Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. Ding!
Pounding their typewriter keys furiously, the assembled poets churn out nuggets of goofiness, love and compassion under constant two-minute deadlines.
A poem about yoga and aliens. Why not?
Give them any word or phrase and members of Typewriter Rodeo will whip up a custom, on-the-spot poem like they did at a recent BookPeople event.
“Can you write a poem about my dog Dexter?” asked Austinite Tom Booker, who was waiting for his literary gem among a line of poetry enthusiasts. “He bites, but he’s cute.”
Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. Ding! Finished.
When four friends who love words, improv and typewriters come together, interesting things are bound to happen. It started last spring when Austinite Jodi Egerton, who runs her own writing consulting company, invited other writing buddies to devise an entertaining and visual way to create poetry during the Austin Mini Maker Faire, a do-it-yourself-focused festival. The group was considering handwriting the poems or displaying them on posters when children’s book author Kari Anne Roy told the group: “I have like a million typewriters.”
So the typewriter-lugging foursome set up camp at the Austin Mini Maker Faire and, to their surprise, long lines began forming immediately for each typewriter poet. “We realized that we loved it when nobody wanted to stop,” Egerton says. Something special was brewing.
Since its launch almost a year ago, the group, armed with vintage typewriters and playful attitudes, has been hired to write everywhere from birthday parties to Valentine’s Day celebrations on the Drag.
The impromptu poems touch on everything from relationships to breakfast. Wise guys try to stump them by requesting poems about odd subjects. How about a poem about hawks that wear small caps? (A real request, by the way.) It typically backfires, though.
“I actually like when it’s super-weird specific, like dragons who like to race cars under a full moon,” Egerton says. “It seems like it would be a huge challenge, but it actually gives you wonderful freedom to play.”
Egerton and fellow Typewriter Rodeo pal Sean Petrie, who is also a legal writing professor and children’s fiction writer, compare the on-the-spot poetry writing experience to improvisational comedy. Back in the early 2000s, the duo performed improv together and now apply their skills of speedy delivery and audience interaction to typing poetry.
“I was suffering under the delusion that everyone hates poetry,” says typewriter poet and KOOP radio show host David Moses Fruchter.” “It turns out everyone loves it.”
As long as you make it accessible, Roy adds. “At school you learn to hate it. You’re told what the rules are, and you’re not getting to interpret it in your own way. You’re not picking what you want to read. And when you learn that it’s OK to break those rules, that it can be about you, your best friend, your dog or taco and still call it poetry, then how can you not love it?”
At Egerton’s home on a recent morning, the friends brainstormed cool nicknames for their Typewriter Rodeo alter egos.
When Fruchter mentioned that he liked his typewriter because it has a key called “shift freedom” to release the shift lock function, Egerton got excited about the possible nickname.
“Shift freedom. I like that,” she said and typed it onto the working list of names.
For the Typewriter Rodeo crew, nothing beats seeing the reaction of the person reading the poem. A playful approach doesn’t mean they can’t write something deep.
“I’ve been in a funk lately,” says retired state worker Yolanda Delgado to Egerton at the BookPeople event. She only gave her one word of inspiration — escape.
Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack and then:
“I’ve been tucked inside.
Just the space to take a breath.
Such moving poetry happens often. Roy remembers a woman revealing that she left an abusive relationship and wanting a poem about being a stronger person. Roy wrote about empowerment and being the master of your own world. When she handed her the poem, the next person was already waiting in line, but from the corner of her eye, Roy watched as the woman and a friend read the poem together. “She started to cry,” Roy says. “Then she came around the table, dragged me out of my chair and squished me with a hug.”
“The poems become more than just words because the symbolism in the poem becomes their symbolism,” Roy says.“They have been incorporated into this snapshot, so suddenly poetry isn’t this thing at arm’s length you have to research, because you understand what these things mean.”
Not only do Typewriter Rodeo fans enjoy the customized poetry, but they especially like to swap stories about typewriters, Roy says. Her own collection of typewriters began when her in-laws, who enjoy hunting for antiques, started helping her collect vintage typewriter ribbon tins, which often have elaborate designs. Then one Christmas she received a big box, the first of her now growing typewriter collection.
Egerton loves her typewriter because it has a pound sign instead of a dollar sign. It belonged to her English mother-in-law who used it back when she was the medical editor for Penthouse Forum.“If you had a sex question, my mother-in-law answered it on this typewriter!” Egerton says.
Typewriter Rodeo always has its eyes peeled for people who can fix typewriters. Ribbons sometimes break during events, and they have to tie knots if they can’t replace them. “All my typewriters work but have some quirks,” Roy says. She carries backup typewriters just in case.
There are other hazards as well. As they’re typing poems on the fly, sometimes their pinkie fingers get stuck between the keys, or they have to figure out how to type an exclamation point on vintage machines that lack that key (apostrophe, back space, period).
“But there’s something about the physicality of a typewriter that’s just so satisfying,” Fruchter says. “The tactile feedback of your fingers, and the sound of it.”
All of the Typewriter Rodeo crew agrees this project has become their favorite thing to do.
“The instrument is playful, the medium is playful, the reactions are playful,” Egerton says. “That’s the way I like to approach the world, with a spirit of playfulness. It brings me so much joy.”
To learn about upcoming Typewriter Rodeo events or to ask about rates,
visit facebook.com/TypewriterRodeo or email firstname.lastname@example.org.