I've been dreadful at blogging regularly...so for now here's an unexpurgated version of an interview I did with Nyles Pierrelouis, which is currently up at the Hamline University Lit Link.
How did you decide you wanted to go out and perform on the street?
I’ve been writing poems for strangers in the street for over five years now, but I’ve been performing in the street (busking) since I was a teenager, when I toured with a choral group and we sang in the street to pick up a little extra cash in between gigs at churches. Then, throughout my early/mid-twenties I toured with various bands as a trumpet player, and busking often earned us more money than playing in bars or clubs. There’s a magic inherent in putting your art in front of strangers; it puts you into contact with entirely different strata of society. By that I mean, when I toured with a weirdo Americana band, most of our friends and contacts were other musicians or artists, who were just as broke and unemployed as us—so the people actually coming to our shows often wouldn’t have $15 to spare to buy our album. But in the street, you’re reaching a much wider audience: there are lawyers and bankers with more money than they know what to do with, and there are working class folks who love art and humanity enough to support you with whatever they can spare. (Working class people are often much more generous, actually, in my opinion.)
Then, on top of that, there are TV crews in the street, looking for something to film. There are documentary photographers who are looking for someone to feature in their next magazine article. There are the owners and booking agents of larger clubs who will put their business cards into your hat as you pass it around, and tell you to get in touch. And there are random people who will ply you with beer and food if you jam at their pool party, late-night after your gig is over. Performing in the street, giving your art to the people for free, is where it’s at.
Was it a spur of the moment deal, or did you decide that you wanted to do that from an early age?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was 17, and I grew up with typewriters; my father was a bit of a hoarder and he had about 12 of them all around the house. Even though I used typewriters for writing poems, it wasn’t until I met Robert McKay that it ever occurred to me to take one into the street. Even after I met him and started hiring him to do it at readings and events for the small press I was running, Honeybee Press, at first I refused to believe that I was capable of writing spontaneously. My process back then was much more typical: to sweat bullets over interminable drafts, that idea that poems are “never finished, only abandoned” (Paul Valéry). Which is still the best way to write poetry in general, and that’s how I write when I’m not in public; I see the street typewriter poems as more of an experimental form. There’s a mystical aspect to it, since the poem operates within the confines of so many restraints: time, of course, because if you take longer than 10 minutes to write the poem, your customers will wander off and not come back. And also, you must give them something that satisfies them, or they won’t pay you—or they wont pay you very much. These stakes are really raised if you rely on this money to pay your rent, if it’s not just a kooky project, but a necessity and a way of life.
When I say that word mystical, I mean that sometimes I don’t know where the poems are coming from. Sometimes it’s almost like a voice, somewhere, that I’m straining to hear across all the mental noise of reality. Those are the best ones. Like someone else is speaking and I’m just writing it down. But it’s rare. I like that word mystic, even though it’s corny, because it means unexplainable. I adore the things in life that are unexplainable by science, that cannot be reverse-engineered. Like love, and what happens to us when we die.
Do you have a specific process when you are writing a poem for someone?
Yes—often the topic that someone gives me to write about will become the title. But that’s a little obvious, or overly-direct. Circuitousness is sexy in poetry, some sort of movement that will surprise you (By ‘you’ I mean both me and you). So, ideally, I take the topic and alter it to a certain extent, so when they read the title, they immediately encounter something that is both familiar and unexpected. This usually intrigues them, and gives the poem a momentum that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
For example, if I was set up by the seashore, and someone looked out over the water at the pretty sailboats and gulls and asked for a poem about the bay, I might title the poem, ‘Guantanamo Bay’. It fulfills their request, but it also takes the poem in an entirely different direction (and frankly, a much more interesting direction. Does the world need another pastoral ode to the natural world? Absolutely not.) You might think that people would be startled or irritated that I shifted their topic from nature and beauty to war and torture, but I’ve learned that strangers are often both startled and full of gratitude that I took the poem in that direction. It means that I think they’re too smart for a nature poem, that they deserve more, that I respect them enough to write something difficult for them.
Honestly, most people have very low expectations, as far as quality goes, for a random guy in the street with a typewriter. Maybe they assume I’m just a vacuous hipster, maybe they think I’m a hustler, or maybe they think I’m a failure of some sort, a quasi-beggar. They don’t always think of me initially as an artist, at all. Most of the poetry they’ve read, they hate or don’t understand. So, when I turn their seashore poem into a poem about the war crimes continuing to be perpetrated by the government whose taxes they pay every April, they (almost always) are flooded with relief. People want and need to talk about these things. All the people in the street? They’re the ones who are paying for the force-feeding tubes and the waterboards, even though they neither want nor condone those things morally. That’s a massive cognitive dissonance that Americans walk around with all day on their shoulders, and they don’t have a way to communicate how they feel about it. Poetry can do that. Poetry can say the things they’ve always wanted to say.
Would you compare your profession of writing poems for people on the spot to freestyle rapping?
In a certain way, yes, and in many other ways, no. I think that freestyle rapping is the absolute pinnacle of poetry: it’s infinitely more complex and intricate than what I do. Its possibilities are wider, grander, and involve huger measures of wit, intelligence, wordplay, and most importantly, rhythm. If Shakespeare could hear kids freestyling in New Orleans or Atlanta or wherever, his head would explode. What Shakespeare does with the poetic line is often complex—playing with the beats, alternating between pentameter and tetrameter, blank verse and rhyme, creating new words and jeu-de-mot, etc…but it’s nothing compared with the endlessly inventive and re-inventive rhythmic subdividing of hip hop. Then, the fact that freestyling is happening in real time just blows my mind. I am endlessly humbled by it. On top of everything, it’s often a dialogue, its collaboration, and it makes people dance and scream in a way that my poetry never will.
I think the only way the typewriter poems and freestyling are similar is the improvisatory nature of it…but even there, I rarely work through actual ‘stream of consciousness’—it’s more calculated than that. Usually I’ll just sit there and think for 7 minutes, form the poem’s general direction in my mind, and then bang it all out in the 3 minutes that remains. But freestyling happens at the speed of human thought, the speed of human speech, and it’s totally genius. Someone must have written a book, or a thesis or something.
Do you favor a specific type of poem to write, like limericks, or haikus?
The typewriter poems I do are typically between 10-15 lines. Almost always I use a basic structure of small indentations every other line, just to give the visual appearance of cohesiveness. Often they’re very close to sonnet-length, and function similarly: an initial thought or premise or conceit which is laid out in 3 or 4 lines, followed by 3 or 4 lines enlarging on that idea, followed by a ‘turn’—where the premise or conceit is then upended in some surprising way, or the stakes are raised, as they say in the theatre. The last 2 or 3 lines are when I try to ‘twist the knife’.
Why did you decide to write poems on a typewriter, even in this modern age of tablets and whatnot?
Well, I loathe the internet—I think it’s a very useful tool, but it’s also a drug that’s turning humanity into a bunch of zombies. I’m 30 years old—just old enough to grow up in a world without cell phones, in a world where the internet existed, but barely, and no one gave a crap about it. I miss that world. These days, when I eat dinner with people, even with good friends who I love, they leave their phones on the table, and barely make eye contact, and just stare into their crystal ball, hypnotized.
Do you know where the components that make up cell phones come from? The ore is dug from the earth by child slaves in Africa. The digital revolution isn’t as ‘green’ as Silicon Valley would have you believe. (I doubt that the components that made up typewriters were obtained by cheery workers earning a livable wage, but these are objects from the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s—their source is a bit of a moot point, and anyway, they weren’t constructed with the goal of manufactured obsolescence in mind. That is, they were made to last as long as possible, as opposed to being made to become unusable within a few years, which to me embodies Capitalism and greed and a murderous disregard for resources and environmental destruction.)
I’ve always been attracted to antiquated processes—I’m also a letterpress printer, which is even more obsolete than typewriters. I think these old processes slow down our thought in a really healthy way—with typewriters, you can’t type as fast as you can with a computer, so you have to think more about what you’re writing. And you can’t instantly re-format, so it forces you to think things through beforehand. There’s a level of mediation that doesn’t exist with computers and phones. But I’m a bit of a hypocrite, since I use computers for non-fiction, now.
Would you encourage other people to do what you do? If so, would you consider starting a school of sorts?
No, I wouldn’t. I think this particular experimental art form is already in grave danger. Perhaps because of Instagram, or just the internet in general, or maybe just its own momentum, there has been an explosion of typewriter “poets” in the last year or so. Many of them had never written a word in their lives, and are literally just hustling money, or trying to be trendy. Or, they were broke musicians who got the bright idea to try poetry instead—there are several of those in New Orleans now. From what I can tell, they write in a disturbingly identical, associative style, a mix of cliché and gibberish.
For at least several decades, there have been poets with typewriters in the streets of New Orleans, but when I moved here in 2013 there were only 2 people doing it with any regularity, and they only sat on Frenchmen Street, at night. I didn’t much care for their attitudes (or their poetry) and I also didn’t like how loud and drunk and distracted the nighttime scene is, and how claustrophobic it can be on that narrow sidewalk. So I started going to Royal Street, in the Quarter, behind the cathedral where the streets are closed to traffic for most of the day. There are painters hanging their art on the gates, there are bands playing, there are clowns and human statues and puppeteers, and kids tap dancing with bottlecaps. It’s a great scene where anything can happen, and I loved it immediately.
Now I can’t work behind the cathedral anymore, because there’s a row of 5 or 6 poets with typewriters there all day, everyday. There are over 20 of them, total, so on any given day a minimum of 3 will come out. Some of them are nice; some of them are extremely rude, and have no concept of the basic respect shown to fellow buskers. Some of them are falling over drunk; some of them are falling asleep. Some of them write deplorably bad poems about beignets: tourist schlock. There are people commuting from Florida every week to write poems on Royal Street. On top of that, there are street-poets from all around the country and the world coming to New Orleans.
Part of the magic of this experimental form of art is that it’s not everywhere, it’s not something you encounter everyday. There’s a serendipity involved in the catharsis taking place between two strangers, when they just happen upon a poet in the street with an obsolete machine—it’s an unplanned occurrence that has the potential to pierce through the vellum of everyday reality. It’s surreal. Or at least, it was.
At the AWP conference this year, which is a massive gathering of writers, publishers, and editors, while exploring the enormous bookfair I saw a guy wearing a mascot costume, just like the multiplicity of Sponge Bob Squarepants and Spidermen in Times Square. He was writing poems on a typewriter. For me, it was a frightening omen—someone had taken this experimental art form and reduced it to pure novelty. To a hashtag. Are his poems any good? I doubt it—but it doesn’t matter to the people ordering poems from him, because he’s just a clown to take selfies with.
Have you noticed that certain kinds of people ask for certain kinds of poems, or is there no clear pattern?
That’s an interesting question—I think love is the great equalizer. Love is one of the only things that the rich can’t buy. No matter how comfortable they’re life is, they still suffer the same romantic pain as anyone else.
But I have noticed that rich people (and granted, here I’m obviously making some snap judgements based on people’s clothes, manner of speaking, etc—but after working this way for 5 years, all over the world, I can smell rich) often want poems about themselves, odes to their own greatness. And this is when my art occasionally dips towards prostitution—if I don’t stroke their ego in the right way, they might feel tricked or insulted, and not pay me. I don’t want to write their praise poems, but I do want (and need) money to eat and pay my rent.
Why did you choose to write poems rather than the plethora of other literature styles?
Well, I do write in other genres—nonfiction and playwriting, and reviews of art exhibitions and books here and there. But I love poems for their surreal power to move the human heart, for their license to say what cannot be said in polite conversation, for their truth-telling and dreamwork. At the same time, poems are also so insignificant, so often pretentious or failing, so fragile and powerless. I like to think of poetry as the canary in the coal mine, to mis-quote Kurt Vonnegut. The birds that miners would take into the depths of the mine shaft. If the bird died, it meant there wasn’t enough oxygen, or poison vapors were leaking into the air. They sing about beauty, but they also have a purpose—to warn people about the folly of destroying beauty.
Having said all this, I’m also unsatisfied by the limitations of poetry, not so much as an art form, but audience-wise. Even brilliant, successful poets rarely sell 500 copies of their book, and they sell them almost exclusively to other poets. I’m interested in exploring other ways of reaching a wider and larger audience. These days, I’ve started working on a non-fiction book about the lifestyle of trying to live this way—it’s called Poet for Hire, and takes place in Paris, Havana, New Orleans, San Francisco, NYC, London, Madrid. It’s a narrative that’s illustrated with scans of the poems I wrote—and so the poems become a point of departure for mediations on politics, love, sex, violence, race, class.
What is your favorite piece of poetry?
Usually when people ask me this I just real off a bunch of things—“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine, “Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancion Desesperada” by Pablo Neruda, and “The Miseducation of Lauren Hill”. The work of Emily Dickinson and EE Cummings, of Yeats and Plath and Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Whitman. What’s the best single poem of all time? Hmm. Maybe ‘The Second Coming’. Or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or that one about birds by Alestair Reid. Some days it’s, “Lover, you should have come over” by Jeff Buckley. The one about walking into the burning building and carrying the fire safely out, by Bob Hicok is great—I clipped it out of the New Yorker and carried it around in my wallet for years, and met other people who did, too. “America” by Ginsberg is definitely a contender.
What inspired you to write poetry?
The coming environmental apocalypse. And beauty. Injustice and mendacity inspire me—also orgasms and harvesting olives in Spain. Anger at the moral failure of the white race inspires me, and anger at the violence of masculinity. Other poets inspire me. Fear of and wonder about death inspires me. Love. Some mystic fiber in my being. I know “mystical” is a funny word, but I really think of poetry as an unexplainable phenomenon, as a strange calling, as a tremendous burden and responsibility and gift. I know that’s pretentious; poetry is pretentious, (until it’s not). Poetry has to be pretentious because it’s goals are so rarely attainable.
I say mystical because I don’t buy into the typical academic explanations of craft and discipline and observation. I mean, duh, you need craft and discipline and observation to do anything well. That’s more of a prescription for trying to teach something that can’t be bought—excuse me, taught—in no school. It’s a prescription for creating mediocre, imitative poets out of normal people who panicked because they didn’t know what they wanted to do in life so they majored in English. And then panicked because they didn’t know what to do after college so they went to grad school.
I know that this interpretation of poetic inspiration can seem elitist—this either/or. Because what about the human capacity to become? And who gets to decide who gets to be a poet? Editors and publishers? Not necessarily. They didn’t see Emily and they didn’t see Walt. But that logic is a trap, I think, used to quickly rationalize failure. I think of it as the Van Gogh equation—where artists fancy themselves far too tragically brilliant for the crass establishment. Every moment of rejection is just more evidence of their own brilliance. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it yucks me out.
And about our endless becoming—yes, I think anyone can choose to become a poet. And that you don’t have to prove it to anyone but yourself. But even in the cases where people choose to try to become a poet, whether or not they actually become one is inexorable anyway, no? Maybe that’s a little too chicken/egg, Fate/Will, but it’s how I look at it, anyway.
Who is your favorite poet?
Lauren Hill? Solmaz Sharif? Ginsberg? I don’t know. Rumi? sam sax?
Do you think you could become famous doing this?
Fuck yeah. I need to hurry up though, and finish my book before some charlatan gets famous first. (Hmm…on second thought: no, not really. Writer-famous isn’t really famous-famous. Very few people know who Maggie Nelson is, even though she’s a hero. There are high-school Youtube stars who are more famous than Maggie Nelson. It hurts, it hurts, but it’s true! That’s why writers need to chill out about thinking of themselves as famous. Stephen King is probably the only living writer who most American could name. Even if my book got published by a major press and “blew up” and got turned into a movie and won an Oscar, it would still probably be less famous than a James Franco racist stoner flick. No one would recognize me, never—except maybe an ass-kissing grad student once in awhile.)
Is there any specific topic you won't touch?
Nope. People have hired me to write about suicide, rape, abuse, molestation, murder, explicit sexual acts—you name it.
Do you think your upbringing affected your decision to become a poet-for-hire?
Absolutely. I grew up in a lower-middle class family. No one in my family has a degree, and neither do I. But my parents were very supportive; they were of the counter-cultural movements in the 50s through the 70s, (yes, my father had me at 56) so making art was something they dug and encouraged. I barely graduated high school because I was failing English—I flirted with my teacher and she changed my grade to a D-minus. Not going the academic route makes me an unusual bird in the poetry landscape—sometimes I wonder if it’s helping me, or holding me back, but at least it gives me a little bit of a chip on my shoulder that can fuel my work.
I was also lucky to grow up in rural Vermont—I went to public school, and the teachers were excellent and the arts programs were really strong. At my high school, it was cool to be in theatre, which is something that I’ve heard is rare…like, the theatre kids were the ones who threw the dope parties that everyone wanted to be invited to, the cow-pasture bonfire parties with the good weed where everybody went skinny dipping and ran away naked from the cops, which is how we get down in Vermont.