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Last November, Politics and Prose staffer Jon Huntington was washing his hands in the downstairs bathroom when he noticed something new next to the mirror: a typed poem titled “Commencement,” protected by a plastic sleeve and signed by the Bathroom Poet. Huntington figured it was the work of a streetwise, 20-something slam poet full of lyric piss and vinegar—a literary Borf. The poem didn’t quite move Huntington, but he left it up anyway.
Recently, Huntington debated the poem with co-worker Thad Ellerbe. “I thought it was an interesting idea,” Huntingon said. “But the poem itself is sort of random.”
“I think it’s a good poem,” Ellerbe replied. “If you don’t read a lot of poetry, that’s a good poem. I left it up on merit.”
“For bathroom poetry, yeah, it’s OK,” Huntington conceded. “But honestly, I left it up based on sheer laziness.”
The poet in question is 48-year-old Silver Spring resident Regina Coll, a mother of two and a nurse by profession. Three or four times a week, Coll wakes at 3 a.m. to write before work. Over the course of a few weekends in September, she sneaked into 16 bookstore and coffeeshop restrooms all over the metro area and installed copies of her work.
Growing up in Bucks County, Pa., Coll detested poetry, but then, one day in her mid-30s, she happened to pick up Virginia Hamilton Adair’s Ants on the Melon in a bookstore. Stirred by Adair’s work, Coll began reading other contemporary poets, such as Czeslaw Milosz and Billy Collins. “[Adair and Milosz] opened my eyes,” says Coll. “Reading the right thing at the right time is important, especially for someone who hasn’t studied [poetry] and isn’t literary.”
The connection with the bathroom sprang from necessity. When Coll’s children were toddlers, the john was the only place she could steal a few minutes for herself, though the closed door didn’t always stop her children from barging in. “But they didn’t want to be in there if it smelled bad,” she says. “So I could stay in there for five or 10 minutes. That’s not long enough to read an article, or the paper, but definitely long enough to crack open a book of verse.”
As her boys got older, Coll tried her own hand at poetry. She began sending her work out for publication but was stymied by a growing pile of rejection letters. Then one night, while thinking about porcelain bathroom tiles, Coll struck upon the idea of posting her poems in bathrooms.
Her sojourns as the Bathroom Poet haven’t always gone smoothly. One foray nearly stalled when Coll enlisted her teenage sons to post a poem in the men’s room of Taliano’s in Takoma Park, Md. Mortified, the boys wanted nothing to do with it until Coll appealed to their naughty sides. Well, she told them, we are sort of vandalizing. The poems went up.
Most of Coll’s poems have remained where she left them. It helps that their locations tend to attract visitors who are sympathetic to struggling writers. Even those who don’t care for the work itself—“I would sit and read and think how it could be better,” says Katherine Broadway, another Politics and Prose staffer, of “Commencement”—respect her chutzpah. “So many people spend so much of their lives [trying to get published] and nothing happens, so if she wants to grab the bull by the horns, then more power to her,” says Sarah Rubin, a poet who studied with Peter Klappert in George Mason University’s MFA program. “I think it’s a brilliant way to get readers and to get people to look at her work. ”
Coll insists that her project, which she hopes to expand both locally and nationally, was conceived and executed with tongue firmly planted in cheek. After all, there’s a certain humility in displaying poetry where people eliminate bodily waste. “A lot of poets take themselves too seriously,” she says. “There’s plenty of, uh, thoughtful stuff written on bathroom walls, but I was looking for something that wasn’t permanent or destructive. For a very short period of time, you have a very captive audience. ” —Huan Hsu