A young man sidles up to me at Clark Park’s Farmer’s Market and tells me that when I’m finished buying my eggplant he will write me a poem. He is dressed like a street performer, a juggler or mime: striped shirt, suspenders, a battered felt hat on his head. But he is an itinerant poet in the old tradition of the troubadours. He’s traveling the country by train, setting up his folding table and hand-lettered sign, propped up on his typewriter case. He’s like Lucy in Peanuts when she’s dispensing psychiatric wisdom: “That will be 5¢ please.” What I am drawn to of course is not so much the quixotic nature of his profession but the tools of his trade. His companion and instrument in this venture is a sleek Smith Corona that he has christened “Jolene.”
(“You name your typewriters?” I ask.
“I named this one,” he answers.)
Jolene, it turns out, is one of four typewriters this poet, Ryan Ashley, owns. He found this one at a flea market, purchased her for $45, and spent another $100 restoring her to her current sheen and efficiency.
When I ask him what he likes about his typewriter, he rhapsodizes like a man in love, describing her contours, her smoothness, and the pleasure of pressing the keys. He loves the resistance he feels, the precise pressure required to get results. He concludes that litany with “It’s analog!” he says, as if that single word encapsulates all the typewriter’s virtues.
Then he moves from the tactile to other senses. “I especially like the sound,” he says. “It is an instrument,” The taps and clicks that accompany his own compositions, he calls “music to my ears.”
So when it comes time for Ryan to write his poem for me, I ask him to write one for Jolene instead. Here is what he taps out.
In the minute or so it takes for Ryan to compose this ode, a couple of bystanders are drawn to the spectacle, the sight and sound, of this busker playing percussion as the lyrics formed on slanted lines across the page. (The handcrafted effect enhanced by Ryan’s not lining his paper up straight)
Watching them watch him, I think about hurdy-gurdy players with their trained monkeys, snake charmers, bear baiters, ventriloquists who speak through their dummies. Has a typewriter become like some exotic pet or mesmerizer’s instrument of enchantment? (Or of seduction: Later I read Ryan’s blog and saw that he took Jolene out bar hopping that night, where Jolene served as babe magnet. Hmmm. I see a New Yorker cartoon in there somewhere)
Ryan and Jolene are traveling, making poetry and friends across the country, as Ryan keeps a blog of reflections and poems about his adventures and encounters. For the vagabond poet, I think, the chance interactions, the unexpected intimacies and revelations that his itinerant poetry act brings about mean more than the verses themselves. Poetry is a vehicle. A means of connection. Those poems just come. That press of inked letters on fragile paper records a moment’s inspiration, handed out freely (though he’s happy for my $5 donation). He passes them on, and like an old-time troubadour, moves on.