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What the hell did Henry Goldkamp think St. Louis would be thinking?

Henry Goldkamp can take his typewriter anywhere.
Robert Rohe

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2013 - Henry Goldkamp was smiling as he paced the sidewalk outside of St. Agatha Church with his cell phone pressed to his ear. "Inquiries,” he would later explain.

St. Louis’ "Rogue Poet” has been receiving many of those since launching What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking (WTHSTL) in August.

The inquiries have come from diverse sources ranging from the media —Goldkamp has been the focus of coverage from The Riverfront Times, KSDK, KMOX, Fox 2, and a story by St. Louis Public Radio that was picked up by Morning Edition and Time.com — to invitations to write poetry at weddings as well as speaking engagements such as the upcoming STL Design Week Pecha Kucha event on Sept. 26.

He has even made his film debut this month acting alongside Mad Men’s Jay Ferguson in a film written and directed by family friend, Matt Amato. Goldkamp plays a poet in the film with an affinity for typewriters. He convinced Amato to cast him in the role, "I read the script and I thought 'That should be me!'"

"It's hard to figure out," Goldkamp replied when asked if he was tiring of the constant media coverage on WTHSTL. "I knew I had a good idea but I was not expecting it to get this big. I don’t have PR, I haven’t made any effort to do anything, everything has just come to me." So, no, essentially, not yet.

What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking?

At this point, Goldkamp has crafted well-thought-out answers to the typical questions he receives about his project. WTHSTL collects, for a book, the anonymous thoughts of St. Louis from 40 typewriters dispersed throughout city businesses and private homes. The most common question? "Why typewriters?”

"I used to say that typewriters, more than computers or laptops, are an extension of the person, which is true,” he explained. "But here’s the gem. If you think about it, the typewriter is symbolic of the city: other people might write them off or consider them obsolete, but really it just takes some fixing up and it works just fine.”

In his head Goldkamp organizes the project in "shifts.” The initial shift was to bring to life his idea by building boxes, procuring typewriters, seeking funding and sponsorships, and finding locations to house the project. After receiving well-documented feedback critiquing the racial and socio-economic access to the project, he pledged to place a typewriter in every one of the city’s 79 neighborhoods. That was shift two.

The most recent shift happened last week. Goldkamp received messages from residents of St. Louis County as well as former St. Louis residents who now live elsewhere who felt excluded from the project. "They were saying, ‘What the hell man? That’s not St. Louis!’ And you know, they were right.”

Putting typewriters in the county would not be reasonable, not when the neighborhood pledge was spreading his time and resources thin already. So Goldkamp thought of a next-best solution: opening a Post Office box (P.O. Box #63438, Saint Louis, MO 63163) where people could send their messages.

The P.O. Box will make the project more inclusive while maintaining the integrity of his initial idea. He explained that just as typewriters require an effort to use, "an effort has to be made [to mail messages]. You have to want to be heard.”

'My grandmother's sins'

Goldkamp is intentional about protecting the locations from which WTHSTL messages are collected. To Goldkamp anonymity of location, and any other indicator, is part of what makes his project a “great equalizer.”

Henry Goldkamp with cat sculpture
Credit Robert Rohe
Typing skills are required to participate.

"There are so many artificial divisions and categories that we make in the city,” he explained. "What high school did you go to? What neighborhood do you live in? You’re from West County? You must be rich. You’re from Jefferson County? You must be dumb.

"There is something about [WTHSTL] that levels those walls. We’re going to place [the messages] without boundaries, without walls within the pages of a book.”

So what has St. Louis been thinking?

One message stood out to Goldkamp as poetic: "St. Louis has not forgiven my grandmother’s sins but it worships mine.”

"It’s a snide remark,” he said of the message. "The word ‘sins’ makes you think of Catholicism, and traditions that are deeply rooted. Then there is this devilish, youthful tone that makes me feel like the city is up to something, loosening its grip on certain beliefs."

Some messages have been more sinister. There have been two confessions of adultery about which Goldkamp would only say that, contrary to what one might expect, neither came from a bar. Other messages have exceeded three pages in length, with the writers revealing intimate details of the reality of their lives.

Goldkamp recalled a page-and-a-half-long message that recounted a financial situation that was out of control, reliant on government agencies and social services. "You read that and you think, 'It’s impossible for them to get out of this. That will be there for the rest of their life.’"

That sort of honesty could be happenstance. Some people may be passing by a typewriter with pressing matters on their mind. What is certain to Goldkamp is that the city has a lot to talk about.

Who the hell is Henry Goldkamp?

It is hard to say what is Henry Goldkamp’s most distinguishing feature. It might be his beard — thick and well kept — if his tank top didn’t reveal his many tattoos. It might be his tattoos — three of which pay tribute to Stephen Crane poems — if he weren’t tall and thin.

Goldkamp began receiving media attention in a 2011 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about a different typewriting endeavor, Fresh Poetry, Ink. The ongoing project brings Goldkamp to the sidewalks of the city. There, he speaks with passers by about their lives and then he types out a unique poem on his 1957 Smith Corona typewriter. He keeps a carbon copy of each poem and posts it to the Fresh Poetry, Ink webpage, "I may forget a name but I never forget a poem.”

Fresh Poetry, Ink, along with Goldkamp, was profiled in the Beacon last November in an article that led the Riverfront Times to declare, "St. Louis has a busking poet. This kind of stuff makes our city cool."

Poetry is not exactly in his family line. Goldkamp’s family has owned and run a heating and cooling business, Frank Fischer Design Aire, for more than 100 years. Goldkamp himself is a union sheet metal apprentice. His recent fame from WTHSTL earned him a nickname with the other sheet metal workers, "They call me 'Hollywood.’ There’s no way I’m telling them about the movie!”

Still, Goldkamp doesn’t see the line between construction work and art as so distinct. "Construction and hard work value practicality over aesthetics,” he explained. "But there is artistry behind building a solid staircase or a duct-system that is perfectly efficient.”

What he does see is a need to maintain a certain persona when representing his work. It’s not an image; it’s more of a demeanor. It’s consistency in the manner in which he speaks; being as grateful for coverage from Saint Louis University High School — he’s an alumnus – as for coverage from St. Louis Public Radio.

"It's a sillier part of the art world” he said of the newfound need to manage his own public relations. "I'd rather do what I always do." Write poetry. Bring ideas to fruition. Meaningfully interact with strangers on the street. In essence, be himself.

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