Strolling around the city, you’ve most likely happened upon musicians, mimes, painters and preachers sharing their talent, broadcasting their message or trying to make a quick buck. Street performing is nothing new, but one St. Louis busker is challenging the norm with a typewriter and a passion for poetry.
Henry Goldkamp has been found posting up under the arch or on the streets of the Grove and the Central West End, pleasing passersby with personalized poetry for the past three years. Sometimes the setup is simple, comprising just the man and his typewriter. Other times, a more elaborate display is fashioned, complete with an oriental rug, an antique floor lamp and a sign that oh-so-fittingly reads “Fresh Poetry.”
More than just a clever description of the commodity he offers, Fresh Poetry, Ink. (pun intended) is the name of Goldkamp’s “kinda-sorta profit” organization. Of course donations are always appreciated, but the poets involved are in it solely for the love of the art. To them, it’s “about sticking a quirk inthe spokes of your ragtag & bobtail day.”
Fresh Poetry instilled the values of public art and collaboration into is work and, these days, Goldkamp is experimenting with a new variation of street verse. With his biggest coordinated piece of art to date, bluntly called “What the hell is St. Louis thinking?” he’s gaining national attention by asking for the sentiments of us fellow river-dwellers.
Goldkamp and Rob Row, his right-hand man, refurbish old typewriters. Sprinkling them across the city, they invite anyone and everyone to rant and rave to their heart’s desire. At each station, you’ll find a typewriter, typing paper and a drop box patiently awaiting your impression of the community, your plans for the future, your arcane secrets or anything else you decide to share.
If lucky, you might wind up reading your own thoughts in a book that is soon to be compiled. As the thoughts come in, Goldkamp sifts through for “useable” material, filing it all into categories like “St. Louis is Drunk,” or “St. Louis is Creative” or “St. Louis is racist .” Unchanged and uncensored, they’ll eventually be published in a book that is written collectively by the city of St. Louis.
The title’s similarity to a prompt found on Facebook along with the use of outdated machinery begs the question, is this steam punk version of Twitter meant to take a stance on modern technology? You might be surprised to learn that Goldkamp isn’t trying to take on a Ralph Waldo Emerson persona, and he’s definitely not anti-computer. He even posts highlights of the project on (real) Twitter (@WTHSTL). “You have to find balance between technology and the real world,” he says, “so you don’t forget how to interact in day-to-day life.” Technology is necessary and useful, but for some people the scales are tilted too far in its favor. The typewriter is a nice reminder to not forget about the more simple things in life. More than that, it is meant to understand the people of this city as a whole.
In the book, the entries will be anonymous, leaving out the neighborhood it was collected from and, of course, what high school the writer attended. This information, along with the ingrained ideas we have of race, religion and the like, make us unintentionally judgmental. Though he loves this city and believes it’s a good place to live, the project is “not meant to put St. Louis on a pedestal; it’s meant to put St. Louis on the ground.” The anonymity will even out the playing field, giving St. Louis a collective identity instead of allegiance to a certain area or subculture. The idea is that with this compilation, you will be able to “have in your hands, a definition of St. Louis.”
“What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking?” has deviated a bit from the artist’s original expectations. It was supposed to end in August and the stations were intended to remain, well…stationary. The deadline has been extended indefinitely, though it is now expected to wrap up in early October. Goldkamp was having doubts about the extent to which the entire city would be represented. After receiving some constructive criticism in the form of an entry, he decided to branch out and become more accessible to more diverse crowds, not just “white hipsters or tourists,” as the City Museum visitor typed.
Now, instead of staying put in the original 32 businesses that housed typing stations the typewriters are floating around homeless shelters, schools and low-budget community centers. Some are being put into people’s homes with the request that they pass it along to a friend once they’ve written their two cents.
Beyond St. Louis City limits, former residents and our county counterparts are welcome to send their thoughts via snail mail. Goldkamp wasn’t sure that this extension was staying true to the spirit of the project, but decided that it’s not cheating because of the time it takes. The effort “makes it real,” he says passionately. It shows that these quasi-outsiders believe in the project as much as he does.
Also making it real is the honesty and depth that many participants include in their scrawling. From one-lined confessions to almost-essays, St. Louisans put their heart and soul into it, surprising Goldkamp with everything he hoped for and more. The most powerful way to inspire someone through art is to make it accessible. “Each and every person in this city has the potential to be an artist,” he claims, and mass collaboration might just be the push needed to understand the possibility of self-expression.
Keep an eye out for typewriters and you can join the rest of St. Louis in this cultural phenomenon. Soon, you’ll be able to participate without leaving SLU’s campus! If you miss out this time around, don’t be discouraged, you can expect more poetry-themed projects in the near future.