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Why A Typewriter?

A Dispatch From Shady Lane & Clouser


Christopher Watkins

As I type this, I am sitting before a laptop, which is somewhat inevitable and even arguably necessary these days. However, I should clarify something; I am not actually typing this, I am re-typing this. When I first wrote it, I was on a 1928 Standard Four-Bank Underwood Portable. And not only that, I was sitting at the desk in my bedroom, which is perhaps somewhat notable because it used to be Jack Kerouac's.

My name is Christopher Watkins, and I am (or was, depending on when you read this) the Fall 2006 Writer-In-Residence for the Kerouac Project of Orlando. What this means is that I am living and working, for three months, in the house where Jack Kerouac was living when On The Road was published, and where he later wrote The Dharma Bums, and his long poem Orlanda Blues.

On my first flight down to Orlando from New York, I selected to carry with me my Underwood, one of a number of vintage manual typewriters that I own. It was a gamble of sorts, but I knew Kerouac had been an Underwood man, and it seemed the right thing to do. And I don't regret my selection at all; I'm getting a tremendous amount of work done on this fine machine. It is a workhorse of the old school, its lacquer bright but cracked, its silver strong but tarnished, its keys stiff but steady. And under this sloping tin roof at the corner of Shady Lane and Clouser, the Underwood and I kick up a mighty good racket, such that the neighbors even note the busy noise. But I did find out soon after my arrival that Kerouac had actually typed The Dharma Bums on a rented Royal. So the next time I was back up in New York for a weekend, I packed up my 1942 Royal Quiet Deluxe, and brought it down as well. Now, between the soft stretch of fabric where the hammers bed down quiet after striking, and the Touch Control lever I guiltily set somewhat to the plus side, I will admit it's an altogether gentler machine--still a Stick-Shift to a laptop's Automatic, but gentler nonetheless. Add to these two different-but-equal instruments a 1930s Remington 5 Streamlined that I recently landed on eBay (an entirely different sort of animal; quick of hammer, tight of type, but slow in the ribbon-returning-to-normal-position, making it slightly harder to review one's work as it appears on the page) and it's safe to say I have been happily click-clacking away for nearly three months now, with nary a rut I couldn't white-out in sight.

People ask me all the time why I use a manual typewriter. For example, just this last weekend there was a Historic Houses of College Park tour in this neighborhood, and since the Kerouac House, as it's commonly known, is on the map, I spent a Sunday afternoon welcoming a seemingly endless parade of visitors into the two-rooms-and-a-bathroom area in the back of the house which comprises the actual living space Kerouac and his mother originally inhabited. (He and his mother were quite poor at the time, all they could afford to rent was the finished porch in the back of the main house, which had originally been done up as a bachelor apartment to accommodate returning soldiers from World War II. They rented it for $45 dollars a month. Kerouac slept and wrote in the bedroom, and his mother slept on a cot in the main room). Remarkably, the number One and Two questions I had to field that day were, "Are all these poems on the wall yours?" and, "Do you really use a manual typewriter?" To the former, I would answer, "Yes," to the latter I would usually give a musical analogy: "When you sit down to write a song at the piano, you're going to write differently than if you have a banjo in your lap. And if one instrument isn't bringing the magic and the muse, maybe another will. Typewriters are the same; they make me write in a different fashion, and also provide an alternate trigger for inspiration. And as an electric guitar is different from an acoustic steel-string guitar is different from a nylon-string classical guitar is different from a national steel resonator guitar; so does each individual typewriter differ. My Underwood is different from my Royal is different from my Remington is different from my Corona is different from my Hermes. And if one isn't giving me the juice, another might."

Not to mention how they just plain shame me into working. As with any fine instrument, they're made to be used, their very design bespeaks this, and there's been many a night I've caught one of my typewriters glaring sternly at me from the shadows, implicating me in a grand failure to honor their structural destinies. Chagrined and challenged, I dutifully sit down to see what I can do to contribute to the machine-age legacy I've been called on to uphold.

I have a pretty regular methodology for attempting to bring a poem to fruition. Usually, the poem will begin between the pages of a Moleskine notebook, scribbled in by a Space Pen; one of those pens that you can write upside down with (or in Space, should the opportunity arise). As soon as there's enough material in the Moleskine to warrant some follow-up, I sit down to transpose my chicken-scratch onto the big white typing paper pages, via the flapping hammers of my chosen typewriter, inevitably rewriting as I go, and all the while marveling how each time a bar retreats from its passionate flail against the black wall of ribbon, another letter is left in its wake. I keep typing the poem out over and over, until I can get to the end without wanting to change anything. To then test its hoped-for merits, I type two copies; if they end up the same, I'm gold. Since being here, I've added a new stage to my process. I address an envelope to my lovely missus Amy back in New York, manually typed of course, and send her one of the two drafts. The other I tape to a wall. I feel both happy and productive seeing my poems alive in all their vibrant black-and-whiteness around the room. And now that I'm nearing the end of my stay, I'm happy to say there's very little available wall space left.

One of the most exciting things to come out of this experience is that the Writer's Committee arm of the Kerouac Project Board has launched a new independent press, and they've elected to publish a chapbook of my work as their debut. All the poems in "Short Houses With Wide Porches," as the collection is to be titled, were written here at the Kerouac House, and there is a typewritten draft of every piece somewhere on the walls.

Only after two typewritten drafts are in the can do I take a poem to the laptop and enter it in. In defense of the digital world, there are certain advantages, from the standpoint of the revision process especially, which the laptop does afford. It is much easier, for example, to move stanzas around, alter line breaks, and re-orient line placement on a computer, because you don't actually have to commit to a newly written draft. You can move something, assess its effect, and make your choice. If I do make changes, at least changes that are in any way substantial, I go back to the typewriter and put down the new version, using the same approach as before, not accepting the draft until I can get through it twice without wanting to make repairs. Then it's back to the laptop. And to give my computer its fair and detailed due, I use a Dell Inspiron E1705, and I love it too.

The point is that my typewriters are an absolutely vital part of the larger process by which I create poems, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Nor, I like to think, would the poems. They know what they want to be and where they want to go; my job is to figure out how to help them get there. And without my typewriters, just as without my Space Pen, my notebooks, and my laptop, I'd be lost.


Christopher Watkins is a poet and songwriter. His poems are appearing or have appeared in The George Washington Review, Slipstream, Euphony, Talking River, Red Rock Review, and the anthology "In Our Own Words: A Generation Defining Itself" (MWE Press), among others. He was the Fall 2006 writer-in-residence at The Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence Project of Orlando. He was a semi-finalist in the 2006 Sacramento Poetry Center Poetry Competition. As a songwriter, he has released five albums under the name Preacher Boy, and has received a gold record for his songwriting work with Grammy-Winning artist Eagle-Eye Cherry. He currently lives in Port Jefferson, New York.

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