When Stephanie Berger and Nicholas Adamski, co-founders of The Poetry Society of New York, decided to launch The Typewriter Project—an outdoor art concept that’s attempting to tap into the city’s subconscious by offering anyone access to a vintage typewriter and writing paper on which to wax poetic—the two knew exactly where to set up the “tiniest writing den” in the city.
“Governor’s Island has always been really receptive to whatever ideas we’ve thrown at them,” Adamski said when asked how they settled upon the 172-acre isle so close to Brooklyn’s shores someone’s attempting to build a bridge to it.
The Poetry Society’s partnership with Governors Island has proven to be a fruitful one the past few years, starting with the introduction of its Poetry Brothel back in 2011.
“There are all these beautiful officer’s houses on Governors Island, so we decided to set up shop in one. We completely turned it into a brothel,” Berger explains of their initial concept, a poetic play on the fin-de-siècle bordellos of New Orleans and Paris, popularized toward the end of the 19th century.
“It’s a four bedroom house, and every bedroom had a bed in it so we would take guests upstairs and read to them privately one-on-one. We first came to check out the house, the space that we were given, [and] we looked at the giant, gorgeous triangle of grass out in front of the house called Colonel’s Row.”
Spying a second opportunity to collaborate, the Poetry Society sought permission to start The New York City Poetry Festival. The annual event now regularly draws crowds to the island for one weekend every summer to hear work from 50 poetry organizations and 250 poets on its three main stages. Headliners for this year’s festival, taking place this Saturday and Sunday, include poets Paul Muldoon, Mark Doty, Matthea Harvey and Joyelle McSweeney. The Poetry Brothel will also make another appearance in Building 408, from 1pm-5pm both days.
It’s at this year’s festival that Berger and Adamski plan to unveil the pilot test for The Typewriter Project. If all goes well, the two will launch a citywide version of the project next spring or summer.
Housed in a wooden booth will be a vintage Smith Corona Silent typewriter with a single, 100-foot roll of paper a la Jack Kerouac on which people are encouraged to compose a piece of poetry or prose. Berger and Adamski sent their Smith Corona to be retrofitted for a USB adapter so that the entries can also be read online at subconsciousofthecity.com.
“We’ve probably selected about twelve typewriters,” Adamski says. “I don’t know if you’ve seen typewriters sitting on the street but I’ve seen every typewriter sitting on the street. We had a Remington that we really liked. We had a Smith Corona that we loved but it had German characters on it. We’ve had so many different typewriters. We have a couple Royals. Every vintage typewriter we’ve ever found just had one little thing wrong with it that kept it from being usable for this. We went to the Gramercy Typewriter Company in the meantime and finally settled on a Smith Corona.”
The inspiration for The Typewriter Project was not the above mentioned Beat writer (though we’re sure Kerouac would be proud of their analog efforts), but rather another outdoor art installation of the same ilk. “The real honest inspiration for this Typewriter Project is the Play Me, I’m Yours piano in the park project,” Adamski says. “Remember that?”
That street-piano project was started in 2008 by Luke Jerram, an English artist. Since its inception, more than 1,200 decorated pianos have been deposited into public spaces around the world over the years, including NYC, for anyone to play at any given time.
“We were walking around the city and looking at all these pianos,” Adamski says. “We can’t play the piano, and I’m going to go with a large percentage of the population can’t play the piano, but pretty much anybody can write on a typewriter.” They hope the instrument inspires people to make art in the form of poetry, stream of consciousness writing, a little short story, anything. “It’s basically almost like tweeting.”
Whether you punch out 140 characters or a more in-depth ode to New York, Adamaski and Berger see The Typewriter Project as a city-wide game that will allow people to build upon each other’s stories of a specific place and time, in a moment that will last forever. “We love the idea of creating these physical artifacts that can age and weather,” says Berger.