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Poetry Pilgrimage…From Alley Poet’s Pen

 

Alley Poet's Pen - Sandee GertzNashville, TN – About two years ago, not long after I made the move to Nashville, a poet friend, and fellow alum of the Wilkes University MA/MFA Creative Writing Program, Kait, turned me on to a “poemer” in New York City.  (Or more specifically: Bill Keys’s unique story and Facebook Page “Poems While You Wait.”)

First thing you have to know about Kait: she’s a free spirit and wears broad, impossibly large hats atop her long brown hair.  She writes poems and plays and wears red lipstick, which if it’s not applied already, will be whipped out of her purse and slicked on just before a photo is taken.

Bill Keys and his 1917 Corona manual.

Bill Keys and his 1917 Corona manual.

She’s the kind of gal who would trade everything in and make the move from a world that “The Office” made famous (Scranton, Pennsylvania) to the heart of a city where she would embark to work in an office of the publishing world and write poems in cafes.

She makes it look easy and endlessly fun on Instagram as she hops from hosting open-mic readings and poetry slams in bars, to outings on Rockaway Beach with friends, and onto theater openings and after-dinner drink clubs.

But back to the poemer and my recent trip to NYC.  I knew I would meet up with Kait at some point as I was there to do a literary reading she was planning to attend at the famed KGB Bar the next day.

Remarkably when I arrived, we found (through text) that we were both on Broome Street and so we just started walking.  As we kept texting and couldn’t locate one another, we finally called each other at the same time.  “I’m under the “Little Italy” sign,” she said.  Of course, so was I.  We looked across the street at each other and laughed.

So, now it’s really back to the poemer (which is really inextricably linked to Kait).  But first; Little Italy.  We ate on the corner at Abruzzo’s at an outside café table as the late afternoon light just began a hint of fading.  We took pictures.  (Her lipstick was perfect.)

We enchanted the neighborhood accordion player who was busking table to table, and who mistook me for Russian at first, but when discovered I was German, played “Edelweiss” for us.  We talked about writing, Wilkes University, and the upcoming 10th Anniversary of the MFA writing program we both loved and graduated from and would be visiting later that month.

Over dessert and coffee, I thanked Kait again for introducing me to Bill Keys and his cool busking story online.   (That’s really what this blog post is about…) You see, for the past two years I was captivated with how Bill takes his 1917 Corona manual typewriter out into the streets every day and bangs out on-the-spot poems for passers-by and anyone interested in seeing words typed out on a page. It’s a simple act, and yet utterly evocative at the same time.

We all see buskers in cities and they are usually musicians or other performers.  There is something very human and fragile about busking—the art of it.  One must be completely willing to sacrifice ego—to put oneself out there on the bare pavement of the street, sometimes sitting on an amp, a stray chair, or a bench—and  to receive whatever the human masses will provide.

Some buskers, like Bill, and some of my dearest friends in Nashville, say there’s no other experience like it: a vulnerable, sometimes scary, adventure which can feel completely isolating and empty at one moment and life-affirming and exulting the next.  Imagine this:  drunk tourists walking by you in Nashville through Printers Alley at 2:00am, or jaded, ultra-in-a-hurry New Yorkers gliding by your spot on the Highline in the afternoon, unmoved by the clicking keys of your typewriter.

I overheard an environmental activist, who was passing out pamphlets in New York on that same trip, ask a man walking by: “Hello, Sir, do you have one moment to help stop global warming today?”  “No, I really don’t,” he replied.

If people have less than a minute for global warming, it’s doubtful, they have time for a “poem while you wait.”

But then there’s the good stuff:  the highs.  The people who stop for a poem and tell their love story, their troubles, or about their friendships, and who are giddy as the sheet is torn from the Corona and they pose for their picture with their little gem.  I’d seen dozens of these on Bill’s social media sites and I was intrigued.

I knew I had to pay a visit to Bill while in New York, and to see him working in his element, rather than on a Facebook page.  Over the past two years of following his journey, I had read of his misadventures (his occasional landing in cities that are averse to poemers), his not finding a place to sleep, his running low on money, and his dangerously close brushes with homelessness.  I was more than thrilled this past year, however, to see that Bill had won the lottery.  A lottery residency, that is.

He applied for one of the creative spaces in Artspace PS109 available at a former school where artists and writers can live and work without worrying about housing. Through several ups and downs that he chronicled on his page, he secured the dream.  He posted a video of himself walking around the small, white loft in wonder—even flushing the loft toilet over and over in amazement.  I sniffled a little watching it.

Bill Keys and Sandee Gertz.

Bill Keys and Sandee Gertz.

So, in spite of a flight to catch, bags to lug around, and not really knowing how to get to the Highline where he posted he would be poeming—but unfortunately not until 2:00 (I needed to leave no later than 3:00), I set out on what I ended up calling my “Poeming Pilgrimage.”  Sparing you most of the practical details, including the bag check in Soho that I’d have to return to, the hour long walk in the heat, the careful cabbie choosing to make it all work….I did it—the entire time walking in engulfing heat and humidity toward an unknown destination he’d sent on text (between 16th and 17th), I regretted only my choice in clothing: a maxi dress.

Even though it was cotton and usually felt light and flowy in the spring, I was sweating profusely under it in the heat wave of Manhattan and kept pulling up the sides along my legs to draw in any stingy breeze.  I made my way up Elizabeth Street out of the village in delight (a beguiling street with everything from old-school butcheries, to Egg Shops, façade after façade of old-world charm, and even a Wine Therapy store, which I passed by with just a touch of longing), to Greenwich Village and Bleecker Street, to points West, and finally, finally, the sight of an elevated world above 16th and 17th Streets.

Once there, it still wasn’t easy to find him.  I saw a portion of the parklet filled with vendors and tables of curiosities.  He was not there.  I asked for information at the Information Booth.  They had not seen him.  I called Bill and he didn’t answer.  I texted “I’m here!” while walking back and forth repeatedly from the 16th to the 19th Street sections of the Highline. Finally, he called back and said he’d just set up.  He was literally 20 feet from me.

I ran to his famous little folding table and draped sign, “Poems About Anyone and Anything.”  He was a largish, bear-hug type of man, who looked only just a little older than his 51 years.  (A touch of well-earned ruggedness, I thought.)  I gladly received one of his big bear hugs and marveled at his heavy, distinctly New York accent.  We laughed.  “I made it!” I shouted without regard to anyone watching the exchange.  He immediately got out his video camera and taped our conversation.  We talked about Kait and he said he thought he knew her.  The people seated next to us on the long bench could see our excitement talking about poetry and the pilgrimage that they offered to take our picture.

“I only have 15 minutes,” I said. And then he got to work.  He had changed from a T-Shirt he wore to walk there into a black dress shirt, and rolled up the sleeves.  I’ve been called a working class poet due to themes in my work and scholarly writings,  and I thought to myself, this is certainly one here.  I tried to be quiet and let him think.  It wasn’t easy.  I signed a book of my own for him.

He talked about how he might not be doing this much longer.  I said I was lucky to catch him there then, as I did that day, in a hurry, but choosing not to let the opportunity slip by.  I said I could miss my flight.  He seemed suddenly very concerned.  “Keep writing,” I said.  Even if I did miss it, I reasoned, in my world, and in the world of Bill Keys, Kait, and other bohemian hearts, poetry trumps practicality.  I was going to play it out.  The pilgrimage was complete.

Note:  To follow Bill Keys, check out his website at: www.poemswhileyouwait.com


About Sandee Gertz

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