To my very first shared house away from home, I brought very little: A nice kitchen knife, a few chipped thrift store mugs, some mismatched particleboard furniture, zero appliances, and a set of Edgar Allan Poe fridge poetry.

Though moving through daily life required me to lean on the largess of my roomies as I borrowed a pot for a meal and a couch to eat it on, I feel like my $2 set of gothic magnetic poetry contributed to the culture of the place in a way that outlasted my short stay.

As soon as it arrived, the inhabitants started chopping and changing the words of the great horror writer, using them to communicate their thoughts and fears as well as the passive-aggression familiar to dorm life:

Alas, happiness be not ours

For no one bought milk

In this pre-texting era, we would use the fridge poetry as a time-shifted household bulletin board, with important notices and punny haikus side-by-side in a reflection of the burgeoning intertwinement of our lives. It was at this time I was learning my craft as a writer and I couldn’t help being drawn to some fundamental truths about communicating.

Vocabulary Matters

As charming as it was to construct modern-day messages with 200-year-old tales of woe, we soon realized Poe was curbing our ability to truly communicate. It’s very difficult to say what you want with just 100 words, especially when there are only two each of words like and, the, a, and to. Woe appeared some six times, however. Sadly, none of us knew anyone called Annabel.

After a few months, a second set of poetry appeared. This one was Star Trek themed, and offered us new words including plasma, captain, alien, and phaser. Suddenly, just by introducing a new batch of words, our fridge poets had access to new concepts. We started communicating about travel and crew (roommate) dynamics and making prime directives. The names of characters were cut into sets of single and letter pairs to be formed into new words that neither set could give us. A whole new world of communicating opened up to us:

The coast is clear

This serf has clocked off

& gone to the beach

Our relationships were forged in this silly poetry. We used it to talk to each other, sure, but also to show who we are and what mattered to us.

Writing Builds on What has Come Before

Often, our messages would be additive, with roomies answering a single-line challenge with another line or an extension of the joke. We would have pun wars that extended halfway down the door. From fridge poetry, I learned that people have a natural inclination to follow the story and add to it and that the first message can set the tone for the whole exchange.

I am still close with many of my first roommates, and I’m pleased to report that each of us, in our homes now far flung across the world, occupied by kids, pets, chaos, and hopefully finer furniture, all have one thing in common: All of us still have poetry on our fridge.

This article first appeared at the Lion’s Way blog.

Main image by wildgift416, CC.