So I’ve been taking around an old typewriter and typing out poems for a pound.
Here is the gist: I sit there with a typewriter, strangers approach, a pound is exchanged, and a poem gets typed. It’s a basic formula that amounts to: 1 typewriter + £1 pound + 3 or so minutes = 1 poem. I don’t vary from it much.
I’ve been doing this at some small press fairs, and at a pop-up theatre stall. I’m often accompanied by my friend and fellow poet/artist Gareth Brookes who is nothing less than a rockstar for braving weekend hangovers to come and do poems with me.
I’ve been calling it #onepoundpoems, or, #poemsforpounds. There may be other variations on the horizon. I will wait for the fancy to strike.
Toting around the typewriter is a new thing, but I’ve been doing spontaneous poetry games for years now. It all began one dark, drunken college night when I thought it would be fun if someone randomly named a topic and everyone had two minutes to write a poem (I say everyone but actually it was just me and a then ex-boyfriend who didn’t really have a choice). In any case, from that moment was born the “2-minute poetry game” which I really thought was the greatest game in the world. It has gone on to spawn classics such as “Candles”, “Breadsticks”, “Wine”, and “The Chandelier” (it works well over dinner and in pubs).
Despite the catchy and highly descriptive title, I’ve only managed to play the game sporadically over the years. Apparently, people don’t always like writing “Poetry” under time pressure, and having to actually share it as well. People want to take their time with their metaphors. Chose words carefully. Have the option of keeping it hidden away. Or burning it forever.
Here’s me on the typewriter:
I’m normally one of those persons. I’m not naturally a write-and-tell kind of writer. When I was a kid I used to cut up my sketchbooks and journals for fear they would be found and seen. So maybe doing this one pound poems thing is a kind of therapy by public for me. It’s nerve-wracking to write on-demand and actually have to share what you’ve just written. But putting ridiculous circumstances on it is actually quite liberating. Because there’s no backspace with a typewriter, because you can’t really hesitate when folks are standing over you with more waiting in line, you already know the chances of it being utter crap are incredibly high. So all you can really do is keep going and hope for the best. (And hence the sales caveat: CASH ONLY. NO REFUNDS.)
But once you accept how unpredictable and imperfect it’s going to be, and let go of it all, you discover that it’s actually quite fun. Most of the time I’m surprising myself as I type the words out. And that’s a large part of the point. I like that it’s an adventure. I like that I have no idea what I’ll be typing about until some stranger whispers some words to me. It’s like being handed a key to an unknown box. You get to open it for a few minutes and see what comes out. And when you’re done and you hand over whatever’s been written, it’s like you get to share a secret little surprise with that total stranger.
Sometimes we write things that are funny or whimsical. Sometimes, things that are sad. Most people at least seem charmed by it all. Some people laugh. Some even seem moved. Some have no reaction at all. One man wrote a soulful email to me afterwards to tell me he was on a journey of self-awakening. He thought the poem I wrote for him was prophetic and had been moved to do a painting. One woman left us her topic and a pound, then came back looking for it like a fucked up takeaway order (“Excuse me. Yeah. I just paid a pound for a poem. I just wanna know what’s happening with it?”).
It has never been dull.
People always seem to be positing whether poetry is dying as an art form (look two examples of people asking here and here). A lot of poetry gets tucked away in rarefied, literary journals that just aren’t that accessible. Everyone says that no one’s buying poetry anymore and no one’s willing to slow down and take the necessary time for poetry’s rewards.
But if this experiment has been proof of anything, it’s that people want more poetry. Seriously, they will literally stand in line and wait for it. See the pic below? That’s an actual QUEUE we had going at the Hackney Fleamarket DIY Art Market (which you should totally check out if you haven’t already, and btw if you don’t know Gareth’s comics and zines you should totally go and get each and every one of them here too because they are all amazing). We actually had to turn people away at the end of that day. Pretty good going for two random kids and a typewriter, eh?
To be frank, I was surprised people were so taken with it. But there is something irresistibly hypnotic about the sound of an actual typewriter. Plus, I think people liked that they could have a hand and say in the creation of something. Which makes me wonder, if poetry has been on the decline, does it have more to do with the changing nature of author-reader relationships? That line of separation has become increasingly blurred with the net and I’m always interested in projects where the audience has some visible degree of authorship. I suppose that’s one reason I’m such a DIY enthusiast, which has everything to do with taking down those pesky, class-spawning divisions between spectators and creators.
So for now, the experiment continues. I’ll be doing poems with Gareth at the next Hackney Flea Market DIY (SEPT 6th!), and I’ll be trying to squeeze in one more session at the Royal Court’s Pop-up Stall in Pimlico (which got a really nice write-up in a London glossy here). I’ll list any future outings here and post on twitter etc. If you are anywhere nearby, please come and GET A POEM.
And if you wanted to actually read any of the poems, I’ve started collecting a few in some poetryzines where they’re going to try out illustrated life for a while. I’ve cleaned them up and rendered them by hand to keep it all in the same spontaneous vein. They’re all a bit “rough and ready”, but I like them and all their hand-made-ness. I’ll post some more photos soon. Other versions will abound in the future I am sure (and hopefully one soon with Gareth!). So keep an eye out if you will! :0)
Until then, love and random verses to all.
X to the X.