doing what they love.
"This is the only way that I’ve ever seen poetry become a viable business model," Markuson says. "The whole concept of haiku emerged as a way to present old truths in a new way. So it seems fitting that we’ve found a new way to bring this ancient art to the masses."