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Poetry for every St. Louisan, one stanza at a time

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2012 - The mall is perhaps the last place one would look to find a street poet, so to blend into the Galleria, Henry Goldkamp told security he was an H & M model promoting apparel, then that he was representing Calvin Klein's latest scent, and finally that he was a manager of a Dillards.

The 24-year-old Goldkamp transplanted his rugged urban poetry to the enclosed space of the Galleria in late October as part of a Contemporary Art Museum community outreach program that seeks to get beyond a normal art crowd. He got in a few good hours of poetry before security escorted him out.

Goldkamp's Fresh Poetry, Ink can usually be found by Maryland Plaza in the Central West End, Art Hill in Forest Park, or around various bars in the Grove, so the Galleria environment was a new challenge.

"At heart it is a street interaction, a whim, taking a chance, something spontaneous," said Goldkamp about his city operation.

He deploys his rug, table and typewriter on a sidewalk about three times a week, if he's not too tired after working at his family's heating and cooling business. Goldkamp accepts topics from any passing stranger, writing the poems on his 1957 Smith Corona.

The poems take about 10 minutes, and they don't cost anything, Goldkamp emphasized, though donations are welcome. In addition to money, people have paid him in poems, drinks, backflips and even in an offer of a personal massage (that he declined). When he's finished, he reads what he's written aloud and gives the recipient the poem to keep.

Before the Galleria event, he wrote on Fresh Poetry, Ink's facebook page, "Rogue typewriters are on the loose, and we are not accepting any donations. That ought to [screw] with the mall's head for a while."

The clash of predictability and spontaneity, and consumerism and poetry elicited mixed reactions at the Galleria, according to CAM's education manager, Tuan Nguyen, who selected Goldkamp for this iteration of the museum's outreach program. Goldkamp's presence disrupted the normal routine of the mall, but people were mostly curious, Nguyen said. Some got a little nervous, suspicious that the whole thing was a scam, but others - in particular the store employees - really embraced the poetry and found it refreshing to see something different, he said.

A year and a half of street poetry

Thousands of poems since he started a year and a half ago, Goldkamp still does most of his poetry in the street. Lately though, he has been sought after for paid gigs like the CAM program, a fundraiser at the Pageant for the Shakespeare Festival, a greenhouse benefit in University City, among others events such as weddings. People hear about the street poetry and email him.

The challenge is to maintain the same level of spontaneity. It isn't always easy to keep generating original material at weddings, when he inevitably receives request after request for poems about true love. People waiting in line within a formal setting provide a quite different experience from the flukish curiosities that draw an occasional pedestrian to his odd street spectacle, Goldkamp said.

"It’s your brain that’s being turned into machinery, you have to go so much faster. You want everyone to have a good poem, and you have to work so fast though because you get so backed up."

Sometimes Fresh Poetry, Ink gets so busy that Goldkamp will mail the poems out later. Other times he has friends help out. For the initial three months, he worked with a friend he met in New Orleans, which was helpful because it was scary to put himself out there, having no idea how people would react. The inspiration for Fresh Poetry, Ink came from the Crescent City, when he stumbled into some poets there offering love ballads. He thought to himself, "I could do that."

Goldkamp says the idea is to take art to someone who may not have the time to focus on it in their daily life. Common patrons include a mom walking her kids to the zoo, a jogger, or even someone stumbling home from a bar.

"This sort of brings it to them. Really, the end goal is to brighten up their day a little."

Often when someone is telling him about their daughter or a random, serene moment they experienced, the story itself makes what he's doing worth it, Goldkamp said. And with thousands of rounds of practice, Fresh Poetry, Ink is also a means for him to get better at poetry. People are invariably stunned when Goldkamp tells them he works in construction.

"Lot of people say do what you love. I feel that is so impossible for so many people. ... To be satisfied and to sleep at night, you have to lead a double life."

At first he felt like an imposter unloading all his materials from a pickup truck into a public space, but any neophyte's anxiety has long since waned. Now he feels like a part of the communities he frequents. The thousands of interactions and exchanges are reflected in his personality, he said.

'I can talk to anybody now.'

But it is not always about talking, or even writing. A few months ago, the poetry brought him to East St. Louis via the Lessie Bates Neighborhood House,  prepared to write for participants in the center's Teen-REACH program. But many of the kids had never seen a typewriter, so it became about their exploration, little fingers navigating the raised keys of the old machine for the first time.

A lot of Fresh Poetry, Ink's value is in the surprises it generates, Goldkamp said. The interactions are fleeting; but for every poem he gives out, his typewriter generates a carbon copy that he saves. All the poems he's ever typed for Fresh Poetry, Ink survive in towering stacks that clutter his apartment in the Tower Grove area. Many contain a single underlined fragment of something he wanted to remember or use for his personal work.

The biggest surprise came after Grovefest, when a man asked him for a poem, like any other time. The man sent him an email telling him he'd like to square with him for the poem. Goldkamp responded saying that no payment was necessary: a beer, a sandwich, and some good conversation at Grovefest was more than enough.

A few days later, he found a letter in his mailbox, he said, that he knew was from the same man. He was trembling as he read it.

"There are no stipulations to this. This is for your art ambitions. I hope you will do the same for someone else someday," the letter said. Enclosed was a thousand dollars.

Jason Schwartzman is a Beacon intern.