Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wordcraft – Typewriter rodeos and free range poetry

So here I am at the 2016 Writers League of Texas conference, wandering through a hotel ballroom full of people and, flaming introvert that I am, wondering how long before I can make a guilt-free exit. And I spot them. (look up, look in. . . )Three people at a table doing the one thing you’d never expect to see at a writers’ conference. They’re writing.

I edge closer. (two objects can never really touch. . . )The sign on the table skirt reads “Typewriter Rodeo: Custom Poems.” The table trio are writing poems on the spot, custom-tailored for complete strangers, about topics they may never have heard of two minutes earlier. I saw something like that on TV, only with the writers sitting in a sunny park chatting between poetry-writing gigs. It looked idyllic.

This looks insane. (there’s no space between and yet it’s infinite. . . ) How can people do this? Have they never heard of writer’s block?

It definitely requires turning off the internal controls, an amiable, sane-looking young man at the table assures me before turning to a woman who wants a poem about an archaeological excavation in Mexico, complete with multi-colored parrots.

I’m not that brave. I approach Natalie Grigson, the lone, lavender-haired young woman in the group. All the poets are young. Maybe turning off that internal editor is easier for the young. Over several decades, my own internal editor has grown impossibly bossy and intolerant. 

What do you mean? IE asks. Don’t you know you need to research your topic? Hone your opening line? Finish leaving the customer longing for more? (one day you’ll lean in. . . ) Natalie’s internal editor seems to be a gentler being. Or possibly she’s bought the IE a beer from the hotel bar and sent it off to nurse its grievances in a corner.

Could she, would she, possibly, write a poem about outer space for my 10-year-old twin grandsons, whose career goals have recently shifted from paleontology to astrophysics.

You’d think Natalie had been contemplating the galaxies herself for the past decade. “I love space,” she says, and starts tip-tapping away at a minute manual typewriter older than she is. (you’re young and we’re young. . . )

I watch, fascinated by her flying fingers. I’m tempted to discuss my own long and not always happy relationship with typewriters – the inevitable errors, the agony of rewrites, the mixed blessings of Wite-Out. Or even to mention the ancient, incredibly heavy, probably Army surplus Underwood that took my father through college. No time for that. Within a minute, maybe two, Natalie unrolls a sheet of paper from the platen. (space is as here as it is there. . . )

Her typing is immaculate, impossibly perfect. She proofreads it for errors (there are none), signs it, stamps it with the Typewriter Rodeo logo. And then, because this is the 21st century, after all, she snaps a picture of the finished poem with her camera.

It’s the “new photo booth for parties,” a critic raves about the Austin, Texas, based group which types for clients across the country. I drop a few dollars in the tip jar for Natalie and her co-poets, and marvel at the power of words made visible.

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