How the Internet Transformed the World of Custom Poetry

Sites like Etsy and Instagram are remaking a classic artistic hustle

Illustrations: Shira Inbar

“Don’t believe those people who say being a poet isn’t lucrative.”

That’s Eric Vance Walton, a writer who composes custom poetry for clients. His business stretches back to the 1990s, before bespoke everything — shampoo, perfume, Game Boys — became an online phenomenon fed by vendors on Etsy and Instagram. But Walton’s something of an OG: Search for “personalized poetry” on Google and his store is, for now, the first link below a flotilla of ads.

“Most people found me by word of mouth or internet searches,” he says. “I hadn’t heard of anyone else doing it at the time, but I’m sure there were others out there.”

Walton’s been around for a while, and he charges $125 a pop for his custom poems. (He’s also worked a day job at an insurance agency.)

But those without the benefit of SEO need to set the bar a bit lower. People who offer bespoke, personalized poetry on Etsy — and there are a number of them — often start at around $50, sometimes less.

Ryan Wilson is a college student who sells custom poetry for $30 on Etsy. He says he helps provide a service for special occasions.

“I think words are a tricky thing, and the goal people struggle with is to find the perfect set of words to convey a certain emotion,” Wilson explains. “I am, by no measure, an expert, but two minds contributing to the set of words is often better than one. I don’t think I see any one gender more than the other, but most of the poems revolve around some form of love, familial or romantic.”

Both Wilson and Walton note that many of the personalized poems they create are given as gifts for a happy occasion, such as a birthday, wedding, anniversary, or retirement.

“I think words are a tricky thing, and the goal people struggle with is to find the perfect set of words to convey a certain emotion.”

Who’s buying? Walton says clients range in gender, age, location, and race, but they’re all “people who know the emotions they want to convey, but they usually just don’t how to communicate those feelings in an eloquent way.”

Many poets have found followings on Instagram, like Beau Taplin (who currently has 612,000 followers), Christopher Poindexter (362,000), Kat Savage (51,000), and J.R. Rogue (also at 51,000). Taplin and Poindexter do custom commissions, generated for their sizable social followings rather than search engine delvers.

Of course, the bespoke poetry hustle hasn’t always required a computer. Jeremy M. Brownlowe, more commonly known as Typewriter Troubadour, lives a nomadic lifestyle out of his van that he’s built into a “tiny house on wheels.” He sells personalized poetry by sitting in public areas with his typewriter, creating verse on the spot for paying customers. You’ve probably seen others do the same in parks or subways. But Brownlowe also now has an Etsy shop where he sells poems for $40.

“I know that I am acting more as a healing artist, rather than a poet,” Brownlowe says. He adds that he’s “helping people find the right words to express to those they love,” echoing the sentiments of Walton and Wilson.

Unlike Walton and Wilson, however, Brownlowe says that personalized poetry completely pays his bills. In 2015, he financed a road trip through the country — stopping in Tucson, Austin, New Orleans, New York, and Denver — by creating personalized poetry along the way. After the success of this trip, Brownlowe quit his job at a grocery store and now relies solely on the money he makes writing poetry, estimating that he’s written over 10,000 poems since he began.

It’s a rocky life for some. Wilson says “business is inconsistent — I will have a month netting over $400 and then two months where I only receive maybe three orders.” And Walton, who found personalized poetry to be quite lucrative in the 1990s, didn’t quit his job in insurance until 2017, at which point he began writing full-time, but not by way of personalized poetry. His income is based on his publishing novels, as well as his popularity on Steemit, a blockchain-based social platform that rewards popular users with cryptocurrency, where he has over 100,000 followers. Walton says he still takes the occasional commission for personalized poetry when time allows.

Based on user reviews for custom poetry, customers tend to be satisfied. When Debra Scholen was searching for a thoughtful gift for her daughter and son-in-law after the birth of their son, a friend told her about Brownlowe. She commissioned a personalized poem on Etsy.

“It felt old-fashioned and authentic and a perfect way to celebrate the birth of the long-awaited Greyson,” Scholen says.

Customer satisfaction may be so high because many of the poets take a collaborative approach. Walton’s process includes a questionnaire and a 15-minute phone call and/or FaceTime consultation, after which he completes a first draft that he shows to the client for feedback. When describing his own process, Wilson notes that he generally goes back and forth in revisions with the client.

“Sometimes we get it done the same day as the order, other times it takes maybe a week,” Wilson says.

When Brownlowe meets people in person, the entire process takes about 10 minutes. “If I think about it too much, I lose focus, and thus the poem loses its power because it is coming more from my head, rather than my heart,” he explains. “The person then gets the first draft of the poem, in its rawest form.”

Remaking the classics

While all of this might remind you of the millennial branding around products like custom vitamin packs, it’s really an innovation of an old tradition.

“In the history of Western art, much of what we have that survives was commissioned by the elite, either by wealthy individuals or by national governments or the church,” says Sarah Beetham, an assistant professor of art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “Making a painting or sculpture is an expensive, time-consuming process, and owning works in these media has traditionally been available chiefly to patrons of means.”

Personalized poetry from the internet follows in this tradition, but there’s one key difference: it’s not only the elite who can commission the production. Anyone with as little as $30 can commission a poem based on their own experience.

Thanks to the internet and social media, traditional gatekeepers are no longer the sole decision-makers in terms of what art audiences see, read, experience, and yes, commission. But then, even this — innovation democratizing art — also has historical precedence. “The elite control of art production began to break down with the introduction of reproducible media, including prints, photography, and domestically-scaled sculpture in inexpensive materials,” says Beetham.

Such breakdown continues, leading us to an era in which anyone can commission a custom poem for $30 through an Etsy shop. The process of democratizing art, poetry included, will likely only continue with the next disruptive innovation, whatever that may be — and however it might rhyme.

Freelance arts and culture writer. Previous bylines include The New York Times, Playboy, Glamour, Vice, and other publications. Instagram: @veronica_notvaughn

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