Watching a twelve-year-old child working a typewriter is a special kind of magic in our modern era, magic enough all on its own, but when he finishes and says he wrote about his feelings on police brutality and runs off to give it to a friend, that’s not magic, that a game changer.
In September 2017, I was invited by the artists, educators, and environmentalists at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, to come to their StoryHarvest event, a community gathering where artists of all kinds share the story of how food goes from farm to table, of how art can create change, and to grow bonds within local communities. I came to contribute to the latter two, and my friend, poet Kenyatta JP Garcia, agreed to join me that afternoon.
We set up typewriters alongside one owned by event organizer and typewriting poet Meghan Marohn, known locally for her Troy Poem Project at flea markets and libraries. It was a hot one, the sun glaring down and crowds gathering around, the smell of cooking veggies and the warm aroma of pizza with locally grown produce as toppings wafting our way. We stood around, waiting, writing a few quick poems for ourselves, both by hand and on the typewriters, but it was pretty slow going at first. Typewriters can be a little intimidating in this day and age, and it took some convincing to get people to sit down and clack away. We waited, talked to a few people, but the food and music was a bigger draw that afternoon. Discreet but determined, JP and I shared a few beers in what little shade we could find as people paused momentarily to glimpse at the typewriters and politely nod before moving away.
But one or two at a time, and then in eager groups, children and teens began asking to use the machines, and once behind the keyboard, they always said, “What do I write about?”
If ever the creative soul had a question, it would be that—what do I write? Paint? Sing? Sculpt? Design? It’s a different kind of answer for everyone, of course, but we aimed for simpler territory, knowing that "simple" is actually the greatest and most valuable realm one can explore, for if done right and with enough heart and drive and awareness, writing about the simple, personal, observational is the most universal thing poets can do. Write what you see, write what you feel. The teens wrote about home, wrote about the event pinwheeling around them, and then about the police, about why food costs so much, about pollution and the river, about race and friendship and love and what it means to them.
First-time poets can explore the depths of the human experience as well and with as much wonder as Pulitzer and Nobel winners any day of the week, if given the right push and materials. And it isn’t a matter of comparing quality, it’s a matter of doing. If you’re doing, you’re doing, and that’s all. A boxer boxes. A poet writes poems. A farmer grows a pepper or an apple. One young boy that day said he might try to be a writer one day, but he already was a writer. He sat and created, and it’s as simple as that. He was one and would forever be one, if he wanted that.
It reminded me that in my most complicated and overwhelmed moments of running a small lit magazine and working on novels and guest editing and submitting poems and running around to readings and release parties, that all of this is an over-complication of a very simple act—we sit down and we put a little bit of ourselves into a new existence. It doesn’t have to be award-winning work. It doesn’t even have to be published. It just has to be. It has to have been created, by me, by you, by someone who put thought to paper or idea to screen. In our own harvest, we reap what we sow, and if he don’t sow, we reap that as well, what little there is to reap. Our lives are made better for this act.
So if I could give you any advice, I'd say to fill your life, your pantry, your coffers, fill them with your own creativity and creations. Write about anything, the simple and the personal, about what you see and what you feel, and if done well, with heart and awareness, you’ll be writing about us all, for us all. That's the most important thing you can do.
(A version of this essay first appeared in The Blue Mountain Review.)