I’ve been writing poetry off and on for about 15 years, and up until recently, my primary focus has always been on music, visual art, and photography. One of the first people I met and really connected with in NOLA is a poet named Beatrice, coming from Detroit. She was walking down the sidewalk with a cat on her shoulder and I had to take her picture for my other photoblog. We became friends from that moment and a week or so after meeting, we started to hang out fairly often. Eventually she introduced me to some of the other local poets in the French Quarter who basically setup as poets “for hire” on Royal St. during the day. They also typically sit all together in a row.
“Cubs” was one of the first I met and is a mainstay for the Royal St. scene. Anyway, the process is simple; a person can ask for a poem about any topic or subject, then the poet might ask a few questions or chat with the person for a bit, then write them a personalized poem on the spot using a typewriter. When it’s complete, the pay is based on whatever a person wants to give or tip.
I definitely thought it was a pretty cool and interesting concept but never actually thought to try it until over a month later, only after meeting and having a conversation with another visiting poet named Tania, from Spain. While we were talking about street poetry, and to be specific, how she got into it, I said I’d like to try it and she responded by saying that I should, and that it’s like a drug.
What happened was, I picked up a job at a donut shop a couple weeks after I landed in town, and it was alright, just like any other relatively mundane or menial line of work, but for better or worse, it didn’t last. Now I’ve had a lot of different jobs, and they all seem to get derailed sooner or later, regardless of how “good” it seems to go, so because it happened once again, I took it as a sign that time that maybe the cosmos really want me to be doing something else, something I’m truly passionate about and good at, which is anything creative and artistic.
Now I’ve learned that street performing as a musician can be tough as a solo act in NOLA, and I don’t consider myself to be that special compared to the other musicians here, so I didn’t count that as an option for getting by. I also didn’t have much art on me to be able to sell. But what I did have was this poet for hire thing on the brain, and since I live in a micro house, a heavy, bulky typewriter was out of the question, not to mention what it would cost to get one and maintain it. Luckily I packed my pen and ink set. So, instead of typing poems, I decided I would write long hand in cursive calligraphy. I figured I’ll make one more genuine shot at really following my dream vs. settling with a day job. So I started about a month ago now, and I’ve averaged about 12 hours a day, everyday, except when it’s raining. Basically I’ve been doing it non stop since I started. Royal St. by day, and Frenchmen St. by night. I’ve never had a better job or “worked” with such beautiful souls. I don’t think I’ve had as much success with anything before in my life.
Over the course of my poeting career so far, I’ve seen some interesting things at poetry corner (our unofficial name for the operation… also known as Writer’s Block); I’ve seen a fellow poet so drunk he peed on the sidewalk as children were walking by, all whilst sitting on a milk crate, I’ve seen myself and the other poets that were with me get sprayed from a balcony with a hose from a miserable woman that spends her summers in New york, and when she comes to New Orleans she hates on the poets. She said she was “watering her plants” but was literally hosing us down, typewriters and all. I’ve seen people cry, I’ve seen people be rude, but most of all, I’ve seen people be very kind, appreciative, and generous for what we (street poets everywhere) are doing and for what we’re putting out into the world.
There’s so much to be said for how we as individuals come to do something in our lives or how we discover a new path. A lot of the time, it’s something outside of us that inspires us, to try doing what we’ve witnessed, but in our own unique way, or, doing something totally new. Before I came to New Orleans, I had written poetry only sporadically, but now, it’s like I’ve had an awakening, or, reawakening of a talent with lots of passion behind it. At the same time, I finally found a way to make a fair living at doing something I enjoy. It’s just one more thing I can be thankful for, and attribute to my New Orleans experience. It’s also how I’ve been able to give back and be a part of the culture.
So when I first started, I was using my dip pen, which is just a basic plain old black inkwell pen. But by my 3rd day I glued an osprey feather to it that I found back in Maine to give it an authentic look. After a couple weeks of saving, I also picked up a beautiful handmade inkwell from Venice, Italy, as well as a wax seal to give the whole process that extra bit of class. My seal is a skeleton key, which I chose for two reasons; one is, my last name, Chavez, comes from the Spanish word for key, and the second is that poetry, like any form of art or literature, is a metaphorical key. Also, I can proudly say I’m the only poet in New Orleans, and perhaps the country, that is hand writing poems in calligraphy. And to be genuinely original in NOLA is not easy.
There’s something special going on here. It’s a very sacred place, and I knew it before I ever arrived, but I never could have imagined just how profound the experience really is, especially for anyone who is open minded and eager. It’s not just a place where you can walk around with open liquor, party all day, and find music everywhere. NOLA is alive, and she pulls people in from all over the world; artists, musicians, writers, photographers, singers, and all, and shapes them or reshapes them or fixes their compass, and gives them a key to unlock any door, and sends them on their way. Treat her right and she’ll do wonders for you.