By David Michael Newstead.
Everybody has to make a living and one unconventional way of doing that is to be a street poet. Intrigued by a sign reading Poet for Hire, I recently learned about one man and his typewriter on tour this summer. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: What led you to become a poet for hire? Like how did that come about?
Odz Nens: Just very organically. I had moved to New Orleans in November and I couldn’t really make anything else work. I was right on the cusp of heading back to Chicago, cutting off all my hair, and trying to find a nine-to-five in like IT or some bullshit. Because my background is in bioengineering. But then, I somehow found my way out into the street with my typewriter. And miracle of miracles, everything worked out perfectly.
David Newstead: How long have you been doing that?
Odz Nens: Since January.
David Newstead: So, bioengineering to poetry. That’s a big change. No more nine-to-five. Is that liberating or what’s the feeling?
Odz Nens: When I was working a nine-to-five, it was relatively free, because it was in academia. As long as I just got my work done, I could pretty much set my own hours more or less. I mean, that wasn’t the official position, but that’s kind of how it worked out.
And then, there was just a lot of chaos in my life revolving around a move down to Ocean Springs, Mississippi for a year. Shit there did not work out, so I ended up moving back to Chicago. I did some consulting work for a while, but I never really did any like strict bioengineering work. My work at the University of Chicago was as a lab technician, so I was helping other people with their experiments. But seeing everything they had to go through led me to the belief that I don’t want to be running any of my own anymore.
There are startups that are doing a lot of really good work. That’s what I was trying to do in New Orleans, because the bioengineering sector is up and coming there. Because of the Tulane and Loyola campuses are together and there’s the medical district downtown, but it’s just not quite there yet. There was a company that was telling me they might hire me, but as startups go might doesn’t really go anywhere.
David Newstead: I’m going to be honest. Bioengineering sounds like a sci-fi movie and also like you’re building monsters or something.
Odz Nens: It absolutely is all of that.
David Newstead: I should have prefaced that by saying I know nothing about the subject, because I’m a humanities guy and not a science guy. So, it’s easy to have those misconceptions. But that’s what comes to mind.
Odz Nens: But it is all of that! Bioengineering is just like an umbrella term for everything going on at the fringes of life science where engineering is finally able to meet the specifications necessary to alter things on molecular and biological levels.
David Newstead: That sounds very mad scientist.
Odz Nens: Yeah. There’s a lot of really interesting work happening.
David Newstead: So, I’m not sure what I expected your answers to be, but I wasn’t expecting bioengineering.
Odz Nens: Yeah, I’m the only poet I know with a science degree. Although I do know a poet with a philosophy degree.
David Newstead: Well, that doesn’t surprise me. Since you’ve become a poet for hire, where all have you worked?
Odz Nens: I worked New Orleans. That’s where I earned my chops and New Orleans loved me for it and gave me all I needed to travel for the summer. I worked Austin. I went there for South by Southwest, which was a great fucking time. Then, I stayed there for about five weeks. Yeah, Austin likes poetry. And then, I worked Baltimore at Fells Point for a bit when I first got to the East Coast a couple weeks ago. Then, I’ve just been working D.C. New York is next. Then, Boston.
David Newstead: It’s like you’re on tour.
Odz Nens: Yeah, on tour this summer.
David Newstead: Tell me when and why you got your typewriter.
Odz Nens: Completely unrelated. I got it like seven years ago on a whim off of eBay.
David Newstead: You just saw it on eBay and you’re like I gotta have this?
Odz Nens: The really interesting question is why I chose to bring it from Chicago down to New Orleans when I moved.
David Newstead: Before you knew you’d use it? That is a good question. Also, because I have a typewriter I know they’re not light weight.
Odz Nens: Yeah, exactly. And they’re bulky. Like I don’t know why the fuck I brought it to New Orleans honestly. I don’t even know why I went to New Orleans, because I didn’t have like a job lined up. I just… I felt the call to go to New Orleans.
David Newstead: I spent some time there. Maybe you wanted something different from Chicago? New Orleans is different from Chicago.
Odz Nens: Like polar opposites. These days especially.
David Newstead: What kind of typewriter do you have?
Odz Nens: I believe the year is 1948 and it’s a Royal Quiet Deluxe.
David Newstead: Nice. So, how would you describe your writing process?
Odz Nens: Just really depends on the day. If I’m going pretty strong… I have no idea. Input one thought, the black box consumes it, and outputs a poem. But on the days where I’m slower or you know if you want to call it “struggling” or if you just want to call it engaging with the process some more.
David Newstead: Tired?
Odz Nens: Yeah, just whatever. But like you know sometimes I take a couple weeks off and then I get back into it. It’s a meditation. A person gives you an idea or an expression or a story. Then, you meditate upon that and produce something that gives them a new perspective on that story. In some ways, it’s a very brutal process and very visceral. At your fingertips, you find heaven and hell often in the same place.
David Newstead: Okay, so you get your table and typewriter set up out in the world. That’s kind of eye catching. What reactions do you get from passersby? Are people drawn in? Or how does it go?
Odz Nens: The 80/20 rule definitely applies. 80% of people don’t even notice. Like they’re engaged with their cellphones or they’re talking to people. You’d be surprised what people miss when they’re not really looking. Of the others, by and large people are supportive of the endeavor. Like I don’t get shit from people for it. Even my relations with the cops, as tenuous as this activity can be in some places, it’s just generally pretty friendly. Because they don’t see me drinking, because I don’t. So, they know I’m another set of sober eyes there just in case.
David Newstead: Most children have never seen a typewriter though. Are they especially interested in it?
Odz Nens: Kids younger than 10 who may have heard the word typewriter, but never actually looked at one, they’re really fascinated. It’s always a pleasure to have them come by and open it up and let them see how it all works. But generally, people older than 10 or 12 know what a typewriter looks like and some of them make comments. It’s really a good spread of ages. It has actually surprised me that people would still recognize what a typewriter is. Even people younger than 30.
David Newstead: Because basically that’s never really been in use anywhere for most of their lives?
Odz Nens: For any of their life really. Even in my lifetime, I was born in 1986. I only saw a typewriter in person when I was like 17 or 18 years old.
David Newstead: What kind of poems do people ask for?
Odz Nens: I mean, the topics vary from really sunny and warm to just like the darkest and most depraved. And lust and sex and violence.
David Newstead: The span of humanity?
Odz Nens: Yeah. Absolutely. In New Orleans, poets mostly set up in two places: Frenchmen Street and Royal Street. And Royal Street is a good day spot, because there’s a lot of foot traffic and it’s right off of Bourbon Street. So, people who’ve just had enough of Bourbon Street flow on down to Royal to browse all the little shops. The atmosphere there is generally very bright, very chipper. People ask for happy poems, love poems, and shit like that. And then, Frenchmen Street at night is like the alternative to Bourbon Street these days. There’s a lot of jazz clubs there. It’s pretty raunchy, but not like Bourbon Street stupid raunchy. Little more sophisticated. Little more with it. And that’s when the gloves come off, so to speak. Some of the poems we write out there are twisted.
David Newstead: What’s the most unusual request you’ve gotten from someone?
Odz Nens: So, I was set up with this other poet and this guy came by wanting a poem for both his current girlfriend and his ex-wife. A haiku for each of them. And he was meeting up with both of them that night.
David Newstead: At the same time?
Odz Nens: Yeah, they’re all friends now. He wanted to lovingly rib them both.
David Newstead: That’s a delicate balance of tones for a writer.
Odz Nens: Well, we each took one. So, the other poet took the girlfriend poem. And I took the ex-wife poem. It was a haiku and it was like: I fondly recall the ambivalent pleasure of hate-fucking you. Or something like that. I may have missed a syllable in there.
David Newstead: Wow. And they were pleased?
Odz Nens: Oh yeah, yeah. They loved it. That’s pretty close. I think I might be missing a word in there. Doesn’t seem like 5-7-5. But yeah, it gets more twisted than that for sure. That’s just a taste. People appreciate it, because people that are stopping by for poetry are usually like no bullshit people. They know what they want.
David Newstead: Do you have a favorite part of your job now?
Odz Nens: I mean, it’s always nice when people cry.
David Newstead: Tears of joy?
Odz Nens: Just whatever. It’s the highest compliment to like reach deep into somebody else with your words and pull out something. It happens often enough.
David Newstead: I know you’re getting a tour of a lot of cities, but hopefully D.C. has been a good experience in your time here.
Odz Nens: You know, it has this really jarring, off-kilter rhythm, but I have worked my way into it slowly. Dupont Circle has definitely been good to me.
David Newstead: Any other spots around D.C. that you’ve tried out?
Odz Nens: I wanted to go set up at the U.S. Capital today, but they didn’t let that happen. I don’t know who oversees the property, it might be the National Park Service, but there’s no soliciting. But the Supreme Court across the street seemed to be okay. I set up there for like 5 minutes before they came by and shooed me away.
David Newstead: So, the U.S. Capital, you weren’t even there for a minute?
Odz Nens: I got there and put my table down and they came and talked to me.
David Newstead: Instantly?
Odz Nens: Yeah. At the Supreme Court, we had a dialogue going. At first, they were okay with it. Then, they were kind of timid about it. Then, they were kind of wondering. Then, they finally told me to stop, because a superior said that they couldn’t let that happen.
David Newstead: It sounds like the Supreme Court is very deliberative even at that level.
Odz Nens: Interestingly, the Supreme Court has ruled that speech and money are equivalent, because it was the fact that I was accepting donations I think that set them off.
David Newstead: That should really have endeared you to Congress then. I’m sure Pennsylvania Avenue wouldn’t have worked out either.
Odz Nens: I set up actually in front of the Trump International Hotel in front of the Ben Franklin statue earlier today for a couple hours. But eh, nobody stopped. In general, Dupont is good. Chinatown at the Metro stop is alright. I also worked at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro. I mean, it’s always enough. I generally make at least like $60 in a day and that’s pretty much all I need to cover my expenses. There’s almost no overhead for this.
David Newstead: Apparently, in some parts of India there’s still people doing typewriter kind of work like outside courthouses and things like that. Like transcription and letter writing you know with this antiquated device that doesn’t need batteries or electricity. I guess my point is, a lot of things don’t last very long and your machine is still getting some use.
Odz Nens: You know, I trust this machine to last a while. I don’t know how true this is. But what I’ve noticed just based on looking at a lot of typewriters and other poets’ typewriters in New Orleans is that like mid-1940s and late 1940s that’s the era of the best typewriters. Because they were still all steel. Mine has weighted glass keys, good action.
David Newstead: So, my grandfather’s old typewriter is mostly metal. And that’s from the 1950s or 1960s. And then, the one I bought online is from the 1970s and that’s all plastic.
Odz Nens: The thing about plastic is like when it breaks it breaks. There’s no way to fix it. With metal, you can at least like bend it into shape. Especially as they started balancing design more toward weight to make them more portable, they made the metal thinner. They started using more plastic and those machines are just not as durable.
David Newstead: Here’s a question. Did you write for fun before you became a professional poet? Back in academia or whenever.
Odz Nens: Yeah, I’ve always written for fun. Not consistently. But I always wrote whenever it struck me. Now, the lightning follows me.