This is a Q&A with Benjamin Aleshire, done by Nyles Pierrelouis.
BENJAMIN ALESHIRE is an artist based in New Orleans, LA. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Iowa Review, Barrow Street, and many others. He makes his living as a poet for hire in the French Quarter, writing poems for strangers on a manual typewriter. Ben also runs a small publishing cooperative called Honeybee Press, which uses letterpress printing, hand papermaking, and traditional bookbinding. He was awarded a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council, as well as the Chighizola Poetry Prize from the University of New Orleans. Ben serves as assistant poetry editor for the Green Mountains Review. In 2016 he was a finalist for the Iowa Review Award in Poetry, and attended the Breadloaf Writers Conference on scholarship. Look for a new edition of his artist-book, Currency, in 2017.
How did you decide you wanted to go out and perform on the street?
I’ve been writing poems for strangers in the street for over five years now, but I’ve been performing in the street (busking) since I was a teenager, when I toured with a choral group and we sang in the street to pick up a little extra cash in between gigs at churches.
Then, throughout my early/mid-twenties I toured with various bands as a trumpet player, and busking often earned us more money than playing in bars or clubs. There’s a magic inherent in putting your art in front of strangers; it puts you into contact with entirely different strata of society. By that I mean, when I toured with a weirdo Americana band, most of our friends and contacts were other musicians or artists, who were just as broke and unemployed as us— so the people actually coming to our shows often wouldn’t have $15 to spare to buy our album. But in the street, you’re reaching a much wider audience: there are lawyers and bankers with more money than they know what to do with, and there are working class folks who love art and humanity enough to support you with whatever they can spare. (Working class people are often much more generous, actually, in my opinion.)
Then, on top of that, there are TV crews in the street, looking for something to film. There are documentary photographers who are looking for someone to feature in their next magazine article. There are the owners and booking agents of larger clubs who will put their business cards into your hat as you pass it around, and tell you to get in touch. And there are random people who will ply you with beer and food if you jam at their pool party, late-night after your gig is over. Performing in the street, giving your art to the people for free, is where it’s at.
Was it a spur of the moment deal, or did you decide that you wanted to do that from an early age?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was 17, and I grew up with typewriters; my father was a bit of a hoarder and he had about 12 of them all around the house. Even though I used typewriters for writing poems, it wasn’t until I met Robert McKay that it ever occurred to me to take one into the street. Even after I met him and saw him doing it, at first I refused to believe that I was capable of writing spontaneously. My process back then was much more typical: to sweat bullets over interminable drafts, that idea that poems are “never finished, only abandoned” (Paul Valéry). Which is still the best way to write poetry in general, and that’s how I write when I’m not in public; I see the street typewriter poems as more of an experimental form. There’s a mystical aspect to it, since the poem operates within the confines of so many restraints: time, of course, because if you take longer than 10 minutes to write the poem, your customers will wander off and not come back. And also, you must give them something that satisfies them, or they won’t pay you—or they won’t pay you very much. These stakes are really raised if you rely on this money to pay your rent, if it’s not just a kooky project, but a necessity and a way of life.
Do you have a specific process when you are writing a poem for someone?
Yes—often the topic that someone gives me to write about will become the title. But that’s a little obvious, or easy, or overly-direct. Circuitousness is sexy in poetry, some sort of movement that will surprise you (By ‘you’ I mean both me and you). So, ideally, I take the topic and alter it to a certain extent, so when they read the title, they immediately encounter something that is both familiar and unexpected. This usually intrigues them, and gives the poem a momentum that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
For example, if I was set up by the seashore, and someone looked out over the water at the pretty sailboats and gulls and asked for a poem about the bay, I might title the poem, ‘Guantanamo Bay’. It fulfills their request, but it also takes the poem in an entirely different direction (and frankly, a much more interesting direction. Does the world need another pastoral ode to the natural world? Absolutely not.) You might think that people would be startled or irritated that I shifted their topic from nature and beauty to war and torture, but I’ve learned that strangers are often both startled and full of gratitude that I took the poem in that direction. It means that I think they’re too smart for a nature poem, that they deserve more, that I respect them enough to write something difficult for them.
Honestly, most people have very low expectations, as far as quality goes, for a random guy in the street with a typewriter. Maybe they assume I’m just a vacuous hipster, maybe they think I’m a hustler, or maybe they think I’m a failure of some sort, a quasi-
beggar. They don’t always think of me initially as an artist, at all. Most of the poetry they’ve read, they hate or don’t understand. So, when I turn their seashore poem into a poem about the war crimes continuing to be perpetrated by the government whose taxes they pay every April, they (almost always) are flooded with relief. People want and need to talk about these things. All the people in the street? They’re the ones who are paying for the force-feeding tubes and the waterboards, even though they neither want nor condone those things morally.
That’s a massive cognitive dissonance that Americans walk around with all day on their shoulders, and they don’t have a way to communicate how they feel about it. Poetry can do that. Poetry can say the things they’ve always wanted to say.
Would you compare your profession of writing poems for people on the spot to freestyle rapping?
In a certain way, yes, and in many other ways, no. I think that freestyle rapping is the absolute pinnacle of poetry: it’s infinitely more complex and intricate than what I do. Its possibilities are wider, grander, and involve huger measures of wit, intelligence, wordplay, and most importantly, rhythm. If Shakespeare could hear kids freestyling in New Orleans or Atlanta or wherever, his head would explode. What Shakespeare does with the poetic line is often complex—playing with the beats, alternating between pentameter and tetrameter, blank verse and rhyme, creating new words and jeu-de-mot, etc…but it’s nothing compared with the endlessly inventive and re-inventive rhythmic subdividing of hip hop. Then, the fact that freestyling is happening in real time just blows my mind. I am endlessly humbled by it. On top of everything, it’s often a dialogue, its collaboration, and it makes people dance and scream in a way that my poetry never will!
I think the only way the typewriter poems and freestyling are similar is the improvisatory nature of it…but even there, I rarely work through actual ‘stream of consciousness’—it’s more calculated than that. Usually I’ll just sit there and think for 7 minutes, form the poem’s general direction in my mind, and then bang it all out in the 3 minutes that remains. But freestyling happens at the speed of human thought, the speed of human speech, and it’s totally genius. Someone must have written a book, or a thesis or something.
Do you favor a specific type of poem to write, like limericks, or haikus?
The typewriter poems I do are typically between 10-15 lines. Almost always I use a basic structure of small indentations every other line, just to give the visual appearance of cohesiveness. Often they’re very close to sonnet-length, and function similarly: an initial thought or premise or conceit which is laid out in 3 or 4 lines, followed by 3 or 4 lines enlarging on that idea, followed by a ‘turn’—where the premise or conceit is then upended in some surprising way, or the stakes are raised, as they say in the theatre. The last 2 or 3 lines are when I try to ‘twist the knife’. The ending of a poem is the most important.
Would you encourage other people to do what you do? If so, would you consider starting a school of sorts?
No, I wouldn’t. I think this particular experimental art form is already in grave danger. Perhaps because of Instagram, or just the internet in general, or maybe just its own momentum, there has been an explosion of typewriter “poets” in the last year or so. Many of them had never written a word in their lives, and are literally just hustling money, or trying to be trendy. Or, they were failed musicians who got the bright idea to try poetry instead— there are several of those in New Orleans now. From what I can tell, they write in an identical, associative style, a mix of cliché and gibberish.
For at least several decades, there have been poets with typewriters in the streets of New Orleans, but when I moved here in 2013 there were only 2 people doing it with any regularity, and they only sat on Frenchmen Street, at night. I didn’t much care for their attitudes (or their poetry) and I also didn’t like how loud and drunk and distracted the nighttime scene is, and how claustrophobic it can be on that narrow sidewalk.
So I started going to Royal Street, in the Quarter, behind the cathedral where the streets are closed to traffic for most of the day. There are painters hanging their art on the gates, there are bands playing, there are clowns and human statues and puppeteers, and kids tap dancing with bottlecaps. It’s a great scene where anything can happen, and I loved it immediately.
Now I can’t work behind the cathedral anymore, because there’s a row of 5 or 6 poets with typewriters there all day, everyday. There are over 20 of them, total, so on any given day a minimum of 3 will come out. Some of them are nice; some of them are extremely rude, and have no concept of the basic respect shown to fellow buskers. Some of them are falling over drunk; some of them are falling asleep. Some of them write deplorably bad poems about beignets: tourist schlock. There are people commuting from Florida every week to write poems on Royal Street. On top of that, there are poets from all around the country and the world coming to New Orleans.
Part of the magic of this experimental form of art is that it’s not everywhere, it’s not something you encounter everyday. There’s serendipity involved in the catharsis taking place between two strangers, when they just happen upon a poet in the street with an obsolete machine—it’s an unplanned occurrence that has the potential to pierce through the vellum of everyday reality. It’s surreal.
Or at least, it was.
At the AWP conference this year, which is a massive gathering of writers, publishers, and editors, while exploring the enormous bookfair I saw the “Poetry Fox”—a guy wearing a mascot costume, just like the multiplicity of Sponge Bob Squarepants and Spidermen in Times Square. He was writing poems on a typewriter. For me, it was a frightening omen— someone had taken this experimental art form and reduced it to pure novelty. To a hashtag.
Are his poems any good? Maybe—it doesn’t even matter to the people ordering poems from him, because he’s a clown.
Have you noticed that certain kinds of people ask for certain kinds of poems, or is there no clear pattern?
That’s an interesting question—I think love is the great equalizer. Love is one of the only things that the rich can’t buy. No matter how comfortable they’re life is, they still suffer the same romantic pain as anyone else.
Why did you choose to write poems rather than the plethora of other literature styles?
Well, I do write in other genres—nonfiction and playwriting, and reviews of art exhibitions and books here and there. But I love poems for their surreal power to move the human heart, for their license to say what cannot be said in polite conversation, for their truth-telling and dreamwork. At the same time, poems are also so insignificant, so often pretentious or failing, so fragile and powerless. I like to think of poetry as the canary in the coal mine, to mis-quote Kurt Vonnegut. The birds that miners would take into the depths of the mine shaft. If the bird died, it meant there wasn’t enough oxygen, or poison vapors were leaking into the air. They sing about beauty, but they also have a purpose—to warn people about the folly of destroying beauty.
Having said all this, I’m also unsatisfied by the limitations of poetry, not so much as an art form, but audience-wise. Even brilliant, successful poets rarely sell 1000 copies of their book, and they sell them almost exclusively to other poets. I’m interested in exploring other ways of reaching a wider and larger audience. These days, I’ve started working on a non- fiction book about the lifestyle of trying to live this way—it’s called Poet for Hire, and takes place in Paris, Havana, New Orleans, San Francisco, NYC, London, Madrid. It’s a narrative that’s illustrated with scans of the poems I wrote—and so the poems become a point of departure for mediations on politics, love, sex, violence, race, class.
Do you think your upbringing affected your decision to become a poet-for-hire?
Absolutely. I grew up in a lower-middle class family. No one in my family has a degree, and neither do I (yet!). But my parents were very supportive; they were of the counter-cultural movements in the 50s through the 70s, (yes, my father had me at 56) so making art was something they dug and encouraged. I barely graduated high school because I was failing English—I flirted with my teacher and she changed my grade to a D-minus. Not going the academic route makes me an unusual bird in the poetry landscape—sometimes I wonder if it’s helping me, or holding me back, but at least it gives me a little bit of a chip on my shoulder that can fuel my work.
I was also lucky to grow up in rural Vermont—I went to public school, and the teachers were excellent and the arts programs were really strong. At my high school, it was cool to be in theatre, which is something that I’ve heard is rare…like, the theatre kids were the ones who threw the dope parties that everyone wanted to be invited to, the cow-pasture bonfire parties with the good weed where everybody went skinny dipping and ran away naked from the cops, which is how we get down in Vermont.
This was an interview with Benjamin Aleshire conducted by Nyles Pierrelouis, a college freshman from New Orleans.