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Tuesday, May 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Broadway street poet sells his works on streets of Seattle

Seattle Times staff reporter

Most mornings, Patrick Bissell can be found standing on the sidewalk, selling his poems and stories in front of Noah's New York Bagels, in the 200 block of Broadway East on Capitol Hill. Usually, he's there by 8, selling a poem for a dollar, a short story for $5.

A thick beard covers his face, which is accented with tiny, rectangular glasses. He speaks in a soft voice that seems incongruous with his rough appearance.

Bissell has gained a diverse following during the nearly 10 years he has been selling his work on the street, which includes "a handful" of regular customers.

This summer, one of his stories ("The Sweet Gift," about life on Broadway) is scheduled to appear in a literary anthology, alongside the works of other, more well-known Northwest writers.

Occasionally he receives more than the regular price for his pieces, as he once did for a short story called "Giggles." "A guy paid me $5 for it," Bissell says. "Then, he liked it so much, he came back and gave me $20."

Northwest influence

His writing, to a large extent, reflects his environment. Rain, trees, seagulls, mountains and ocean fill symbolic roles; his characters struggle, as he has, with mental illness, substance abuse and joblessness; Broadway street life is infused with spiritual significance.

"I try to dig within myself," Bissell says when asked where he finds inspiration.

One untitled poem begins: "depression haunts me like the flocks of gulls/ that leave the bay/ i hear them calling to me from the sky at five a.m./ find your way find your way/ face the voices in the mad parade ... "

Income from his writing varies: One day, he'll make $7; the next, $13; the next, zero.

Often, he supplements his writing income by selling Real Change, the homeless-advocacy newspaper (Real Change vendors such as Bissell buy their papers for 30 cents a copy, up front. That leaves 70 cents profit for each paper sold at the $1 cover price).

He attracts a variety of reactions from pedestrians. "Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad," he says. "Sometimes people just look at me and shake their heads, like: 'What's wrong with you?' "

Someone once told Bissell that what he does is "a shabby way to distribute American literature." Bissell doesn't think so: "One of my friends said it was good, though, because I could make more money than I could if I was to publish in a magazine."

Business was slow

Just before 10 a.m. one day during National Poetry Month in April, the sidewalk was filling with the sorts of people you'd expect to see midday on Broadway: young hipsters; professionals on an early lunch break; people with nowhere else to be.

Bissell hadn't made a sale all morning.

Jim Mahoney, one of Bissell's regular customers, walked by. Mahoney is a co-founder of Tooned In, a computer animation and game-development company with offices above Noah's Bagels.

"I buy all of Patrick's poetry," Mahoney said. "Everyone around here does; it's good stuff."

Bissell smiled.

"Every poem he writes, I buy," Mahoney said. "Isn't that right?"

"Yeah," laughed Bissell. "He owes me five bucks right now."

Mahoney says he has been buying Bissell's work for about four years.

"Patrick's an interesting guy," he said. "His poetry really surprises you."

"People like Jim are always looking for new material," Bissell said. "So I try to keep ahead of it by writing every few days. I feel a lot of pressure to come up with something new. It's tough."

Local roots

Bissell, 38, grew up in Kirkland. Apart from a year as an exchange student in Melbourne, Australia, he has, he says, spent his entire life in the Seattle area. He is reluctant to share details about his family: "My family is kind of protective of their privacy."

In grade school, he recalls a teacher telling him he should be spending more time in the library and less on the playground. In high school, he began writing poetry and short stories.

He later studied photography and wrote a few pieces for the student newspaper at Bellevue Community College.

While enrolled there, problems with a then-undiagnosed mental illness came to a head: He quit school and began working a series of fast-food jobs. He was drinking, and he began to steal and shoplift.

"I had kind of a hard time," he says of the period, now nearly two decades past. "I started getting into trouble ... At the time, I didn't realize it was mental illness."

Throughout that period, Bissell kept writing — and he hasn't stopped.

"I need a way to express myself," he said.

He's moved around

He began selling his poetry and stories on the street in 1993, starting in Pioneer Square, moving on to the University District, for a time, before selecting his current spot on Broadway.

Bissell says he has trouble imagining another vocation; he can think of nothing else that would suit what he refers to as his "disposition."

He appears to be faring well now. He has been able to keep a studio apartment, not too far from Broadway.

Asked how things are going, he says: "Oh, I don't know. I just kind of go day by day. I do have a better support group than I used to — not A.A. or anything, but friendships — a lot of people have become my friends because of my poetry."

Matthew Stadler began buying and reading Bissell's work in 1996, when Stadler was books editor for The Stranger. These days, Stadler is editor of Clear Cut Press, a new publishing company based in Astoria, Ore.

Stadler plans to include Bissell's short story, "The Sweet Gift," in "The Clear Cut Future," an anthology featuring work from 26 contributors, including more well-known writers such as Charles D'Ambrosio, Rebecca Brown and Emily White, as well as the photographer Robert Adams.

The book, to be published in June, will be available at bookstores ($12.95), or directly from Clear Cut Press as part of an eight-book subscription package ($65 — more information at www.clearcutpress.com).

Draws editor's praise

Stadler said "The Sweet Gift" contains some of Bissell's best writing. It reminds him of Emmanuel Bove, a French writer of the early 1900s, he said. In both Bove's and Bissell's work, Stadler said, "the pacing and logic are so at ease, so like the drift of life, and yet it's very literary."

"It's not what you would call 'naive art,' " Stadler said. "A lot of (Bissell's) work is 'naive,' even some of his good writing ... this story is an exception."

For his part, Bissell describes "The Sweet Gift" as "a long narrative story about me and Broadway. It's kind of a sad story."

In "The Clear Cut Future," Bissell's story is to be paired with one written by Pravin Jain, a former Enron executive. Stadler sees the same themes being explored in both pieces. "In Patrick's story, people on the street pursue many of Enron's goals, but with no cash," Stadler explained.

The title of the book notwithstanding, Bissell remains ambivalent about what's ahead.

"The future scares me," he said. "I don't think about the future that much; I just try to focus on what I can do today."

Jesse Tarbert: jtarbert@seattletimes.com

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