Gumball Machine Pays Tribute to Art-O-Mat With a Poetic Twist

For poet Yvonne Zipter, what originally started as a creative way to enhance the art in her neighborhood has turned into a small business that helps support mural upkeep around the city.

There’s not too much you can buy for 50 cents nowadays. But at a local bookstore, all you need is two quarters for exactly one poem.

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The Poetry Machine, as Zipter calls it, was inspired by a vending machine at the Cultural Center that dispensed a piece of art in exchange for two tokens. She took the idea to Arts Alive Chicago founder Cyd Smillie, and suggested it as a way to add a written element to the art going up around her neighborhood.

With the help of Arts Alive, the Poetry Machine traveled to schools and to local businesses. And as its popularity grew, Zipter and Smillie realized the success of the machine was much bigger than either could have imagined.

“I put my own published poems in it,” Zipter said. “Then I said to Cyd there was a time in my life this would be nice extra income. But I didn’t need the money and I decided to donate it to Arts Alive since they’d been so supportive of everything I’d been doing over the years.”

The are two Poetry Machines. One sits at Women & Children First bookstore; the other at Eris Brewery and Cider House. In the past year, those two machines have made $1,000, averaging about 96 poems a month. The money goes toward mural upkeep and creation around the city. 

“I was doing a mural project at Hibbard Elementary which is in Albany Park,” said Smillie. “And one of the teachers came over to me and said, ‘I have a student who’s very shy but he did a drawing that I think is neat. And he’s kind of insecure and I was wondering if maybe you would just talk to him about his art.’ And it was really unique and very impressive. So I asked if he wanted to turn it into a mural. So we worked together and made a mural. Those funds were because of this project.”

As the Poetry Machine heads into it’s eighth year, Zipter says she’s grateful for the opportunity to encourage her community to express themselves through their art.

“The possibility that the Poetry Machine may be piquing people’s possibility about poems and opening them up to the idea of reading or writing poetry, I really like that. It’s fun to know people around the city are buying my poems. But I’m hoping it’ll open them up to poetry of all kinds,” she said.

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

Note: This story was originally published Nov. 11, 2019.

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