Ben Aleshire makes his living as a travelling poet, writing poems on his typewriter for whatever his readers can spare as a donation, a venture which has seen him travel all over Europe and America, and with his most recent tour taking in a performance at London’s legendary venue The Troubadour, and a stay at Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. When he is not on tour, he does the same in the city of New Orleans, where he lives between increasingly frequent bouts of nomadism.
His work has been featured in publications such as The Boston Review, El Mundo (Spain) and The Times (UK), who recently broke with 233 years of history by publishing one of his poems as a lead article. He is Assistant Editor for the Green Mountains Review, is a co-founder of the letterpress publishing collective Honeybee Press, and we were very excited to get to speak to him for The London Magazine.
A question most writers are asked is “What led you to writing?”, and while I am also interested in hearing about that – I have a sneaking suspicion that you have something of a multi-discipline background – I must ask how you found your form as a travelling troubadour poet? (note: perhaps here you could describe the process a little for a reader who knows nothing about you
I sit in the street with a small folding table and chair and a sign that says POET FOR HIRE—then I smoke a cigarette and wait for some stranger to approach me with a poetic desire they need fulfilled. Maybe their girlfriend broke up with them, and they want a poem that will be an apologia to make them reconsider. Maybe they were raped last night, and want me to tell them why. Maybe it’s their friend’s birthday, and her favourite word is petrichor, the smell of the earth after it rains. Whatever it is, I write a poem about that subject, and then they come back in 10 minutes or so, and read it, and pay me whatever they think it’s worth. In that sense, it’s a quasi-Marxist system—rich bankers have given me hundred pound notes, and homeless people give me nothing but good karma, which I desperately need—it all works out in the end.
How did I start doing this? My story is that I’ve been writing poetry on a typewriter since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t till about 7 years ago, when I met Robert McKay, that I started taking it into the street to write poems for strangers and make my living that way. Robert is my miglior fabbro, the better craftsman—the original being Arnaut Daniel, the rakish troubadour who Dante immortalizes in the Divine Comedy, which is where T.S. Eliot gets his dedication for Pound, etc. A purer heart than I, Robert wasn’t trying to make money from it—he saw it as just another linguistic experiment, like Burrough’s cut-ups or Dadaist games, etc. Maybe because I had already been making part of my living from busking as a musician, I put 2 and 2 together very quickly and got a booth at the Farmers’ Market in Burlington, Vermont, where I was based at the time. So there’d be stalls of vegetables, cheese, flowers, and then poetry. People loved it—the newspaper did a feature on me, I published a book of the poems, Currency, in conjunction with an art residency, quit my weird night-watchman job, re-potted myself to New Orleans, and started touring.
Where did Robert get the idea? Probably from someone in the Bay Area scene like Zach Houston, or someone in New Orleans, which were the epicenters at the time. There was a guy in the 80’s in NYC who published a novel about working this way, Dan Hurley—but a literary scholar in New Orleans tells me she saw people doing it down here even before that. Ultimately I’m not sure if there’s a way to trace it back to—especially since putting a typewriter in the street has been a profession ever since typewriters were invented. I’ve seen people in Guatemala who are still doing it, typing up official documents and letters.
I have come across quite a few ‘Poet for Hire’ style writers on the street with typewriters in various cities across Europe, but a lot of them sadly aren’t very good. How do you keep up your inspiration and discipline? And do you ever feel a rivalry with other writers who try to do a similar thing?
Yes, I agree—the charlatans are multiplying like flies, probably due to the hyper-fast mimesis of the internet, particularly Instagram. There are a few noble souls out there writing excellent poems (Tania Panés and Gennarose Nethercott are my favorites) but most are trafficking a cringingly hideous stew of cliché and gibberish. In New Orleans there are so many cheap xeroxes churning out treacly pet poetry for tourists that it’s become difficult to find a place to literally sit down, and some of them are real pricks—I actually had to smash someone’s typewriter once.
It’s gotten so bad in New Orleans that by now, I’m already moving on—my novel is what I’m focusing on. The phenomenon of all these douchenozzles clogging the streets with their doggerel is actually fascinating as far as the research I’m doing on the troubadours is concerned—because the original troubadours faced a similar problem. Guiraut Riquier, the so-called “Last Troubadour”, wrote these fantastic letters to courts, lamenting their inability to distinguish any longer between troubadours (poets fiercely dedicated to their craft) and jongleurs (jugglers, literally—but a catch-all term for entertainers, who watered down the tradition and ultimately destroyed it).
Most contemporary jongleurs just want beer-money, but on the other end of the spectrum, there are equally ill-intentioned people with grander vision, trying to commercialize typewriter-poetry, mostly for wealthy weddings or corporate events. I do take private gigs now and then, but ultimately, I think it’s a slippery slope that changes the fundamental structure of the art-form, from something that’s radically egalitarian, to something that’s a privilege of the very rich. J’accuse! Je refuse. Simultaneously, the commercial business thing is about transforming one’s poet-self to conform to a standard bourgeoise fantasy—i.e. if you do twelve corporate gigs a month, you can afford a nicer apartment in a nicer part of a town, a nicer car in order to drive to more gigs, etc—and suddenly the idea of writing poems for strangers mystically in the street becomes a threat to your living situation, you know? I’d rather be going bald from constant financial panic, but be writing the poems I want to write, which is pretty much where I’m at right now.
You travel all across the world with your work, often staying with people you barely know. What are some of the memorable and strangest moments from the last few years?
Living at Shakespeare and Company in Paris fits both strange and memorable—and to that I would add, magical—which puts me in danger of being considered corny, but hear me out. I think there’s actual magic ingrained in the 500-year-old bones of the building, in the shards of the tombstones stolen from the Pere Lachaise cemetery which the floors are paved with. So much of my life in the past couple years stems from the summer of 2016, when I stayed at the bookstore for several months as a Tumbleweed—that is, as one of the transient writers who roost among the stacks of books in exchange for working a few hours a day, and slaking wine and reading books at the same table where Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch. Writing poems on a typewriter in front of the shop everyday rejuvenated my poetry practice, because so many of the passersby there are such fascinating pilgrims, of a sort, paying homage to the literary history of the building, which spans from the Lost Generation through the Beats to today’s living history of visiting writers like Zadie Smith. Fascinating pilgrims usually come bearing fascinating poetic desires, which is key to my emotional homeostasis—writing the same anniversary poems for the same bourgeois tourists in every city I come to makes me want to bash my brains in.
Also, the people I met in Paris have had an inordinate effect on my life—I met Terry Craven there, a former bookseller who started a new bookshop in Madrid, Desperate Literature, where I stayed the following year—that’s where I met a journalist who featured me in El Mundo, and later on Spanish television as well. When the Prostíbulo Poético (PoetryBrothel) of Barcelona was in town and one of their poets fell ill before the show, naturally it was Desperate Literature who they called looking for a replacement poet—that’s why I was stripped down and covered in silks and amulets and a lace choker and became El Trovador, (the Troubadour), my stage nom-de-guerre—I’m already making plans to go back to Barcelona to perform with them again—who knows?
It just goes on and on. The poem I wrote for the owner, Sylvia Whitman, was recently published in the Iowa Review, one of the more prestigious American literary magazines, which is opening doors for me, especially as someone without an academic background (I still don’t have a degree, and no one in my family does either). The poem I wrote for one of the booksellers there, Rose, is the one the Times chose to break with 233 years of history and publish as a lead article for the first time. Which, I assume, is partly why I’m being asked for this very interview, and also the reason why I was invited to come back to the U.K. next summer to perform at a festival in Wales. And half the reason the Times journalist contacted me in the first place is because she, too, lived as a Tumbleweed in that literal monastery of books. I met Scarlett Sabet there, who I read with at the Troubadour itself, the legendary venue in Earl’s Court, where I’m hoping to return next summer as a poet-in-residence—the ripples just keep moving outwards, and that’s what I mean when I say the place is magic.
And what about the more difficult moments? I imagine it isn’t always glamorous.
Difficult moments—my recent U.K. tour was certainly the most difficult so far, mostly for financial reasons that are no one’s fault but my own. I had bought a ’93 Capri convertible in Slidell for $1600 and a case of beer (a case of beer being a standard currency in Louisiana), to tour up the East coast of the U.S. in, while filming a documentary with a mysterious Chilean filmmaker named Jordi Goya, another Shakespeare & Co connection (don’t google him, by the way, he’s an internet ghost). By the time we got to New York the thing was smoking, and I had to spend all the money I had to repair it. I make money in the street as I go along, of course, but usually I have more than a single-digit bank account while I do it. By the time I got to Manchester, I was flat broke. I had some contacts there but none of them could find me a place to stay, and I almost ended up sleeping in the street. I was working in Piccadilly Gardens among all the zombie Spice addicts and every day I’d make about 20 quid, just enough to eat a 6” Sub of the Day at Subway, and a bed in an unsavoury but very cheap hostel nearby.
The life I lead is romantic, for sure—but there’s always this other side to the coin. Mainly the constant fear of the fear of being asked to leave where you’re staying. Hitch-hiking through the Lake District in a neon-pink woman’s blazer is romantic, but there was also the time I got dropped off outside Wigton where there was nowhere for anyone to pull over, so I had to walk for miles carrying my table and chair and backpack of filthy clothes and typewriter, my books getting heavier and heavier, a literal box of my own vanity, as cars scream by, their drivers hurling curses at me.
Do you spend much time writing when not on the street with your typewriter? If so, how does the writing differ? Are you working on any non-poetic writings for example?
Yes—I’m 70,000 words into an autobiographical novel, ‘Poet for Hire: Kismet of a 21st Century Troubadour’. That’s my main project, especially now that I’m home from tour. Writing prose is so difficult—such different muscles—and so much more demanding than poetry. A novel is physically enormous, but mostly what I mean is that poets aren’t burdened (sadly, I so often think!) by the obligation to make any sense. At all. Look at Ashbery! The most universally-lauded poet ever, and none of it makes one goddamn lick of sense.
I’ve also written plays occasionally, although I haven’t had one produced since I won a playwriting contest years ago, and haven’t really tried—I think it’s one of those things where the theatre world is so small, the only way I can get something produced is if I happen to meet the right people at the right time, or if the other aspects of my career go well enough that they start attracting interest (bites bottom lip, swirls whiskey provocatively).
When not on tour, you normally live and work in New Orleans. Can you tell me about how you first came to New Orleans, and what inspires you about the city?
I first came to New Orleans in 2007 for a gig at the Dragon’s Den, while touring with my old band. It took me till Twelfth Night, 2013, to come back—I was living in the dressing room of a puppet theater, and had to push my mattress up against the wall whenever they had shows. My only plan was to write, but then all these bizarre things started happening to me—I was suddenly asked to write the score for a show at the Marigny Opera House, a venue created in an old cathedral that still had vines growing on the inside—a neo-Beatnik guy hired me to digitally archive a bunch of never-before-seen poems and letters by Kerouac, Ginsberg, DiPrima, Corso—he had found a treasure trove of submissions to an early 1950’s magazine in New Orleans that went bust before all their submitters got famous. And I fell in love a few times, joined a hallucinatory marching band, bartended at a high-volume club—the city just sucked me right in. I didn’t have any plans to stay, but did—I went back north for a book tour that summer, bought a ’83 jalopy that ran off fry-grease just like my band’s bus, stuffed my few possessions inside, and drove back down.
There’s a lot more I could say, but it’s all in the book I’m working on—
Can you tell me about the Honeybee Press?
Honeybee Press is a traditional book arts cooperative based in Burlington, VT—that is, it’s a group of poets who got together to use letterpress, block printing, papermaking and hand-binding, both to keep those traditional methods alive and also to make small press publishing financially viable. By that I mean, if you do all the printing yourself, while drinking beer and listening to Bonnie Raitt records in a moldy art studio, then you can price the books low enough so that people will actually buy them. We also hosted some raucous readings and ran a magazine, The Salon. A few of our titles got excellent reviews, and their authors have gone on to do some really fascinating stuff—Gennarose Nethercott, another typewriter poet from Vermont, recently won the National Poetry Series, one of the bigger prizes in the U.S.—Estefania Puerta went to Yale for graduate school and is making some fascinating visual art as well as writing—Julia Shipley won a book prize, and I think Nicholas Spengler’s non-fiction book on Melville will be published soon. Robert McKay is at work on a Seattle-noir novel when he’s not fighting Capitalism.
These days the press is in a bit of a holding pattern—our Vandercook (that’s the giant machine the covers are printed on) had to be relocated, and I spend less time in VT than I’d like to. I still dream of expanding the press to New Orleans, and establishing a north-south poetic trade-route, but it will require slightly more resources and time than I have at the moment.
Finally, who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
The Futilitarians, by Anne Gisleson—it’s a non-fiction book about the Existential Crisis Reading Group, a hard-drinking batch of New Orleanians who use readings of philosophy as a method of processing grief. Also, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee—which is so exquisite that I never want it to end, and it’s also a bit of textbook for the book I’m trying to write. Also: Break.up, by Joanna Walsh is excellent, an experimental novel about love and travel. There’s a group of poets in America I find very inspiring as well—Danez Smith, sam sax, Franny Choi, Hieu Minh Nguyen—also Major Jackson, Solmaz Sharif, and Airea Matthews, among so many others.
These days I’m also inspired by the broadening of poetry in general—visual poetry is becoming more accepted these days, and I recently got the opportunity to record an audio-chapbook, with sound-collage by a musician/engineer named Kamikaze Funtime. This year I’m hoping to make a video-poem or two, if all goes well.
Interview by Robert Greer.
Photos by Jordi Goya.