“What pisses you off about him? What’s that one annoying thing he does? When’s the first moment you fell in love with him?” Local writer Henry Goldkamp drinks dark coffee from a pot he keeps warm on the stove, and punctuates his sentences with the natural commas of drags on a cigarette. “Most people brush off these questions initially, but if you pry a little further, it turns out that they do have an answer.” Goldkamp sits with a typewriter on busy sidewalks and at parties, and turns these answers into short poems. He calls it Fresh Poetry. Often, the few-minute conversations it prompts are surprisingly revealing. Old, young, in love, heartbroken, defiant, supportive– they all walk up to his table, and each asks for a different kind of poem. “There is that ability within everyone to be creative in some fashion. They have art in them, but sometimes they just need a prompt.”
His thick beard shades his mouth and makes it sometimes difficult to see when he smiles. It’s the kind of beard you would imagine on a forest-dwelling poet straight out of 19th century literature. But Goldkamp enjoys the unexpected– like the afternoon he set up shop at the St. Louis Galleria. He leveraged that beard to hold off bewildered mall security for a while, telling them he was a model for H&M, then a promoter for a Calvin Klein fragrance, then, finally, a Dillard’s manager, according to the St. Louis Beacon. Meanwhile, he set up his typewriter on a table. When people stopped by, he asked them for a topic and wrote them a poem while they waited, for free. He does this all over the city.
With practice, Goldkamp has gotten better at drawing information out of people. “You try and meet them at that happy medium of, ‘What would I like, and what would they like?’” The energy generated by that push and pull, that search for a space in between people, is what powers Fresh Poetry. It’s raw and in the moment. For it to really work, both people have to let something go, and they have to be vulnerable. One poem on the Fresh Poetry site is called, Her eyes (he let me look into his girlfriend’s eyes!) “I realized early on you can’t simply say, ‘Tell me– tell me about him,’” Goldkamp explains, using the example of a poem about a romantic partner. “‘Well, he’s got blue eyes, he really likes football, and chocolate chip cookies.’ And that poem’s going to suck. So you have to ask the questions about what makes this guy– say it’s somebody’s husband– what makes him a person.”
It doesn’t always work; not every poem is a work of empathy. Sometimes, the people who stop by get defensive, or just want to pick a fight. Sometimes, Goldkamp does. Then he ends up writing poems like Short & sweet on Cherokee street (this guy was an idiot). According to the introduction on the Fresh Poetry website, a man approached him who “was in complete denial about the gentrification theory of this fine street, then told me it was my fault it was happening, b/c as he explained, I was a hipster b/c I have a beard and write poetry. Funny coming from a guy with a beard, cut-off jean shorts and 4 mismatched sweatbands.” Goldkamp flips him the bird by concluding the otherwise innocuous poem “hoping/ this gentrification shit/ soon ends.” Ultimately, Goldkamp is always in control of the finished product.
But in his next project, ‘What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking’, he’s no longer the one behind the typewriter. Instead, he places them on unmanned boxes, splatter-painted and covered with stickers from local haunts, in various locations around the city, and asks whomever stops by to type something– any thought, any length, any topic. Finished submissions are slipped through a slot in the box, and collected en masse by Goldkamp later. He combs through every page submitted, and eventually hopes to compile and publish the best of what he finds into a book. It could have been a complete failure. “People just hit ‘asdfgh’ and for some reason they’ll turn it in,” he admits. Sometimes friends of his stop by. “I’ll see personal notes … mainly like, ‘Hey Henry– suck my balls.’ Something like that.”
He hoped most people would take it seriously. “I think that typewriters work well for this … there’s something about the mask of the Internet– it’s easier. People are more used to it, they know how to do it, so they can lie more easily. The fact that you have to make this effort … and even though it’s a small effort– loading paper, typing it, putting it in a slot, strangely enough it’s just enough … the entries you’re getting are honest.” The process reminds him of Fresh Poetry. “They’re saying these things … and in their mind I feel like it’s something along the lines of, ‘Well, this is just something that’s coming out of my mouth– they don’t have that outside perspective of how damn pretty it is.” All told, although he ballparks he’s received 1000-1500 pages of submissions, he has between 300 and 500 usable entries.
“It’s the first time a city has written a book,” he says. “It just feels like something that should be done … I don’t feel like I was the creator of it.” The words are St. Louis’, but he is the ghostwriter that will turn them into a book. Neither are fully in control. His role is less clear than it was in Fresh Poetry– not the author, but brainstormer, editor. “You could try and joke– oh, well, I’m not really doing anything, they’re writing the book … but there is a lot of work.” Often, he is the handyman. When a typewriter breaks down in the field, most people don’t know how to repair it. “All it takes is one person to want to play with one thing … there’s a lot of house calls that are like, ‘You flip the switch back.’ ‘Oh, it works again.’”
Goldkamp and a friend keep about 70 or 80 typewriters working, by his own estimation, for only 40 active stations. When one is beyond repair and has to be replaced, they have a surprising ally. “That was all done through Craigslist, pretty much, and not even having to purchase all of those, actually. Just explaining briefly the project, and the response was overwhelming… they just gave it to us. Everybody’s got a dusty one sitting in the garage, so what are they going to do with it? This, they can actually contribute to something kind of cool.”
In his own house in Compton Heights, a faint yellow room is stacked with broken-down typewriters. They come in all makes and models, some black and some beige. They’re cumbersome, with rounded corners, and their keys rest on spindly supports that stick out like fish bones, but he handles them lovingly as he demonstrates their quirks. His four roommates put up with this– his version of the Craigslist dusty garage; they’re part of how ‘What the Hell’ began.
The idea was born during one of their house parties. That night, they drifted between each others’ rooms, drank, smoked, talked about art and cracked jokes into “the morning. er– late night, morning.” Goldkamp left out a typewriter on a continuous scroll, hoping it would be like flypaper for some of the things said at night and forgotten in the morning. “During the sort of hungover cleanup we read it. And it was amazing. It was– it was just so great. It was so funny and some of it was really poignant.”
Goldkamp has always believed that in order to write stories, he had to inhabit them. “I’ve led many lives,” he says. “It was early on that it sort of felt like, if I was going to do anything, I needed the experience … that’s initially where it was stemming from, and then it turned into something that was beyond my control for a while.”
As a teenager, he became addicted to heroin. “It was so intense– I mean, like 5 times I can honestly say that I’ve nearly died.” In a Fresh Poem for an “alcoholic teenage girl,” he warns her– “let’s think of the things/ that will soon be missed:/ your keys, your purse,/ maybe some family./ But you don’t agree with this./ … you’ll lose all of this/ just for the sake of the schwaste.” He went to several rehabs, roughly between the ages of 19 and 22, before he could stop.
But he doesn’t speak with regret, exactly. “It’s wonderful to have that in your back pocket and to know what that’s like. It can go both ways, but I appreciate it … it’s experience that you tap into. You know what that is like, to be next to dead and come back. Other people don’t know what that’s like.” He talks about the friends and family who loved him, and who went through his recovery with him– but, ultimately, he returns to the idea of his own artistic growth.
“There was this one group counseling session that I had to do, and the counselor asked the question– did anybody here want to be a heroin addict? And I was the only one that raised my hand.” If he could do it all over again, he’d do the same thing, he says– without hesitating, cutting off the question halfway, as if he’s been asked before. One of the things he likes best about typewriters is that “there’s no delete key.” He speaks about those years now, afterwards, in terms of control. “I got exactly what I needed out of it, and left it,” he says with certainty. He still gets drunk with his housemates; he makes his own rules. “Maybe I got pulled out of that for a reason, and maybe I’m doing that now.”
As to why this story, St. Louis’, matters– he compares the city to a typewriter, like the ones he uses in his projects. “There’s many other things that have passed it up, and it’s way far behind, but it’s still really really beautiful and it still works.” That’s why he thinks it can hold its own against New York or LA, the new iPhone “whatever, 5 SG”– “this is still here, and this is a lot prettier than the shit they’ve got going on, really, because there’s tradition there.”
In the beginning, the plan was to set up typewriters at 15 local businesses, with a definite end date in August. However, one day, when Goldkamp was collecting submissions at the City Museum, he came across one that jarred him– someone had observed that he was setting up all his typewriters in similar locations, and so would only collect the thoughts of a certain demographic– “white hipsters and tourists,” a phrase he quotes from memory. “I didn’t feel it was mean-spirited, I felt like it was actually constructive criticism.” He built more boxes and got more typewriters in working order. He changed the deadline– now, the project would end when all 79 neighborhoods of St. Louis had been represented by a submission that would make it into the final book.
And yet, recently someone posted on the project’s Facebook page asking why county residents weren’t being included. For Goldkamp, these critiques just serve to highlight the fragmentation of St. Louis. “Think of that!” he exclaims. “79 neighborhoods in St. Louis. St. Louis is small. How do we have 79 neighborhoods? It’s crazy. And there’s judgement.” For that reason, when he publishes the final book, he won’t identify submissions by neighborhood. “It’s based more on the human emotion we all feel everyday … from heartbreak to drunken rants to politics to commentary on the city itself.”
He summarizes it simply. “That’s what ‘What the Hell’ is about … that common thread of humanity through all of us.” When you don’t focus on the cigarettes, the coffee, the beard, you notice Goldkamp is fighting part of what it means to be a poet in order to make ‘What the Hell’ work– the impulse towards control, to write the first line. He’s asking the city to speak up. But while he’s not the alpha, he’s still the omega. He’s not writing the first line, but he’ll be the one to decide what appears first in the book ‘What the Hell’ becomes. Just as in Fresh Poetry, it’s a constant push and pull. “That creative ability in everybody … it’s made me happier, I’d say,” he reflects. “I love what I see for the future of St. Louis … it’s just the right size ball of clay.”