Stephanie Berger is a poet, installation & performance artist, theater producer, and entrepreneur. She is the CEO of The Poetry Society of New York and co-creator of The Poetry Brothel, The New York City Poetry Festival, and The Typewriter Project. She is the author of IN THE MADAME’S HAT BOX (Dancing Girl Press, 2011) and co-author of THE GREY BIRD: THIRTEEN EMOJI POEMS IN TRANSLATION (Coconut Books, 2014). Stephanie’s poetry has appeared in Fence, Hyperallergic, The Volta, Prelude, and Pouch Magazine, among other publications, and her work has been covered in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Refinery 29, and Bustle magazine, among many others. Her performance and installation work has been shown at Grounds for Sculpture, New York Fashion Week, Electric Forest Festival, Dixon Place, Pen + Brush Gallery, Howl Happening Gallery, The Strand Bookstore, and House of Yes, among other locations. Other honors include a 2015 &NOW Writing Award and grants from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, New York Community Trust, Fractured Atlas, and The Casement Fund. Stephanie earned a B.A. in Philosophy and Critical Studies at the University of Southern California, received an M.F.A. in Poetry from the New School, and has taught in the English Departments at Pace University and Berkeley College.
Nicholas Adamski is the Chief Creative Officer of The Poetry Society of New York. He completed his undergraduate studies at Butler University with a degree in Political Science and Creative Writing and earned an MFA in Poetry at The New School University. Nicholas authored Inside me a whale is taking shape, a handmade poetry chapbook published by Brothel Books. He also has extensive design experience and has worked as an interior designer with the KA Design Group and designed sales galleries and signage for The 7th Art. Nicholas worked with The Happy Corp Global, a digital media and event production company, where he honed his event production and management skills producing events for organizations including the Museum of Modern Art, The 92nd Street Y, and other New York City institutions.
January 19, 2018
Jonathan Fink: Could you talk a little bit about your backgrounds and what led you to poetry and then, through poetry, to “The Typewriter Project: The Subconscious of the City”?
Stephanie Berger: I guess I’ve been sort of involved with poetry for most of my life. I started writing as a really little kid. My parents were good friends with Jerome Rothenberg, who is a pretty well-known poet and kind of the father of ethno-poetics. They were also good friends with David Antin. I kind of had these people growing up who were actual living working poets, and I at least knew that was possible in a way that a lot of other people maybe didn’t. I didn’t start thinking about it as what I was going to do with my life until maybe my last year of college. I studied philosophy and film in undergraduate at USC, and then, in my last year of college, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given just a few months to live. Poetry just became more central and important to me in order to get me through that time. During the very last year of college you’re also trying to figure out, “What am I going to do with my life?” It just suddenly became very very clear to me that poetry has always been at the center of my life, the touchstone of my life. So I applied to graduate school and went to The New School for my MFA, and that is where I met Nicholas.
JF: In changing from film to poetry and in your personal experience with your father, was there something specific about poetry that you felt like informed you or spoke to you in different ways than film? Was there a genesis to that shift?
SB: I was never a filmmaker. I did sort of critical studies in film. Doing academic work for me is fascinating and interesting, and I love it. But making art is where my heart is at. The other thing about it was that my father was a huge poetry lover. So I read poetry to him. He read poetry to me. We kind of bonded over that. It took center stage in my life suddenly.
Nicholas Adamski: I also wrote from a pretty early age—kind of journally things—and I was lucky enough to go to schools where they encouraged us to write a lot, and I got good feedback on that. I started a literary magazine in high school, which I sometimes forget about, called Bel Esprit, which is what Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s magazine was called. I had some really amazing teachers, and I always had an aptitude, but I had no desire. I wanted to be the President of the United States from the time I was in fourth grade.
JF: By the way, please take over. Is it still an option? [laughter]
NA: By the time I got to be a sophomore in college, my circumstances had changed, and I felt like I couldn’t run for president anymore. It was like this incredibly liberating moment. I was prelaw and poli sci. It was Bush v. Gore. I watched the election get stolen and was like, “Oh, politics is terrible!” I felt suddenly free to choose to do whatever I wanted. And I immediately went into this poetry class. It was just like a natural progression through the English department, and I had a teacher named Fran Quinn. He is this sort of weird figure in the poetry world. He founded the Worchester Review in Massachusetts, then somehow got this school Butler in Indianapolis to hire him. He was never a part of the English department. He was a special adviser to the president was how he got hired. So he operated completely independent of the English department with the fact that he taught two poetry classes and that was it.
JF: What did he advise on: “Give me a line break here…”?
NA: The president of our university at that time was this guy named Geoffrey Bannister who was spending like 28% of our operating funds on groundskeeping for 15 years. He had this plan to turn it from an urban campus into a park. He did, and the attendance of the university has doubled. He really remade it. Part of that was hiring Fran, who became my mentor. What Fran promised was to have a world-class visiting writers program. So we went into the Indianapolis social world, found Ruth Lilly specifically and got her to give him…. His annual operating budget was $250,000 just to bring in writers. So my junior and senior year of college we had just every week an amazing poet, and I was buddies with Fran, so I would hang out with him. We would go pick them up from airport, hang out with them, have dinner with them, and I realized that his best friends were all poets and that they were all really interesting, fascinating people. I had written my whole life but there was never a point in my life were someone said, “You can be a poet,” or “You can be an artist,” or that this can be anything other than a hobby. I went to an all-boys Jesuit prep school where everyone was like—doctor, lawyer. We were all in that trajectory.
JF: Did you grow up there in Indianapolis?
NA: I grew up in Toledo, OH. So, close. Then I went to Indianapolis for college, met Fran, met a bunch of poets. Then I started going to this thing after my senior year called the Conference of the Great Mother and the New Father, which is this Robert Bly conference that happens in the woods where we build sweat lodges, and someone tells a folk story, and we make masks and do all that. It suddenly became pretty clear to me that I wanted to be involved in having a community of artists and have a family around me. It was interesting—I had a teacher when I was a junior in high school where the entire second semester all we did was study the expats in Paris in that time. He made every student in these two honors sections pick one figure. Mine was the Diaghilev and Ballets Russes. So I had to spend the entire semester preparing a class-long presentation on those guys and that whole world. So I became an expert on Diaghilev and Ballets Russes. Someone became an expert on Jack Johnson the boxer, and someone became an expert on Max Ernst. The overarching lesson of the semester was that nobody can do it alone. Hemingway wouldn’t have been Hemingway. Picasso wouldn’t have been Picasso. So when I got to The New School, The New School was really amazing at that time because most of the professors and most of the students all went to the same bar called Cafe Loup right after class Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. It’s still there—the wolf, French, sort of bistro/bar. We all drank martinis and ate cheeseburgers and escargot and talked about art. Stephanie got there the year after me, and one night in Cafe Loup my friend was like, “Stephanie is starting something called, ‘The Poetry Brothel,’” and I had just written my thesis on erotic poetry. It all just sort of fit together. So we sat down at Cafe Loup, had a conversation about The Poetry Brothel, and then she contacted the university and got a classroom and was able to have a couple meetings where people came in, and I realized: this is it. This is the poetry community I want.
JF: I think that’s a very common experience that both of you are saying—that there is a frequent transition to poetry both out of need, but also out of permission. I think that is one of the biggest benefits that can happen in a workshop, especially with undergraduates who are taking a creative writing course for the first time: giving students permission not just to write, but also to have permission aesthetically. I try to give students a wide range of different possibilities. Invariably, the students will always say, “I didn’t know I was allowed to do that in poetry,” which leads me to one of the things about which I wanted to ask you. The MFA process is so individualized, right? You send in your application. You’re judged individually. You receive feedback individually. But The Typewriter Project as communal authorship is understood in a different way. I was interested in your thoughts on the concept of “authorship” both as individual authors yourselves, but also in the communal context of The Typewriter Project?
SB: I guess I would say that Nick and I are both poets, obviously. We write individual poems. We write lyric poems, books of poetry. We definitely participate in that solitary process. But I think we both kind of have a background where—he studied poli sci, I studied philosophy, both my parents were sociologists—we’ve always been interested in society and culture and participating in communities and being more active in that way. I think that one of the main sort of issues that the poetry world faces is that it does often feel to people like it is locked in an ivory tower, that people feel like, “I couldn’t possibly understand a poem; I’m not that bright.”
JF: As if it’s their fault.
SB: Exactly. One of the things we try to do with all of our projects is to make people understand that poetry is just an art. It’s there to be enjoyed. You don’t really have to “understand” anything. It’s not like there’s some key to every poem. You can also just read it or listen to it and let it wash over you and enjoy it, and that can be it. You can analyze it. You can break it down and discover all the little pockets of meaning, but you can also just experience it and enjoy it.
NA: It’s just a form of communication, right? We speak in poetry more than we speak in prose. And The Typewriter Project is just sort of this evolution of ideas and happy accidents. In New York City, people are in a constant state of throwing away typewriters. New York City happens to be a place were either there is a person who was lived in that apartment for a long time—for 40 years—and actually uses or has used typewriters and is finally like, “I need to get rid of this Smith Corona. I don’t use it.” And/or there are hipster kids who were buying typewriters at vintage shops and thinking they are going to write their novel on it. They move, and they throw it away. So we kept encountering these typewriters. As poets and probably hipsters to some degree we were like, “Oh, I have to grab this typewriter!”
SB: We were producing The Poetry Brothel at that point, which is an immersive art experience, and we’re always looking for cool decor.
NA: Props and stuff. [laughs] So we started to acquire all these typewriters, and then there was that piano project where there were pianos in all the public parks for people to play them, but neither of us play the piano. We’re both writers. So typewriter plus piano plus public project equals The Typewriter Project. And then one thing led to another, and I thought, “If every stroke of the piano project had been recorded somewhere, and you could listen to that sound, what would it sound like?” Even if it was just a cacophony, there would still be the energy of all those thousands of people touching those keys. So then this roll became a part of The Typewriter Project, just having something where we could have an artifact of all those people touching the typewriter and just literally what they were thinking. If you just have a scroll with 100 feet of writing it is a de facto exquisite corpse, even if we don’t want to stand in front of the booth and explain to every single person what an “exquisite corpse” is and how it works. And we also didn’t want to tell them that they have to feel beholden to the line that was written before them. So it just sort of became this project that evolved from a couple of different components, which seemed like a really fun, cool project. Also a huge part of the mission that we have been doing is to not be boring because poetry has such a bad rap for being boring. [laughs] And to give people new and innovative ways to come to poetry and writing. Everyone who sits down at The Typewriter Project and types anything has contributed to a poem whether they meant to or not. So we can empower them: “You just wrote poetry.” And they might say, “All I did was write my name,” and we would say, “Yep, sometimes names appear in poetry.”
JF: When watching the videos on your website, I was interested in the responses people had when they came across the project. I would imagine people responded in a variety of ways: some people initially suspicious, some initially excited? What were their responses at that moment of discovery?
NA: We were putting it up in the park in New York City, and someone was initially like, “What does it cost?”
SB: And someone else was like, “What are you going to do with all the text?”
NA: And we said literally it is a blank canvas on which you can write whatever you want. And they were like, “No political motivation?” and we said, “No, it’s just a white sheet of paper.” And people would just fall in love with it.
SB: There are also people who just immediately see it, and the booths are so charming and quirky and rustic that people are drawn to it. They’re drawn in by the sound of the typewriter, and when you explain to them that they can sit down and write on it whatever they want, people get really excited. They’re like, “Ooooh! What am I going to say?”
JF: When you review the actual poem at the end, what surprises do you see in the material?
SB: I guess it’s been sort of surprising how personal some people get. It’s really nice that some people are taking it seriously when they get in there. They’re taking that moment to sit and reflect and think about what’s important to them. People also write very silly things. It’s a total cacophony when you read the actual poem.
NA: It’s pretty amazing that there are some people who will express sadness, deep sadness, but I don’t know that I’ve encountered many experiences of anger. We’ve had several conversations about censorship which is interesting. The amount of weird things that we’ve considered (from having a fight with a French nightclub owner and trying to get out of Paris without having to pay this guy a bunch of money to, “How are we going to censor the public through The Typewriter Project?”) we just have a lot of things to think about that most poets don’t have to think about. Initially, one of our interns asked us if there was anything they should delete, and we were like, “No censorship!” And then we decided: “Hate speech. Delete hate speech.” If there is specific hate speech, we don’t want to put that on the Internet as part of The Typewriter Project. So the whole USB to laptop is boosting the signal and giving someone the opportunity to see the whole creation after they have contributed their little bit. So we don’t want to boost the signal of hate speech. But I don’t think there has been any. So we have that in place, but there’s been no instance. You know, a 13-year-old kid gets on there and is like: “Fuck, fuck, fuck…” and that’s great. We love that. It was in Tompkins Square park in the East Village the day that gay marriage became legal nationally. So it was like, “Love wins!” for two days. It’s kind of like a real-life Twitter feed but also different than Twitter. It’s not limited character wise. Some people will sit in there for 15 minutes. Some people go every day.
JF: Have there been any attempt of people trying to get into the box to get the paper out? Have people been pretty well behaved?
NA: The initial idea was 10 booths in 10 different locations in New York City pointed at different things, and the hope was that if you were looking at the harbor at the Statue of Liberty you would write immigrant poetry, or if you were looking at Wall Street you would write capitalistic poetry. We found out that you just can’t leave a typewriter unattended in New York City.
SB: If you leave it unattended people will just tear off their piece and take it with them.
NA: You just don’t know. When we came to it after a week of it being unattended every shred of paper was gone. There was like one piece on the ground that actually had a really beautiful… do you remember that?
SB: Yeah! It was definitely from some girl who was either on a first date or an early date with a guy, and she was like, “Dear Mark, I feel like I am really starting to like you. What if I hate your friends?” [laughter]
JF: That’s inevitable!
NA: So that was on the floor. The typewriter was askew and smashed—just completely broken. We took it to the typewriter repair shop, and they were like, “What did you guys do your typewriter?” And we said, “Well, we left it unattended in a park for the week.” And they were like, “Dumbest thing ever!”
SB: They were flabbergasted.
NA: They were like, “Why?” They didn’t understand what the project was despite our really earnestly explaining it to them.
JF: You should have said, “First of all, you’re a typewriter repair shop. You should be glad I’m bringing your business.”
SB: We love them. We consider them partners in this project. We’re constantly bringing them back our typewriters for small repairs, to get cleaned, everything.
NA: It is the Gramercy typewriter company and the guy Paul and his son are the guys. In New York City in 2018 they are busy. They’re just all these people living in New York City who have always written on a typewriter, will always write on a typewriter, and they’re just constantly repairing these typewriters. It’s pretty incredible.
JF: One of the things I thought was interesting hearing you both speak about the project is the language you chose to frame it. It’s not, “The Typewriter Project: The Poetry of the City.” It’s the “Subconscious of the City.” I thought that was an interesting choice for how to frame it. How do you see this as a subconscious artifact in addition to being a poetic artifact?
SB: Well, the surrealists writing the exquisite corpse is about accessing the subconscious. When you sit down without a plan in terms of your writing, you just sit down and try to write what comes to you, accessing that part of your brain. I know that when I sit down to write that I try to go in not knowing what I’m going to say exactly, typically because I’m curious about what’s going on in here. I think the majority of humans don’t spend a ton of time sitting and reflecting and writing and trying to really figure out what is going on inside their heads. Being mindful, I guess. The Typewriter Project offers people the opportunity to sit down and do just that.
NA: And the way that we conceived of the booth, we could have just set up a table in a park in New York City and invited people to sit down at it and write. We were talking about ways to augment the booth to make it easier to transport and less bulky and whatnot, and I just really liked the idea of there being a wall behind you. Even if there are too big windows in front of you and you are looking out, but you know that your back is sort of covered, you have this opportunity to go deeper.
SB: There is no one looking over your shoulder.
NA: There’s a sense of anonymity and privacy.
JF: And intimacy.
NA: Intimacy is absolutely at the center of everything we have done as artists. We just want to remind people that poetry is such an intimate thing. We’re sharing our thoughts, which is something that people don’t really do as much.
JF: That’s a great thought that the communal aspect actually makes it more intimate.
NA: Yes, totally.