Coffee shop patrons on Frenchmen Street are accustomed to hearing the quiet clicking of computer keys. But at a small intersection at Frenchmen and Royal streets, the clackity-clack of a few metal Underwoods (or maybe Remingtons) rings down the street, stopping tourists struck by sudden nostalgia.
"It's the sound of their youth," says Ben Aleshire, a "poet for hire," who sits in the streets of Faubourg Marigny with about four other poets-on-demand, armed with well-oiled typewriters and stacks of carbon paper, waiting for curious passersby. "They heard their parents on it when they were kids. Really old people used it their whole lives."
The poets for hire, who are carving out enclaves in cities like Brooklyn, N.Y., San Francisco and New Orleans, are using the antiquated machines to type poems on the spot, on any given subject. Mention a word, an event, a scenario, or an image and a poet will ask you a few questions about yourself or the subject, then start hitting the keys. Fifteen minutes later a poem is finished, and you shell out whatever you think it's worth. That usually ranges between $5 and $50 — plus tears, if the end product is especially meaningful.
The wave of street poets is part of a bustling poetry scene in New Orleans — one that isn't exactly new, but also isn't exactly expected, considering the oft-bemoaned demise of the printed page and a book industry averse to publishing verse. A proliferation of master of fine arts programs that's cropped up around the country since the 1980s has produced more poets than there are universities to employ them, not to mention an increasingly wired-in audience that some feel is losing touch with its appreciation for the lingual arts.
"There are three relationships you can have with poetry," local children's poet Brod Bagert says. "One is you can be a poet. One is you can be a poetry lover. Or you can be a scholar.
"In our culture, we forgot about the second one."
I met Jordan Soyka at a small reading at the home of local poet Rodger Kamenetz, where Soyka read a poem constructed from the online confessions of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier convicted of espionage for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. In the confessions, Manning discussed how he leaked 750,000 pages of classified documents as well as his transgender identity. Manning now identifies himself as Chelsea.
Soyka and his band of "poetry whores" run the New Orleans Poetry Brothel, a reading series that uses the frame of a Storyville-like bordello to create more intimate contact — though not in the way most would think — between poet and listener. A poetry whore, after listing his or her influences, leads a patron into a corner or private room and reads an original poem, usually memorized, then accepts a sliding scale of payment — whatever the patron feels the reading was worth. A patron also can reciprocate a reading as payment, before rejoining the party.
And it is a party. The brothel, which takes place at locations around the city — the next one is at The AllWays Lounge Jan. 10 — employs acrobats and burlesque dancers and has an open bar and music, which Megan Burns, a local poet and performer, says is what brings people in the door — more than 100 of them for recent brothel events. "It's very P.T. Barnum and Bailey," she says. "There's a lot of stuff going on. It's entertaining."
The concept of the Poetry Brothel was born at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007 and was appropriated by a group of New York poets who started a regular reading series based on the theme a few years ago. In 2012, Soyka and others started the New Orleans branch, which is fitting, since the whole concept is based on Storyville.
Soyka and his team also run a Thursday night "poetry hotline," inviting anyone to call and listen to a poem over the phone free of charge. A few months ago, they posted unexplained QR codes around the Bywater, which led curious smartphone users to cellphone screens filled with poetry.
Burns, a New Orleans native who reads and performs her work at universities, open mics and local and national reading series, is skeptical of promoting the spectacle of a brothel from a feminist's perspective, though she uses a similar tactic to reach people who otherwise might not be interested in poetry: employing sex, pop culture and other easy-to-like hooks to get them through the door, then letting the art work its magic.
"The reality is that people don't really buy a lot of poetry books," Burns says. "And most of the people that are actually going to read your poetry books are going to be other poets. So one of the reasons I do what I do with the hip-hop stuff is to [appeal to audiences] that wouldn't ordinarily go to poetry readings."
For a recent project, Burns engineered a multimedia poetry performance using the music and imagery of hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj to discuss broader themes of women within the music genre and media. She drew an audience interested in hip-hop and another interested in poetry. Burns also has a project called Dollbaby, in which she uses antique dolls to illustrate ideas in her poems. She's displayed the dolls in art galleries, where readings draw a mix of poetry and art fans.
Burns calls this technique Low Theory. She runs a weekly reading series at BJ's Lounge in Bywater, with live music and some spoken word in addition to standard page poetry.
"You never know what's going to happen," Burns says. "And when magical things happen and someone is in the audience, that can be the gateway drug to poetry. They say, 'Oh my God, this is my space. I understand this.'"
Former Louisiana Poet Laureate Julie Kane says the group of slam poets she supervises at Northwestern State University of Louisiana draws crowds in the hundreds, while readings through the literature department, where she's a professor, attract about 50 people. That's an interesting dynamic in academia, which traditionally has rejected spoken word in favor of more formal poetry.
Kane dismisses that notion. "If you want to generalize about literature departments, yes," she says. "But they're usually behind the curve in contemporary poetry anyhow.
"For many years, when I was an undergraduate, Robert Frost was sort of laughed at in academic circles," Kane says. "He's come back pretty strongly."
Aleshire, publisher of the independent Honey Bee Press in Vermont, points out the ongoing nature of this debate. "On one side you've got academics that are suspicious that the underground is talentless and ignorant," he says. "On the other you've got the underground, which is suspicious that the academics are overpaid and boring."
No one uses performance to draw crowds more deftly than the spoken-word and slam poet community. Originating in Chicago in the 1980s, the liminal art exists between music and speech, reaching out to rap and hip-hop audiences but maintaining its own specific pace and flow.
Team Slam New Orleans, or Team SNO, has won the National Poetry Slam two years in a row, with a group comprised of what local spoken-word poet Gian Smith calls some of the best slam poets in the country.
"The disparity of how good New Orleans spoken word is as a whole versus what it's like in other cities is dynamic," Smith says. He compares the number of talented spoken word poets to the number of talented jazz musicians in the city.
A number of poets from New Orleans have earned both local and national attention, performing on TV One or making other television appearances. Spoken-word poet Justin Lamb, a member of the team that took home the national title, appears in a WDSU commercial, reciting poetry at a bus stop.
Smith is also a member of MelaNated, a local collective of writers of color, which hosts regular readings and events around the city. He found success with a poem, "O Beautiful Storm," about post-Katrina New Orleans, which he read on an episode of Treme and later on National Public Radio.
Smith says spoken-word poets do have to cater to an audience if they expect to draw a crowd. "With spoken word, they want it in small doses," he explains. "They don't want to be drawn into two hours of spoken-word poetry. They don't want to listen to people using it as therapy. From a consumer perspective, I may not be interested in someone who just needs to vent. It's difficult to have a kind of show that a mass audience would want to hear."
While the poets for hire in the streets of the Marigny aren't luring people with popular music or performances, they are selling poetry as a kind of novelty. Even the machines they use to churn out verse are part of the trope — a trap for the nostalgic or easily moved. But where typewriters might be considered a stylish anachronism, the poetry is not.
"It's a mixture of novelty and appreciation of poetry," says Tristan Bennett, a poet for hire who moved from New York four years ago. He started writing poetry on the street after he saw Matt Robinson doing it two years ago, and he set up a stand right next to his inspiration, picking up tips from him along the way.
Bennett spends 15 to 20 minutes per poem and says he has had more positive reactions than negative ones. "One of my proudest moments out there was when I wrote a poem for a woman who was a retired [New Orleans Police Department] officer," he says. "She was working in the '80s and '90s in the Iberville Project area. And I wrote her a poem about New Orleans and how beautiful it was, even the ugly, and she cried. It was my personal best. It matters more, that connection to locals."
"People come up and they're like, 'Oh, this is kooky, let's get a poem for our friend,'" Aleshire explains. "But then if you actually stick a knife in them and you tell them something they didn't expect and you scare them a little bit ... people are so bowled over by the fact they were moved by poetry. They thought poetry was just sunshine and stuff. They're surprised."
Bennett is hesitant to say he's magically turning people into poetry lovers. "It's sort of making poetry more accessible, but so is Hallmark," he says. "Hip-hop is doing a much better job than I am. Poetry is just a word. The idea of making meaning and sound out of words has crossed any discipline." He adds that the scene has changed in the past year.
"Matt and I have held down that little corner," he says. "We've defended it from shitty jewelry sellers and fortune tellers. That is our spot. Which is why it's hard when (other poets) sit down and say, 'Hey, do you mind?' You weren't here for the fortune tellers! You weren't here for the jewelry sellers!"
The poets for hire are trying to make a living from poetry, something Carolyn Hembree, a poet and a professor at the University of New Orleans, is hesitant to recommend to poetry students. "For fun, yes," she says. "However, I'm going to worry about issues like getting health care and being able to feed themselves."
Both Bennett and Aleshire are able to subsist on the money they pick up writing poems, but the more people who know that, Bennett says, the more difficult it will be. The poets for hire often type with carbon paper and keep duplicates. Bennett publishes his poems online at www.freshpoetry.wordpress.com, and makes his own books. Aleshire also prints his own books and sells copies of them at his street stand.
The best customers, Aleshire says, want more than a poem for a birthday or an anniversary. The best ones have a prayer, like getting back together with a lost girlfriend. "They walk away and I'm faced with this very real task of helping someone," he says. "And if I can do it just good enough, maybe I will restore this person's love to them. And I'm not sure that will happen. But I can see the look on their face when they think it might happen."
Both he and Bennett say they can come up with meaningful work in 10 to 15 minutes. "When people stand there and hug me and weep and tell me they're going to frame it, I think the evidence is there," Aleshire says. "That keeps me doing it. It fuels me when people tell me that this is real. When people tell me this is hipster bullshit or whatever, I know that it's not. When humans are moved in that way, it's because it's real."
Hembree first saw the poets for hire just after Hurricane Katrina. "I think it's brilliant," she says. "It's good to have other things, outside of the academy challenging what we're doing, challenging what is established poetry."
Nate Martin, the director of Room 220, a literary salon that operates at Press Street, an arts collective on St. Claude Avenue, says poetry has always been an inaccessible and unapproachable art form, and that's not going to change.
"I think people have this idea that there was this more egalitarian past that poetry had. ... I think poetry has always had a small audience," he says. Of the street poets, Martin says the percentage of good work coming out of those typewriters is probably the same percentage coming out of the rest of the world: very small.
That may be true, but the street poets have much more immediate interactions with their audience, and much more access to their subjects, to help confirm or deny the quality of their work. Bennett, for example, regularly gets feedback from patrons. Last year, he wrote a poem for a couple passing on the street. They've since emailed him to say that a blown-up version of his poem is framed and hangs above their bed.
Kane, the former poet laureate, earned a living as a tarot card reader in Jackson Square during graduate school. She says she's not surprised by poetry's ongoing legacy. "At significant milestones in [people]'s lives there seems to be a need to hear that special language that's charged with meaning and intensity," she says. "It's something that kind of rises to the occasion."
Selected poetic happenings, from slams to eroticism
8 p.m. every other Wednesday
Poets read erotic verse at this bimonthly reading series (the next one is Dec. 4).
The AllWays Lounge
2240 St. Claude Ave., (504) 218-5778
Blood Jet Poetry
8 p.m. Wednesdays
The Blood Jet Poetry Series mixes music, poetry and an open-mic to appeal to a range of interests.
4301 Burgundy St., phone n.a.
Everette C. Maddox Memorial Prose and Poetry Reading
3 p.m. Sundays
Founded in 1979 and named for a poet who frequented the Maple Leaf Bar, this weekly event is the longest-running poetry reading in North America, according to the bar.
Maple Leaf Bar
8316 Oak St., (504) 866-9359
7 p.m. the second Saturday of every month
The reading series features poetry and performances and is sponsored by the poetry journal Tende Rloin.
2256 St. Claude Ave., (504) 947-3735
1718: A New Orleans Reading Series
7 p.m., first Tuesday of every month
The reading series features one published author and two or three student readers and is led by students from Tulane University, Loyola University and the University of New Orleans.
The Columns Hotel
3811 St. Charles Ave., (504) 899-9308
The literary website and event series, operated by local art collective Press Street, hosts readings in the fall and spring.
3718 St. Claude Ave., (504) 298-3161
Slam poetry and spoken word
Events are posted on the website www.whodatpoets.com. The competition to find the newest team members for defending national champion Team SNO will be held next month.
Words and Music
Both local and national literary stars will make their way to New Orleansfor this annual event, organized by the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society and held at the Hotel Monteleone and other French Quarter locations.
5:30 p.m.-7 p.m.
Ogden Book Club, Bellocq's Ophelia
A discussion of U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway's collection of poems based on E.J. Bellocq's photographs of prostitutes in the red-light district of New Orleans.
Ogden Museum of Southern Art
925 Camp St., (504) 539-9650
The New Orleans Poetry Brothel
The AllWays Lounge
2240 St. Claude Ave., (504) 218-5778