a12 – Typewritter busking

By Jon D Rapp

You know about the typewriter saints? They sit on the corner with a typewriter and a sign, “Poetry for sale”. What does this mean? Poetry is changing. It seems that a lot of pedestrians would rather spend $5-$10 on a personal poem rather than buy an entire book of poetry. This is great! It gives you, the troubadour scribe, an opportunity to delve into spontaneity. Channel something unique; it’s part improvisation, part performance art. 

If you’re any good at it, it’s a great way to turn words into bread.

How does one develop this ability? I started out writing anonymous love letters to strangers who inspired me. I would hand it to them and gauge the response. This helped me develop courage and wit. I spent time at open mics delivering improvised stories and poetry. I practiced for many years before I found my first typewriter.

On finding a typewriter:

Test the keys. “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is one way to use all the letters in the alphabet. Make sure you check all the keys, whether they skip or space accidentally, and make sure the margins and the carriage are responsive. Run some paper through your machine.

You’ll likely need to replace the ribbon. This is incredibly simple. I’ve found the best ribbons come from Europe. You want the ink to rub off on your fingers when you touch the ribbon. It should print dark.

Clean your machine. Use a very thin coating of gun oil or sewing machine oil and a wire brush to break through any rust. DO NOT USE WD-40. It will attract dust and gunk. Typewriters want to run dry. It’s important to wipe off any residual oil. If your machine is jammed up from debris, dirt, and too much oil, use mineral oil and wire brushes (I use bore brushes) to clean it out.

On writing and busking:

Talent is not exceptional. Dispose of the mentality of over-night prodigies. Persistence is far more important than skill. Persistence creates skill.

Figure out your costume. Bring a tip jar, a chair, a TV tray, sharpie, signage, tape, scissors. I like to type on all kinds of stuff. Money, paper bags, etc. Experiment with your medium! 

Find a busy intersection where musicians like to busk. Ask if they don’t mind you setting up nearby. I consider the typewriter to be a percussion instrument. Who knows, you may be invited to jam with the musicians! Typewriter saints and the musical buskers are often welcome companions.

Relax. Be flexible. Some people may want a therapy session. They might want help writing a difficult letter to a relative. Keep a list handy, for each commissioned poem. Take pictures of them for your portfolio, if you want. Try not to spend more than 10 minutes on each poem if you have a long line.

Be patient. Some days you’ll make some money, other days you’re just writing letters to yourself. Keep busy typing. The sound of typing will attract interest. Have fun! It’s never about the money but we all gotta eat. 

For more typewriter busking inspiration:

IG @rogueXwriters