The ghost orchid is a rare flower; it doesn’t photosynthesize, it’s almost impossible to grow in home environments, and can only be pollinated from a visit by the Giant Sphinx Moth. Even then, only a fraction of the seeds produced will find conditions favorable enough for growth.
There is a common view that the conditions to create art, and especially poetry, are similarly elusory: Emily Dickinson’s flowering was the result of passion, rooted in the fertile ground of solitude, visited by the Great Sphinx Moth of inspiration. Or so we think.
Great art is born this way, undoubtedly. But not all art. Good ideas can be hatched out of everyday conversation and coffee. It doesn’t even have to be good coffee. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to “street poet” Franki Elliot, who is proving that good art can be made in mere minutes on a public sidewalk, armed with only a typewriter and a suggestion from a passer-by (as in this scene from Before Sunrise). As opposed to the “proper” poems in her first collection, Piano Rats, the typewriter poems in her new book, Kiss as Many Woman as You Can, a collaboration with artist Shawn Stucky, were composed on-the-spot, initially meant as gifts to their recipients. I was interested in this idea, so I asked her a few questions about it.
DD: The poems in your debut collection Piano Rats are sharply drawn narratives about individual characters. They feel personal, like they are people you know. When did you first get the idea to start writing lines for strangers?
FE: My first book was very personal, drawn completely from my own life. I was tired of writing about myself and feeling writer’s block, so I began to ask my friends and acquaintances if they wanted me to write stories for them instead as a sort of writing exercise. The response was overwhelming, and I realized I needed a little bit more direction, so I started asking people to give me topics for their stories. When I got a typewriter and started incorporating that into my project, the stories became more succinct.
I didn’t do typewriter stories on the spot until AWP (a huge writers conference) came to Chicago and my publisher Curbside Splendor had a booth. They wanted me to come to the booth and sign books. I figured nobody would have heard of my book so I brought the typewriter as a gimmick to try and sell books. It worked. Little did I know that the stories I was writing on the spot for strangers to bring attention to my first book would turn into the content for my second book.
DD: When you write for somebody else, are you trying to intuit or “read” something about that person, or only trying to work with a word or idea they’ve given you?
FE: Even if someone just gives you one word, you can read their energy and figure out where that word came from, why they chose it. I try to feed off that energy, combine it with my own, and just let the words flow. Most of the time, people are very surprised by what they read and say the poem captures how they are feeling in that moment.
DD: Is there something about the self-imposed restrictions of the gimmick that you think bring out something essential that doesn’t happen in other methods of writing?
FE: The best part about this form of performance art/writing is that you don’t have time to think, time to edit, time to change what you’re going to say. You can’t correct yourself if there is a typo or spelling error, or if you use a word or punctuation mark you didn’t mean to. It’s writing in its rawest, most honest form.
DD: And no correction ribbon?
FE: No correction ribbon!
DD: Do you give yourself a time limit, then?
FE: I don’t. Most of the poems take no more than five minutes. The cardstock I use is small so it forces me to get the idea out before I run out of space.
DD: You’ve informed me about other current street poets, like these folks, and The Bumbys on the sillier end of the spectrum. Do you personally know other poets who do this? Do you think of this a community or a movement?
FE: I’m starting to wonder about live typewriting becoming a new artist movement. In every city, I’ve met atleast one really interesting typewriter repairman. I love talking to them about their business when I go to their old workshops to buy ribbon or get my typewriter fixed. Every single one of them has told me how surprised they are that so many people are suddenly interested in typewriters again. Business is non-stop for them now when ten years ago it was nearly dead. I was at a shop in Highland Park (LA) recently, and there were 300 typewriters in the workshop, with monthlong waits to be repaired. If you think of how much our society relies on technology, it seems many people are looking back nostalgically on something as real and tangible as a typewriter. Something with no distractions like the internet, no backspace, nothing to plug-in. There’s not much more besides you, your idea, and the ink. It brings you back to yourself.
I know live typewriting is very popular in New Orleans. The guy who was infamously mocked on Reddit for using his typewriter at a park in NY recently reached out to me to discuss collaboration. I know there is another girl in LA who people mix me up with a lot; she runs a project called Poem Store, an idea she got from another guy in San Francisco, and always graciously credits him for changing her life. People ask me if I feel territorial or competitive when I hear about other typewriter poets, and I always say “No.” It takes a certain kind of creativity to be able to write something on the spot for someone and give it away, and every writer has their own voice. Even if the idea is the same, the result is always completely unique. It’s exciting that so many people are into a tangible, old school model of creating art. It brings you back to the core of writing. Keroouac, Hemingway, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, etc. — all of them relied on typewriters for their craft, now why shouldn’t we?
DD: I have my cartoons featured in the back of the New Yorker magazine without the captions so that they can be used for the popular caption contest. A number of cartoonists won’t let their work be used in that way because they feel it cheapens the art of it. Do you feel like some of the magic or mystery of poetry is sacrificed by performing it in this way?
FE: I think this is one of the most magical forms of poetry. A poem written specifically for a person and inspired by that person. It touches them in a different way than just a poem you stumble upon in a book. It also can depend on the topic the person picks: if one wants me to write a poem about her dog, then it’s not going to be the deepest thing ever written, but if it still brings a smile to someone’s face, then I’m okay with that.
DD: What is the most memorable reaction that anyone has had to one of your street poems?
FE: I was typing poems at a fundraiser party for the Eagle Rock Yacht Club. I was ready to pack up at the end of the party, and a couple came up to me and told me they got engaged at the same event a year before. They begged me to write them a poem about their upcoming marriage. I couldn’t pass up that request, so I sat back down and typed. I have NO idea what I wrote, but I handed it to them and packed up and left. A few weeks later, I found out that at their wedding they only had one reading, and it was my poem! I was excited to find out I had randomly touched their life in that way. I also wrote two poems for a couple who told me they were going to get tattoos of the poems on their arms. People actually tell me that a lot, which is really daunting but amazing compliment!
DD: Other than the fact that you can do them quickly, what have you learned about yourself by doing street poetry?
FE: I was surprised that I could actually come up with poems that would be worth publishing, creating a story well-liked by readers other than the person whom made the request. That’s why I decided to publish Kiss as Many Women as You Can — I felt like some of the poems ought to be shared and passed along, so I took the book a step further and turned each poem into a postcard. I also learned that people choose the same themes over and over, which says a lot about human nature, aspects like: love, forgiveness, moving on, letting go, and nostalgia. Those are the most common topics, which are words/emotions that connect all of us.