It was alongside the protests and social unrest that surrounded the Vietnam War when Franklin Sterling first began writing poetry. “I think the volatile nature of being in those times, like from ’65 up to ’69, started getting kind of jiggity,” he says.
Now 65, Sterling has been writing poetry ever since those days as a teenager in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. In the last 10 years, as an artist and vendor for Street Sense Media, he has had nearly 50 of his poems published in the paper, which he always sells on the same block in Dupont Circle.
Sterling dropped out of high school and was involved in war protests, living in a commune that was focused on the movement for a short time. Eventually, he earned his GED and began studying philosophy, literature, and other interests on his own.
His writing style, based in medieval English and sometimes mixed with other languages, is unique for a 21st-century poet. While what he writes can challenge readers’ sense of sound and structure, hearing Sterling recite his works reveals deeper levels of rhyme and rhythm.
“The modern lexicon isn’t all there is to what we speak,” Sterling says. Some of his fascination with older verse stems from his self-directed learning, as well as the few semesters he spent studying at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Sterling’s work is also influenced by writers like Ezra Pound, who emphasized clarity and wrote with meter and syntax reminiscent of older English, and Allen Ginsberg, who Sterling was friendly with. He knew Ginsberg during his time in the anti-war movement, and then crossed paths with him at Naropa and in San Fransisco. Sterling says this caused, “a beatnik influence, or a hippie influence.” It was also during this time that Sterling was hitchhiking around the country, traveling as far as Alaska.
In contrast with his time on the road and travels across the country, Sterling has been firmly in the District for most of his life. His family moved to the area from his birthplace of Cocoa Beach, Florida, when he was young. “It’s a good place to read and write and study,” Sterling says.
During his time in the city, he has been through some tough situations, sometimes sleeping outside or relying on a patron to cover his housing costs. Today, he rents a room in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, not far from where he sells papers in Dupont Circle. Sterling always feels a little more motivated to sell an edition when one of his poems is published in it, and he likes being able to show his customers his work.
Writing takes up most of his time when he is not selling papers, and he can be working on more than 100 different poems at once. Not only is Sterling always writing, he is always revising. Even the pieces he has published in Street Sense are not always complete — his writing process never really stops. “It’s so nebulous I could never describe it,” he says.
While the turbulent times Sterling grew up in ultimately sparked his desire to write, he was always interested in poems. One of his motivations for writing was reading the works of others and wanting to learn them by heart, but he said he still needed something more. “I decided, ‘Well, I’m going to have to write my own poems if I want poems fine enough to be in my head.’”
Click below to read some of Sterling’s work.