There was a red typewriter in the window of a gallery in the North Beach area of San Francisco, and a sign on the door that said, Poetry on Demand. A young woman, presumably the poet, was getting set up to position herself there and produce poems on the spot by request. According to the sign, all you had to do was tell her who the poem was for, and what that person “liked,” whatever that means, and then, in a moment or two, she would begin to type a poem. Her secret? “My poems emerge from the dark of you meeting I," she is quoted as saying. "Then there is something more than light. There is life."
I hope her poetry is better than this explanation. Still, I admire the confidence that would allow someone to sit there in full view of the street not merely proclaiming oneself a poet but promising customized poems on demand. As Naomi Shihab Nye wrote,
You can't order a poem like you order a taco. Walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two"
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
But maybe you can, in San Francisco.
I was so intrigued by the scenario that I mentioned it to a friend of mine who is also a poet. A real one. He found it to be an alien and slightly comical concept. “If it were that easy,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t pursue poems. In fact, when I try to pursue them, I chase them away. Only when I pay attention and let myself be susceptible, is there a chance the muse may try to seduce me. But I do I like the image of the red typewriter.”
I like the red typewriter also, and as much as I love my computer, I have a fondness for typewriters in general. The miserable Long Island summer I spent taking typing classes at my high school turned out to be one of the best investments in the future I ever made. Knowing my way around a keyboard got me through essays in college and dozens of office jobs after I dropped out. More important, my agile fingers made it a lot easier to get my thoughts on the page when I began to "write" more seriously. The first typewriter that was truly my own was one similar in size to that poetry machine, but the typewriter I loved the most was a fancy IBM Selectric that I used while front desk-receptionist at an office in downtown Chicago in the early 1970s.
In one of those random moments that achieves a kind of immortality, a gentleman in the office named Richard Sandberg, long since deceased, walked by one day and took my picture in front of that typewriter. (What I also remember about Mr. Sandberg is that he thought I should learn transcendental meditation; he was so convinced it would change my life for the better that he offered to pay the registration fee, and I could pay him back someday when it was easier to come up with the dollars, but if I did not think that it had been incredibly worthwhile, I would owe him nothing. I never took him up on his offer but years later found a beautifully typed up memorandum of understanding to this effect that he had signed and given to me.)
Anyway, back to me and that handsome IBM typewriter with its silver ball cartridge…it was a fine machine, sturdy and robust, and with it I became quite a competent typist, which would open many doors to "temp" jobs, the extent of my career plans in that unstable period of my life. And here, for memory’s sake, is me in 1971, as photographed by Mr. Sandberg, with my can of Tab and the typewriter.
No poetry ever came out of it.
Recently, I saw an IBM Selectric at a thrift shop that for twenty bucks could have been mine. (I can hear Monte: “Are you nuts?”) A hulking electric typewriter would be incompatible with our current lifestyle anyway; we don’t need to own a big consumer of table space and electricity. This in fact is why I have become so intrigued with the old-fashioned manual typewriters that run entirely on finger tapping and their own clever design, despite the now and then entanglement of typebars or ribbon. The very sight of them evokes nostalgia…writers in attics producing thin-skinned manuscripts of novels and screenplays, reporters in newsrooms rat-tat-tatting out the stories.Interesting enough, I saw a beautiful specimen of this type at the backyard garage sale that I mentioned in a previous post. Again, I looked at it longingly, wondering what the garage sale woman would ask for it, and again imagining Monte’s response. (“Are you nuts?”) It would have been awkward anyway, considering that we were using bicycles as our primary mode of transportation that weekend. And the truth is I don’t need to own a typewriter; wistfully admiring one is quite enough.
Unless, of course I could get poetry out of it. On demand.
But the other day I did acquire something new, a sort of great-great-grandchild to the typewriter, twice removed and many times mutated. In fact, its typing capabilities are its least evolved characteristic, its keyboard somewhat vestigial and still a bit awkward for me to use. But it is sublimely light and portable, can hold hundreds of weightless books I can travel with or read into the night, and beyond mere processing of words, it offers an instant portal out into the world. Yep, it’s an iPad. Brand new.
Blame Chris . When I saw how easily she carried hers in her bag, on her bike, everywhere she went, and how casually she treated it, I began to wonder...and when she let me play around with it, I began to covet. I mean it when I say that at this point in my life I am more into getting rid of things than acquiring them, and my focus is on experience rather than possession. The iPad, though, is a perfect tool for me, and I intend to take it places, and I’ll keep in touch while I do.
Soon enough I’ll be writing about the places I am going, and sooner still, I want to tell you more about that last trip to San Francisco -- the garage sale lady, some amazing friends, a book I read as Monte drove, lingering thoughts on faith, its limits, and the lack of it. Meanwhile, I am acutely aware that oil is hemorrhaging in the Gulf, that there is strife and turmoil everywhere and plenty of cause for sadness and concern; I won't always dwell on this sort of thing, but I need to think about what it means to be navigating through these troubled times. I can’t quite go over to the lite side entirely.
I remain open to poetry, and close with an old Ray Bradbury quote:
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
Not on demand or by request, but without ever being asked...