“Buy my poetry… If you don't buy it, I can't sell it,” intones Mark “Toad” Carlson as he casually saunters through the French Quarter hawking his creations. In the manner of a minstrel, Mark has taken his poetry out into the streets to the people. In this age of mass media, he has given a personal touch to his art, and in doing so has become a familiar French Quarter personality.
Mark lives on the West Bank and commutes to the French Quarter daily via the ferry. He is a man of simple pleasures, who enjoys a relatively uncomplicated life … no car, no fancy wardrobe, a diet consisting mainly of soybeans (no meat).
Born in Richmond Heights, Missouri, on September 28, 1948, Mark attended the University of Miami in Florida and was graduated in 1971 with a B.A. in journalism. We asked Mark why he abandoned journalism to become the French Quarter Poet.
Mark: About two years ago I was working on the copy desk of a newspaper in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the Sun Sentinel. I was in a situation where I was making eighty dollars a week. I was a copy boy and also writing business stories. I wasn't going to be promoted above copy boy because one of the editors had taken a personal dislike to me. I decided I would be better off leaving the paper than staying, and I came to new Orleans to see what I could do as a creative writer.
Community Standard: Had you ever been here before?
Mark: I'd been to New Orleans several times on visits and I knew the people were fairly nice. I thought New Orleans would be a good place to write.
Community Standard: Why New Orleans and not some other city?
Mark: One thing about New Orleans is that it is a city with a lot of good creative energy in it and a lot of talented writers and musicians. William Faulkner, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Dr. John — all got their start and inspiration from New Orleans. But, for some reason, New Orleans seems to be a hard place for a creative person to make a living.
Community Standard: Did you originally intend to sell poetry on the street?
Mark: When I first came to New Orleans I had the idea of writing a novel but it just seemed that the novel I was writing kind of stalled out. I looked around at various job situations and I tried selling the NOLA Express as an experiment. It worked out better than I thought it would. I found one thing I liked about selling NOLA's is I could pretty much set my own pace, which meant that anytime I wanted to take time for writing or other things, I could do it. I basically got the idea of selling poetry on the streets from selling the NOLA Express.
Community Standard: How long have you been writing poetry?
Mark: I have been writing poetry off and on since junior high school, but I hadn't been real serious about it until the last year and a half.
Community Standard: How much profit do you make from one of your issues?
Mark: I costs me about six cents a copy to get it printed up. Selling it for between twenty-five and fifty cents, I manage to get enough money to live.
Community Standard: Are there certain times of the year that are more lucrative than others?
Mark: Of course, certain parts of the year are better than others, like weekends are better than weekdays.
Community Standard: Have you been more successful on one French Quarter street than any other?
Mark: I find that Royal Street in the daytime is better than Bourbon Street, but Bourbon Street at night has always proven to be better for me than Royal Street in the daytime. That's because people feel looser and uninhibited. Whether it's because of the carnival atmosphere on Bourbon Street or because people are drunk I really can't stay — probably a combination of the two.
Community Standard: What are the best hours for selling your poetry?
Mark: Strangely enough, I've found that my best selling hours on Bourbon Street are at night from eleven to one, when people have done their partying and are about ready to go home.
Community Standard: Approximately how many hours a day do you work?
Mark: Eight or ten hours.
Community Standard: How would you describe your clientele?
Mark: I would say my clientele is mixed. I have at least three hundred to four hundred semi-regular customers. If I had to break it down into percentages, I'd say about forty per cent could be described as younger people, thirty-five per cent would be straight tourists, and the rest would be basically local people.
Community Standard: Has your poetry been published elsewhere?
Mark: Not outside of high school, even though there is a small publishing company in Berkeley whom I contacted who said they would be interested in publishing a small book of poetry for me late this year. I won't know about that for sure until at least September.
Community Standard: Where did you get your selling techniques?
Mark: Believe it or not, I got a lot of my selling techniques from selling Fuller brushes. I sold Fuller brushes until I could get some breaks in the newspaper business.
Community Standard: How many of your anthologies of poetry have you printed so far?
Community Standard: Do you have any immediate ambitions?
Mark: I plan to stop selling poetry on the streets for a while and see if I can possibly organize a publication that would include other writers like me — a half underground paper and half literary magazine.
I expect to have the money to start my proposed publication in March or April. It's just a matter of finding other people interested in working on it.
Community Standard: Working the way you do, you must meet a lot of interesting people.
Community Standard: Do you ever have any problems with the police?
Mark: I never have trouble with the uniformed police, but I do have trouble with the undercover cops now and then. I think it's largely because they get bored with their jobs and don't see any dope dealers to pick up, so they see if they can get anything out of me.
Community Standard: Do you need a license?
Mark: Not as long as I'm selling printed material.
Community Standard: How did you get the nickname “Toad”?
Mark: “Toad” is a nickname I picked up when I was going to the University of Miami. After I bought my first car, my friend said I looked just like Toad in the Disney movie “Wind in the Willows.” Toad was so happy about having his car to dash around in wildly.
Community Standard: What poets influence you?
Mark: I try to be as original as possible, but some writers I do like are Carl Sandburg, Edgar Allan Poe, Allen Ginsburg….
Community Standard: Do you have any general theme to your poems?
Mark: My main theme is that even though life may be hard, if you work to improve things around you, things will get better.
Copyright © 1975–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.