Anyone who has let me talk at them in the last month knows that I think Trade City’s Popwagon (http://www.trade-city.org/the-popwagon/) is about the coolest thing in LA right now. It’s a mobile stage for LA on the taco truck model. So I was thrilled to be able to perform at the grand opening of the Popwagon for the LA Metro Line Opening Festival in Downtown LA this Saturday.
But what to do? I thought about performance poetry, but it didn’t seem quite right for the festival booth atmosphere. Then, at just the right moment, I was listening to NPR and they happened to do a story about a guy in San Francisco who was able to quit his job and make a living writing poetry on his typewriter in a park. It epitomized so much of what I think is good in art–getting out and talking to people, figuring out what they want, and creating personalized interactive experiences that add value to everyday life. All the guy had was a typewriter and a sign. And I thought, “I can steal that!”
So I borrowed the Trade City founders’ typewriter (which required some heavy cleaning to get the left hand side of the keyboard to work), got a little folding table and chair, and made a sign that said:
(Tienda de Poemas)
You give me a theme
I’ll write you a poem
Pay me what it’s worth to you.
(Se vende suenos, sombras, y poemas)
And the result?
Made almost $100, a piece of chewing gum from a Kenyan woman and some nori seaweed after 5 hours of writing poems, from about 11.30am to 4.30pm. Set up shop next to the awesome Popwagon, and immediately started off writing poetry for a couple kids who walked up. They wanted poems about a festival and the movie ‘A Bug’s Life’. Their mother was quite impressed that I used the name of the film’s main character in the poem–she must not have seen me ask the little girl!
Next came one of my favorite interactions, a skeptical girl who said she didn’t have any money but wanted a poem about father-daughter relationships. I asked her to tell me more and she started spilling her relationship with her dad, who she said was the best dad in the world and worked hard to give them all a good life growing up and was a trucker, so they didn’t see him very much. So I wrote a poem about waiting for someone to come home and honking at semis on the freeway. When I read her the poem and handed it over, the girl got very serious and said, “Let me run to the bank. I want to give you something.”
The rest is a blur. I spoke to a homeless guy, a couple young performance poets who’d done an inner city poetry program for troubled youth, and an old man who gave me detailed instructions on typewriter maintenance after I told him that what I had was in fact not a typewriter but the new Macbook Pro from Apple. A woman ran across the street to give me her card, get my information, and invite me to a book festival she was organizing. More notable poems were for a guy’s friend who was about to get married in the Natural History Museum (about the embrace of fossilized T-rex’s), for a guy who regretted not getting a loft flat (about the way places roost in our hearts), and for a woman who just didn’t know how to say, “Let’s just be fuck buddies” (‘you can have my body, just leave what’s in my ribcage out of it’).
What did I learn?
Busking poems is like being a fortune teller or a therapist–it’s about reading people and talking to them to get just enough information to reflect them back at themselves. But people LOVED opening up, and I got the most amazing stories from complete strangers, but I don’t think it’s just that they wanted to be listened to. I think the key wasn’t just listening but re-interpreting. Everyone wants their story told, even if it’s just to them. I tried to make every poem funny but also give it heart and meaning.
The typewriter was essential. It lured people in and got them curious and hungry. Lots of people had heard the NPR story and so recognized what I was doing. I had some good conversations about what it meant to be a store and the value of art, and the act of writing in public for cash is an interesting interrogation of both public space and our idea of what writing is.
I’m planning on hitting the Hollywood Fringe and this book festival in June. I’m looking forward to doing it again!