Stephanie Pruitt puts poems in vending machines and makes her art her business

Stephanie Pruitt loves finding ways to get poems in unexpected places. That’s why she puts poems in vending machines and places those vending machines at various locations around Nashville.

Pruitt is a poet, and has been writing poetry “seriously” for over 15 years. During that time, she says, she did a lot of things to make ends meet along the way. She published work in literary journals and magazines, the traditional “establishment approved” forms of publishing, and also self-published her own books. She would hit the road to read in “traditional” literary spaces and at church and psychology conferences – the kind of conferences not typically associated with poetry – all while selling her books out of the trunk of her car.

“Ignorance was more my blessing because I was making a living on my books and poetry and I didn’t realize it,” she jokes.

She would take her baby daughter with her but once the girl had to start school, Pruitt took “the menial jobs every artist has,” when she found she actually liked marketing and business. In fact, it seems she had a natural talent for it. “I never felt like it was a compromise for my art. It would feed it,” says Pruitt. “In the last few years I really focused on writing and how I love [finding ways to put poetry out] in the world. That allowed me to carve out a marketing niche.”

For Pruitt, poetry is an art – a calling – but also a business. She works with clients and partners with organizations to do things like installing her poetry vending machines for events and poetry-bombing buildings. With an undergraduate degree in marketing and an MFA in creative writing, Pruitt is as comfortable and confident in her craft as she is in finding ways to promote that craft. She excels in thinking outside the box…or the glass jar, as it were.

Her poetry vending machines started when she came across a vintage gumball machine in a store. As a self-professed “collector,” Pruitt fell in love with the charming piece, but she couldn’t justify buying it without a reason. “I obsessed over it for weeks!” she laughs. “So I decided to figure out what to do with it to make it functional.”

At the same time she was finishing up a poetry project that she didn’t quite yet know what to do with. She figured, “What if, instead of publishing them in magazines or another book, I published in this vending machine?”

She called some business owners she knew and said she had this new marketing opportunity for them, in order to gauge interest. Two out of four of them said they were interested, so she thought the idea might have some legs.

The poetry vending machines are a unique, whimsical collision of publishing, public art, and brand engagement. Vending machines are set up in retail locations, schools, cafés, and at corporate events, fundraisers, conferences, weddings, and private events. Everything within the poetry bubble is customizable: the slips of paper can feature a unique promotion, ad, or QR code, and poems can be commissioned from specific artists or around a specific theme.

“I’ve been looking at everyday objects and places with fresh eyes,” she says. “Things that seem totally unrelated – I want to connect those dots.”

Most recently Pruitt has been working with developers to put poems on the sides of buildings. This project is a slow-moving one, but she’s hopeful. “That also started out of curiosity – I generally just wanted to see if I could put a poem on the side of a building! Most of the stuff I come up with, when I call a business they think I’m crazy. Once in awhile one of those ideas takes. People get it if you speak their language without changing the message.”

Sometimes Pruitt’s work shows a business sense and savvy other artists struggle with, and sometimes her work is a matter of social practice. Poems and Pancakes falls into that latter category.

At Poems and Pancakes, Pruitt and her husband Al Gaines invite upwards of 80 people into their home where they make hundreds of pancakes and host a reading from a poet they bring in from out of state.

They invite their friends, neighbors, people from their church group, people they meet in the grocery store. There are babies and hipsters and folks in their 80s. There are people on food stamps alongside Belle Meades. “It’s the weirdest, greatest, most uncanny get-together of people in Nashville!”

Poems and Pancakes started in a personal way: she and Gaines had been married less than a year and had very different groups of friends. “We were trying to find a way to bridge that gap to connect our very disparate groups of friends,” she explains. “There is something about eating pancakes that is disarming. It takes you back to this really oversimplified, really simple moment in time. There was something about the setting we were creating that really did merge these circles we hadn’t seen before.”

The fact that it is a home and not a restaurant creates a more intimate and more casual environment. People feel comfortable. It’s not high-minded or stuffy – it’s pancakes!

“I do like connecting social dots,” Pruitt says. “I like finding ways for poetry and other arts to be the glue [connecting them], and find ways to really communicate the value of art in ways that resonate with people not connected with the traditional arts audience.”

They have brought in major names in poetry like the award-winning Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets Marilyn Nelson, paying for travel, providing accommodations, ensuring an engaged audience, and encouraging book sales so that the event is worthwhile to the participants (Nelson used the event as her book release and sold out of every copy, including her reader).

“I’m not going to read for free anymore. I won’t do it. So I’m trying to create a reading situation that I would respect and that would be really valuable to me,” Pruitt explains.

Now Pruitt is shifting her focus to help other artists learn how to communicate the value of art in unique ways to resonate with people from all different kinds of backgrounds. She hosts workshops and eventually wants to start a retreat focused on how artists can practically make art and make it as an artist without compromising who they are.

She continues doing readings and speaking engagements, finding ways to talk about the tough topics we’re not supposed to talk about in public, like “connecting art and business and talk about how artists often get completely screwed and how it makes sense for all of us to appropriately compensate arts and artists.”

Through everything she does, Pruitt has found a way to make her art her business and her business her art, finding intersections between art and commerce and, where she can’t find one, making one herself.

“I don’t know that it was a strategic thing,” she says of her ability to merge two otherwise disparate fields. “A lot of it at the time was intuitive and based on some question like, I wonder if I can jump? Then maybe I fall. Then I get up and do it again.”