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Typing Love Letters To St. Louis


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is actually on her way to St. Louis Public Radio. Coming up, we'll take a look at the Arab Spring through street art, paintings and photographs. We'll hear from the curator and a featured artist from a new exhibit at the Arab American National Museum. But first, as I just mentioned, TELL ME MORE is taking the show to St. Louis tomorrow.

So we're curious to hear what it's like to live in the city - the gateway to the Midwest. What are people there thinking about? One 25-year-old poet decided to find out by installing typewriters around the city - in parks, bars, businesses, even people's homes. Henry Goldkamp wanted to encourage passersby to stop and type out their thoughts. The idea began in August. It got so popular that Goldkamp actually opened a P.O. box so people outside of St. Louis could send messages as well. And Henry Goldkamp joins us now as this project is just wrapping up. Henry, welcome.

HENRY GOLDKAMP: Thank you so much for having me on, Celeste. It's truly a pleasure.

HEADLEE: Most people - the common wisdom, at least, is that if you put out an iPad or a really cool, really modern technology, it's going to attract people to come and play with it. Why would you use the most analog of writing tools, the typewriter?

GOLDKAMP: It's very attention-grabbing, I would say, more so than an iPad. You have this sort of foreign object and, you know, not only foreign within the space that it's in, but also the antiquated machine of a typewriter. You know, what is this doing here? It makes people take a closer look. And then, you know, sort of base this off of the instructions on the actual box, the station on which the typewriter sets. And that leads to OK, well, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to have to put forth some sort of a physical effort. So it's definitely within the same vein of the Internet - if it were to be an iPad or something - and you just sort of text your thoughts and tweet it in.

That is, with the mask of anonymity, that stays the same of if you were just to type whatever you wanted to on a typewriter or a computer. But the difference is that physical effort makes all the difference because that leads into an emotional effort because that causes contemplation. You really have to try and put forth your thoughts. What do you want to say? What do you want to contribute to this project? And that, in turn, lends itself to an honest result. And that was the main theme of this that I was going for was sort of a new type of way to define a city - the thoughts of the inhabitants themselves, this free-thinking platform. And that is exactly what happened. I couldn't be more happy with the results.

HEADLEE: So give me an example of a couple comments that people made that really stuck with you.

GOLDKAMP: It was definitely all across the emotional board. You know, some of them were hilarious. There was somebody who wrote front and back on a page. They even went so far as to make columns on the second page, which is a little bit difficult to do with a typewriter, all about the different types of towels.

HEADLEE: Towels?

GOLDKAMP: Towels. Breaking down these towels. I mean, it was just - it was a total absurd piece. Some of the things, I can't even repeat. They got raunchy with the towels. I mean, it was hysterical. I've never seen anything like it. But then, on the other end of things, there were people that were lamenting about not being able to come out of the closet. One of the saddest ones I've read, most recently, was something along the lines of a man saying how he was remarried because his wife earlier - his late wife had died - his first wife, and that every time he touches his most recent wife, he knows that it's cheating.

You know, some really poignant and heartbreaking things, but also a lot of pride in the city and just good things to say about the city. And that was one of the most pleasant things that I found. I thought that there was sort of going to be this category of sort of a mean-spirited, maybe a racist or homophobic nature. And not much of that was drawn upon at all, which was really a great thing.

HEADLEE: And yet, Henry, there was criticism that the project wasn't very diverse, that you weren't getting a group of people or responses that were really representative of the diversity of St. Louis. What's your response to that?

GOLDKAMP: That is true. That was earlier on in the first month of the project. And if there's one thing that I can say that I'm very happy about within this project and with myself is that I tried to adapt as much as possible with constructive criticism. That all happened from a note that I got at City Museum in one of the boxes that said, I don't think that this is representing the real St. Louis. This is only going to get tourists and white hipsters. So I took that to heart. You know, I actually started keeping that in my wallet, and so I adapted. I went out with an article, sort of a press release, about this project will not be over until each one of St. Louis City's 79 individual neighborhoods are represented. And so that is - sort of became the deadline. Rather than a time, it became more of an event.

HEADLEE: And you reached that goal?

GOLDKAMP: Almost. I am nine away. Some of the areas are very industrial, so it's sort of hard to place it in a residence or a businesses.

HEADLEE: But you're close to finishing, and that means you're already thinking about and moving on to your next project called the Poetry Project. What's that one about?

GOLDKAMP: That's right. Well, that's still within the same vein of the public arts. And if there's one thing that I believe that every one of my projects tries to be coupled with, it's the belief of the creative ability is with everyone. It's inside of everyone. Sometimes it needs to be coaxed out, and whether that's by another person's hand or a piece of art, whatever it may be - film, painting, poem, whatever - it can be brought out, and that's what I've been trying to tap into with everything that I do. So this next one, the Poetry Project, we're collecting poems. My partner, Mallory Nezam, who's also a very influential public arts artist here in St. Louis, we are collecting poems throughout the region, the country, wherever, really, by e-mail and post - and it can be originals or favorites - and we're installing them in the largest park in the city, Forest Park.

And we are installing them in trees. And we're inviting people to come pluck them a day in the dead of winter. That's one of the things we're most excited about is sort of activating this dead winter zone that usually happens in a lot of cities. I know St. Louis, for sure, because it gets so cold. And the stipulation being is that you can pluck the poem, you can spend your time with it there, but you can't keep it. You have to mail it in one of our pre-stamped envelopes somewhere, you know, whether it's your boyfriend, or your grandma, or a complete stranger. We will have a phonebook handy just to sort of make for a nice surprise. But that's - so, of course, here you have the metaphor of fruit and scattering seed and sowing and harvesting and all that jazz.

HEADLEE: That's pretty cool. Henry Goldkamp, a poet from St. Louis. He put typewriters around the city so residents could share whatever was on their minds, kind enough to join us from St. Louis Public Radio. Thank you so much, Henry, and good luck with your new project.

GOLDKAMP: Much obliged. Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: If you would like to share your thoughts on what St. Louis means to you, you can just use your traditional computer keyboard. You don't need a typewriter. Send us a tweet. The handle is @TELLMEMORENPR and then use the hash tag #TMMStLouis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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