The Process of Writing Poems in Public Space at BAC’s Artoberfest: A Simultaneous Awakening

Sisters with their poem at Artoberfest

The Process of Writing Poems in Public Space at Artoberfest: A Simultaneous Awakening

By Karin Falcone

I was invited to a two-week interdisciplinary artist residency at Bethany Arts Community (BAC) in Ossining, NY to work on hatching and completing a book manuscript of poetics and prose. Part of the residency requirement was to present a public program for the community at large.

For those who don’t know, residencies are important for artists of all disciplines, to be released from the daily demands of our regular lives, to immerse in artistic practice. At Bethany “inter-pollination” between artists and artistic disciplines is encouraged over a monastic stay. Residents share a meal each evening. Fellows, staff, board members and volunteers all take a very active approach in creating community on the sprawling campus, a former home for Maryknoll Missionaries. 

I was prepared with a workshop of surrealist games and dharma art which I had done in different contexts over the years, called Wild Working Writers, to be organized on a conference table on Saturday October 15, 2022, a few days into the residency. Then an email to the BAC community announced their 3rd annual ARToberfest was rescheduled to the same day as my workshop, because of a predicted serious storm.

This family-oriented event is held outdoors, with all of the usual Fall Festival activities like pumpkin carving, but with a Bethany twist of making art and making art accessible, non-judgemental and fun for everyone of every age. I knew I would not be happy sitting indoors at a conference table making cut-ups with a few adults while a festival was going on outside. I needed to be at the festival, in the community. I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I pitched the Bethany folks my change of program to “Poems While You Wait,” and I waited to hear back from them.

*

A mother and daughter with a freshly sealed poem.

The idea for Poems While You Wait came from Bill Keys, my classmate at Naropa Institute (now University). Bill Keys had been “poeming” (his word for what he does) as “The Poem Guy” for years: http://www.thepoemguy.com

Though I had never tabled a Poems While You Wait event before, I have recently done my share of event tabling as a vendor at flea markets and fundraisers, selling all kinds of things. Making the table look beautiful is key. Being friendly and approachable is important. Being prepared for a day in the elements without much of a break, is again something I learned from being a vendor.

When I heard back that my Poems While You Wait table would be a reality, I was thrilled and I set about preparing what I would need to do the work.

I packed a plastic bin with vintage stationary and other papers to type on. To keep paper from blowing away I brought clamshells full of wampum from my home base of Long Island and containers of colored sand and jars of bubbles. The jars of bubbles were also to attract children to the table. (It definitely worked.) I always bring a burgundy colored table cloth, too.

BAC fellow Emily Bate ordered a poem.

While at routine doctor visit I told her about my upcoming residency and project — because she always asks me what I am reading — and that I was on a quest for a portable manual typewriter. I had let go of my Sterling Corona in a move about 10 years ago and missed it. “Long Island Antique Center” she said. “They are right across Sunrise Highway…”

Inside the dim lights preserve a whole array of pasts, artfully and densely grouped framed wall art and furniture, vinyl records and toys, memorabilia, costume jewelry and a giant taxidermied turkey overseeing the back of the store, all remarkably free of dust. I told the owner John I felt moved by the “all-in” nature of his project, a hidden gem in the suburban sprawl. “It’s not hidden,” he countered. “People come from all over the country to visit my store. People call me when they have things to sell. They know.” He gave me a good deal on a working portable Underwood typewriter.

A corner of Long Island Antique Center in Merrick, NY

Another way I prepared was to write to Bill Keys to ask his advice before the event.

Bill wrote back:

“My pointer is to stay visceral. Make mistakes. It’s much more about enjoying a stranger’s willingness to answer most any question you ask. Be sincere, and they will be sincere. I love following the language that comes out of feeling people. I usually write stuff I’m not thrilled about, but it’s really not about the poem, it’s about feeling their beauty. If you do they will too, and sometimes really wonderful poetry comes out of it. Usually not though; the poetry is in asking them questions, feeling what’s wonderfully human about them, that’s really the gift I give ‘em. That’s what I focus on. It’s not my idea, really. Several of us came to it at the same time not knowing each other. I find it endlessly fascinating. A simultaneous waking.”

My new old Underwood typewriter.

Another acquaintance from Naropa, Chris Vitiello, types poems in public spaces as well. Based out of Durham, North Carolina, he is known as The Poetry Fox, and appears to do a lot of his tabling in a fox costume. The same weekend I was typing at BAC ARToberfest, he was typing at ZINE MACHINE, a small press fair, at The Durham Armory.

I Googled “Poems While You Wait” to find a remarkable essay, further illustrating the “Simultaneous Awakening” Bill was talking about.

Kathleen Rooney’s 10 year-old-essay at Poetry Foundation is entitled “Poems While You Wait: The Work of Poetry in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

In it she mentions yet another poet doing public typing in Miami, and describes a moment in Chicago when two young girls of about 10 approached her poetry table:

“We roll sheets of paper into our two manual typewriters—Smithy and Quiet Deluxe—and set to work. The girls clutch their dolls and hover close as we strike the keys. Not only have they never had anyone write a poem to their specifications before, they have also never seen machines like these; they are all under ten years old, and their timelines consist only of handwriting and then computers. What are these things? How do they work? Why are they so loud? You don’t plug them in?”

Yes! I thought. That is the moment I want to have at the festival!

Three generations and a poem for the future.

I also prepared by typing a poem each day in my residency studio for three 3 days beforehand on my new old machine, a little more compact and utilitarian than my old Corona Sterling, but also attractively black and silver. I wanted to get used to the sound and feel, to gain a measure of technical proficiency before the event. I also posted the raw poems on my studio door, because getting comfortable with sharing first drafts was part of the process, too.

Another resident poet in my cohort, Lauren Camp asked, “How will you prepare?” and without thought I said, “To breathe.” I pondered The Four Dignities that I had learned while acting in a Garuda Theater Troupe production at Naropa: meek, perky, inscrutable and outrageous. I repeated the words in my mind and with my breath.

*

“It’s all about the children,” I once heard Bethany’s founder David Lyons say about his vision for the 5 year old project that is Bethany. My Artoberfest table was next to the t-shirt dyeing station. Looking East was a giant white tarp where people could shoot arrows with paint on their tips to make a giant Jackson Pollock like mural. Beyond near the Buddha statue on the back lawn, drummers and dancers. Beside me sand art, and pumpkin carving, across the parking lot, Peruvian food, in the courtyard, a community chorale by resident Emily Bate. Later in the packed-house commercial kitchen, a one-woman performance of baking and memoir, by resident Margaret Liston, who lit up and said, “What great fun!” when I asked her what she thought of the festival.

Delighted by the workings of a typewriter.

It was a stunningly beautiful autumn day. After a quiet morning, suddenly my booth was busy. I loaded my Underwood with vintage imitation parchment stationary with a real deckle edge, rescued from Savers thrift store. I put my full attention on the person or people before me, and did my best to listen and capture their words, their essence, and their names. When there were typos I had to forgive myself and ask forgiveness as well, when handing customers their poems. The 20th century machine proved glitchy when the new ribbon I had installed refused to advance, so I was forced to spin the spools by hand. It’s a learning curve to keep a nearly 100 year-old mechanical object with no instruction book working. Thank goodness for r/typewriters and Reddit in general.

I had brought with me a tin of carved erasers I had made 30 years ago when I was trading zines by mail with a couple who published “Eraser Carvers Quarterly” where I learned the technique. The stamps had not seen the light of day in years. I brought them out to “seal” the poems at the end with bright blue ink. Customers had a choice of flower, plant, butterfly or “world” designs. It was a fun way to “finish” my interaction with the piece, recalling seals on Asian brush painting. I then photographed each piece with my phone, and the people I wrote them for.

Resident and poet Sarah Heady was my first customer.

The moment that stood out the most was a boy about 8 who asked for a poem about baseball. Kids would approach quite easily, adults more apprehensively. When I invited him around to my side of the table while I was typing, and he saw how the machine actually worked, his jaw dropped in earnest. I had gotten the experience I wanted most to have, to see a child surprised by the workings of an old machine.

Warm up poems on the wall in my studio at Bethany Arts.

Given the audience, little kids, several kids too little to know how to read, and their parents and grandparents, I felt free to unabashedly rhyme like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a pop song, a Hallmark card, or a Dr. Suess Book. The blue sky and golden leaves in the painterly Hudson Valley light were a running theme throughout, a placeholder when I was unsure what to say but wanted to keep time on the keyboard. I feel, as Bill had mentioned, that the poems themselves are not so great, but the process of making them was.

A family enjoying the fair.

When I felt the poem was complete, I read it silently, stood and asked if I could read the poem out loud, to which people invariably said yes, and it added an additional element of performance to the project, and drew more people to the table. People enjoyed being heard and being read to, and to be given a piece of unique artwork to take home. The love letters from mothers to their babes especially touched me: it would be years before the child could read it. It suddenly achieved, with that unique audience, the element of timelessness that all poetry strives for, whether or not the poem has any artistic merit or not. It was a humbling honor, a lesson on the power of poetry. I wrote about a dozen poems that day and collected $77 in donations for Bethany Arts Community, which isn’t very much but definitely a lucky number.

Ossining is very close to New York City, but it is also a world away, nestled in the Hudson Valley, beside “the river that flows both ways.” To the west is Sing Sing prison, which has been here since 1820’s, predating so much else. To the east is Chappaqua, the wealthy suburb where the Clintons live. The push and pull is in every direction, like the Native American honoring  of the four directions and the four Garuda spirits as well. Bethany stands in the center, a sanctuary where process is embraced over all else.

Putting Poems While You Wait out into the world was a truly life changing experience, about trusting myself, being courageous enough to change direction, trusting others to see my vision and supporting its manifestation, showing up in performance with an unusual old typewriter, and holding space for honest personal interaction with such lovely strangers.

After doing this, I feel like I could do anything.

Photo by Sarah Heady

Karin Falcone Krieger is available to bring Poems While You Wait to public or private events and schools. Contact her at karinfalcone@gmail.com

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