Arts & Culture
5:00 am
Tue August 20, 2013

With 37 Typewriters Around Town, Poet Henry Goldkamp Asks 'What The Hell Is St. Louis Thinking?'

Erin Williams reports on 'What The Hell Is St. Louis Thinking?'

  Henry Goldkamp has established himself as a bit of a writing fixture in the arts world of St. Louis. He spends his weekdays working in his family’s construction business, but on the weekends you can find him around town at his mobile office, banging out short vignettes of happiness, fear, love and passion on his manual typewriter as sole proprietor of Fresh Poetry, Ink.

A St. Louis native, Goldkamp says he’s been writing all his life. He got the idea for his busking style of poetry from the performers in the French Quarter of New Orleans, while studying at Tulane University.

“They had a street stand performance stand set up there, and it was sort of you gave them a little bit to go on, like a word or a story, and they would write you a short, erotic story, and they did it on a typewriter,” he said. “I just started doing it with poetry with quick, off-the-cuff poems that I’d give to people as I’m set up on the street. Little office, rug, lamp, desk and that’s it.”

For a few dollars – or more, if one is so inclined – visitors share what’s on their mind and Goldkamp will author a poem on the spot. He’s commissioned poems for friends and businessmen, and even does the occasional wedding. He says in the three years he’s been doing this, no topic has fazed him-yet.

“People can seem very distant and closed off here. A lot of people – you think – keep to themselves, but at least through this medium…people tell me things that I can’t even believe. I’ve learned so much about people that I’ve only known for five minutes and will only know for five minutes. They’ve got their hearts on their sleeve, and that’s a great things. It’s an emotional town.”

But Goldkamp  says that some ideas deserve more than a five minute interaction, and from that came the idea for his interactive project ‘What The Hell Is St. Louis Thinking?’ Goldkamp has secured and placed nearly 40 typewriters and paper at stores, bars, parks – even in people’s homes – and passers-by are encouraged to stop and type out however they feel about their city, and its effects in their lives. Each box is monitored, and comes with info for typists.

“I believe deep down that everybody has poetry within them, and I’m hoping to be able to read through these and pluck the beautiful moments on the page that they think is just their thought,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”

The idea is intriguing, for sure – but will it take?

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Thursday evenings at the bicycle-themed watering hole the HandleBar are reserved for one thing: Trivia Night. Gangs of friends pile in, grab a beer and a score sheet, and get to work on guessing various facts about baseball, presidents, and the periodic table correctly. 

Amidst beers and games on a recent Thursday evening at the HandleBar, not many notice the typewriter, sandwiched between two benches.
Credit Erin Willams / St. Louis Public Radio

Andrew Rogers, who came by for a drink and pizza, thinks that having project headquartered in the bar is great – but as the typewriter is currently tucked away in the corner, it deserves a little more signage:

“These are the kind of people that would go for that, for sure. But if they don’t know what that is and there’s nothing really to draw them in and engage with, then they’re not going to,” he says. “These are hipsters – they have the attention span of a flea.”

And though she also thinks that it’s a good idea, 25-year-old Kimberly Kabak said that she came to the bar to socialize, not to type. And if she did type, she wouldn’t be too keen to talk about herself.

“I would probably make it more of a message, like ‘Hey HandleBar, you’re awesome,’ or ‘We have so much fun here, this place is cool.’ But not, ‘Hey, my name is Kimberly, and I live in St. Louis and here’s my situation and how I ended up here. I don’t want to spend time in a social gathering like a bar to do that.”

The mood changes from rowdy to relaxed in the calm and kitschy neighborhood known as the Central West End. Saturday afternoons are meant for family strolling, window shopping and drinks alfresco. Placed in front of clothing store 10Denza, there’s been more than one passer-by stop and stare at the typewriter.

Eric Murphy struggles to type out his thought. "I'm in my early thirties," he argues. "I have no idea how to use a typewriter."
Credit Erin WIlliams

Some, like Eric Murphy, are baffled.

“I think it’s a parody on technology. I’m in my early thirties – I have no idea how to use a typewriter,” he confessed.

But others, like professor and fellow writer Christiana Chekoudjian, studied the box and knew just what to do.

“I think it’s really cool, because I really think that people are always thinking random thoughts throughout the day, and so I think it’s cool to see what other people are thinking, and also to express yourself. I just wrote a line from one of my poems that says, ‘The sunlight shines and warms my soul.’”

Goldkamp is planning to leave the typewriter in place through September, all the while tweeting the highlights and collecting and compiling their notes. He will then edit and send it off to a publishing contact in New York. He’s optimistic about what his city has to say.

“St. Louis is just a beautiful city, and the people in it are just as beautiful as the landscape and the facades of the buildings. This is about as honest as a definition of the city as you can get. What better defines a city than the inhabitants that live there?”

For a list of locations and to read snippets from the project, follow @WTHSTL on Twitter.

Follow Erin Williams on Twitter: @STLPR_Erin