A Poet Spreads the Love: Poetry in a Bubble Gum Machine

Poetry machine (with recycled capsules waiting) at Women and Children First Bookstore.

Yvonne Zipter, poet and Portage Park resident, is spreading her love for poetry in a creative way. She has placed “poetry machines” in two neighborhood venues. Customers can drop 50 cents in the machines, which look like old-fashioned gumball dispensers, and receive a capsule containing a short poem.

The poetry machines are located at Women and Children First bookstore in Andersonville and at Josi’s Frozen Yogurt Café at Six Corners. The cafe machine has been in place since 2015; the bookstore machine was placed recently. Poem subjects range from childhood to death to nature.

Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women and Children First, says, “Since the Poetry Machine arrived, I’ve heard a new, constant refrain of: ‘Do you have fifty cents?’ At first I was concerned that the kiddos asking their parents for change didn’t understand that it wasn’t candy that was inside those colorful capsules. But I shouldn’t have worried! The kids know what they’re getting into and they love it—as do their adults and everyone in between! It’s been a remarkably delightful addition to the store, adding a dose of whimsy to our days.”

Zipter, the author of two poetry collections and two other books, said she was inspired to contribute after seeing the growth of the businesses and community that have resulted from 45th ward alderman John Arena’s revitalization plan, which uses arts and culture as an economic engine. Since 2011, when Arena was first elected, more than 100 new businesses have opened in or relocated to the 45th ward, including restaurants, theater and dance companies, and museums.

“It’s a venture that I’ve long wanted to help with,” said Zipter, “and now I’ve found a way to play a small role.” Zipter is a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press.

She wrote recently, “… poetry is medicine: it can heal an ailing psyche; it can mend fractures in society (even if only for the person writing it or the few people reading it); it can create a sense of control or order over what otherwise seems like chaos; it can make you feel better, happier, more in touch with yourself and the world, like some kind of anti-depressant. All writing can do that, but poetry can do it more immediately, like an extra-strength pain killer.”

[See my essay on my obsession with poetry and Chicago’s poetry renaissance.] 

Yvonne Zipter. Photo by Brian McConkey.

Zipter said she got the idea for the poetry machines after seeing a repurposed cigarette machine that sold art at the Chicago Cultural Center. “The method of delivering the poems was entirely my idea,” she points out. “Poetry has done so much for me, in my own life, and I would love it if the poetry machine could spark an interest in poetry in others.” She donates the revenue from the two machines to Arts Alive Chicago, an organization responsible for more than 30 public murals. The poetry machines have raised several hundred dollars to date.

I asked Zipter if she had formed a business to manage the poetry machines. She said,

“There is no organization: just me and my previously published poems. Women and Children First occasionally adds poems to the machine at their store by poet friends of the bookstore. As additional poems of mine get published, I add to the selection of poems. Currently, there are more than 80 poems. I also plan to add poems from my earliest poetry book. I bear the costs for the paper that the poems are printed on and for buying new capsules, although we do encourage poem buyers to recycle the capsules.”

She said she would like to be able to add more machines but doesn’t have plans to do that now, because of time required to print, cut and fold the poems and put them in capsules. Also she doesn’t have additional machines available. One of the machines was a wedding gift to her and her wife and the other is on loan from Arts Alive Chicago.

Here’s an example of one of the poems.

Stray Shot

By Yvonne Zipter

For Tourquouse Moore, 08/16/2000

As if the night could heal itself
with its mercurochrome streetlights;
as if the purity of numbers and her love for them
would carry her through school;
as if a whistling bullet were a happy sound;
as if guns rang out a staccato lullaby
that guided her to a cool sleep;
as if the only pain she might feel was simple
as a sister pinching her leg, wanting
more space in the overcrowded bed;
as if the quiet voices of momma and gran
in the kitchen were a voodoo,
she let her eyes close.

Reprinted from the anthology Where We Live (2003)

You can buy a poem for yourself at Josi’s Frozen Yogurt Cafe, 4032 N. Milwaukee Ave.,  or at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 N Clark St. The poetry machines will remain on site at these locations indefinitely.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.


  1. I hope you’ll get a chance to check out one of the machines–maybe it will make you just a little bit more of a poetry fan? At any rate, I’m glad the idea, at least appeals to you!

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