By. Helen Lewis
The handful of street poets perch on Frenchmen behind a row of bulky type-writers, acting as if they are sitting at the world’s most ironic banquet table. Music wafts over from the bars that line the street, audible beneath the sharp tapping of typewriters and banter of the poets. A drink sits next to each poet’s leg, cigarettes dangles from their fingertips. One poet leans against the fence lazily, his folding chair balancing precariously on two rusted over legs, another crosses his legs, adjusting the wooden box beneath him. They all sell the same thing, they all have the same gimmick, yet as passerby’s walk down the line they see the standard set of sign, table, chair, and typewriter morph shapes, sizes and existence. The flourishes each poet adds to their workshop expresses each individual’s style. However, while prizing individuality, they also value community, many of them extolling the group’s growth to more than twenty New Orleans street poets.
Street Poetry is the perfect platform for poets who want to share their work with the world but have no resources to do so. The gig is easy enough: a customer approaches a street poet with a topic, the poet composes a poem on the spot, gives it to the customer, and the customer pays them what they think it’s worth. Poets get to disperse thousands of poems this way, a significant dispersal volume considering the lack of people buying published poetry books. It’s prevalence in New Orleans can be attributed to the city’s thriving street economy, which is enabled by the cities lack of strict ordinances regarding it, and beautiful weather. Walk down any street in the French Quarter and you will find yourself leaving the radius of one street musicians’ audio orbit, only to fall into another’s. However, unlike musicians, street poets often stick together, lining up their typewriters, giving their art form more of a community feel.
Zachary, one of the street poets from the Frenchmen line-up, seemed particularly proud of the street poet community that has formed. “We see the potential of our collective energy. There is no other city on the planet that has this many street poets, so we have to work together. It’s a small compact place that we work, but there is potential to gather that energy, and plug it into something beyond just sitting out here ourselves.” This “something beyond” he envisions is a more literary-centric New Orleans, that more fully acknowledges its literary past, and supports emerging writers’ growth.
When asked why he thinks street poetry is so prevalent in New Orleans, Zachary gestured to his drink. “Part of it is this. We have a drink in our hands, they have a drink in their hands, and there is lubrication there.”
Lubrication is necessary for street poetry, the poets insist, because good poems require a connection between the customer and poet. Benjamin Aleshire, one of New Orleans most established street poets, explained, “The most rewarding part of living this way, for me, has been the moment of sincere connection with a stranger, where the poem pierces through the vellum of everyday reality and speaks the things they’ve always wanted to express but couldn’t—and in the process of creating that, a mutual empathy is forged between us, no matter how different we might be, and we both experience some form of revelation.”
Calvin, a poet from Royal Street, who was a bit coarser in his language and manner than Zachary and Jack explained, “If there is no real connection, then I feel like it was just stupid.”
Calvin did not sit in a line-up, but rather alone on Royal Street, although he explained he would join his friends on Frenchmen at night. Dressed in black, with a cigarette dangling between his fingers, the brand of unapproachable he wore was “Thinking About More Important Things”. In actuality, he was very friendly. When asked why street poetry he explained, “I suck at everything else, I suck at life in general, and I am a failure in every other aspect. I feel really in control, I feel really expressive, and happy when I do it. And I feel, I don’t know, it gives me a rush. It feels good. It’s fun, it’s a lot more fun than washing f$#king dishes.”
When Zachary, the poet from the Frenchmen line-up, was asked why street poetry he explained, “It just made sense. I have a thing for public space, I have a thing for free expression… when I found this city, now three Mardi Gras ago, there were six poets sitting right over there by the bike shop and it changed everything.”
The growth of the street poet population in New Orleans is astounding and is partially due to the lengthy careers of street poets. Like Zachary, Benjamin has been a street poet for a while, coming upon his eighth year in the profession. Both poets explained that it was the only job most poets needed to fully finance their living situations.
When asked if he ever planned to retire from street poetry, Calvin replied, “I hope so, Jesus Christ, I don’t want to have to rely on this for money forever, but I am a stubborn bastard, so I don’t want to get a real job.” He explained that there are “turf wars” between some of the older, more established poets and newer ones, involving disputes about who can be in what locations, and who actually deserves to be writing street poetry.
Benjamin Aleshire blamed this rivalry on new poets being, “charlatans posing as poets in order to make enough money to get drunk… Some of them are nice, interesting people, but most of them are nauseating, both personally and artistically, and have a hilariously high opinion of themselves. Most of what they write is a pithy mix of gibberish and cliché, sometimes no more than a few lines.” Their fraudulence made him, “want to vomit, or maybe smash the phonies’ typewriters on the pavement.”
Countering this, Calvin, a street poet for only fifteen months, explained that, “A lot of people claim to have created it and they hate us because they think that we are stealing our idea, but I am pretty sure people have been doing street poetry since the beginning of time, or just kind of, I don’t know there have always been jesters, and entertainers, and clowns, and poets, and theater since before Christ. I don’t think anyone created it. I think its free reign for everybody.”
“Free Reign” are two words that embody the vibes the streets of New Orleans consistently emit, and have emitted, for the last few centuries. The freedom of the streets, for expression and performance, allows the city to foster artists, and makes it the perfect place for an eccentric community, such as that of the street poets, to blossom.