We’re living in a golden age of public typewriters. For one thing, The Typewriter Project, which we first told you about back in April, has finally come to Tompkins Square Park, meaning that through July 19, weekdays from 3pm to 8pm and weekends from noon to 8pm, you can step into the cabin and type a poem that will be shared with the world right here. Meanwhile, for those who have performance anxiety and would rather have someone type a poem for them, there’s Lynn Gentry.
You’ve almost certainly seen Gentry before. He’s the guy posted up on Bedford Avenue with the typewriter and the laminated sign: “PICK A SUBJECT; PICK A PRICE; GET A POEM.” One recent Friday afternoon, as we passed him yet again on North 6th Street, we decided it was high time to find out more.
It turns out Gentry hails from Los Angeles and started typing poems full-time in San Francisco in 2009. “What I like about doing this is I get to kind of think about what I’m doing in this job, as opposed to doing something where it’s basically just filling in the dots of what’s already there,” he said.
He makes an average of $5 per 20 customers each day and doesn’t have another occupation. And he’s not alone. We knew about the roving typist that regularly haunts the High Line and Washington Square Park, but there are a number of typewriter poets across the country, Gentry told us; among others there’s Zach Houston out in Oakland and Jacqueline Suskin, also on the West Coast. Or maybe you’ve seen Abigail Mott on St. Marks Place.
The strangest thing Gentry has ever been asked to write about? “I mean, there’s been a lot, but the strangest was probably ‘fisted by a trannie,'” Gentry said. “But then it wasn’t strange, because the person that I wrote it for was actually an erotic fiction writer, so for them it’s just something they have to do every day.”
Sometimes a person will come right out and say the specific thing they want in the poem. Other times, “they’ll say something that’s like a blank canvas term for something that’s deep within them,” Gentry said. “Whereas, like, a lot of love poems, what I’ve really learned is that they’re not always love poems. For the most part they may say love, but they’re really talking about something else.”
Our conversation was interrupted by Annick LaCroix, a French tourist and student of social sciences who asked Gentry if he was a translator for people unable to write in English. He had done that for a few people before, he said, but he stopped when he was asked to take on projects that seemed too far outside the purview of a sidewalk poet (he was once asked by an immigrant from Kashmir to translate a letter to his lawyer pleading for the right to stay in the country).
More in line with his mission: writing poems for people like Julian, an Australian living in Tribeca, who wandered up and asked for a poem about his daughter. Gentry peppered him with a few questions: how old is she? (two and a half), where was she born? (America), how did you meet your wife? (in a bar), what is your wife like? (“she’s my calming force”), what’s your daughter like? (like her father; inquisitive and an explorer), what’s her birthday? (August 3rd), what’s her name? (Sloane).
“Strangely enough, I just wrote for a person named Sloane,” Gentry said. Julian agreed it was strange—it’s not a name you hear often. “It’s kind of weird, sometimes things happen that way, where you’ll probably never hear a name, and then once it pops into the air you meet another person named that,” Gentry observed.
Then he set about writing the poem. He typed rhythmically, though slowly, at first. When he was almost done he paused and snapped his fingers as though trying to think of something. “I think there’s a gallery named Sloane,” he said, but he never did remember where it was. He continued to type for a moment, then pulled out the paper and made some slight revisions with a Sharpie. About three minutes from the punch of the first key the poem was done.
Julian read the poem and smiled. “It’s actually kind of appropriate,” he said, then thought for a second and amended his comment. “It’s very appropriate,” he said. “It’s probably a little more than what I hoped it was going to be, to be honest.”
The poem read: