This Winter Study, Professor of English and American Studies Cassandra Cleghorn taught a course about typewriters. She and the 10 students enrolled in the course started a typewriting poem project, tabling in Paresky at lunch. The interactive project asked students to give writers one word, from which the writers generated a typewritten poem in response.
Wanting to teach writing with a different slant, Cleghorn chose typewriters as a medium because they are machines built for sentence-stringing and word-slinging, writing and nothing else.
“You put your paper in, you set your margin and you start to put words on a page – you pause – what am I writing about? It slows down those steps,” she said. The typewriter is a way for students to hone their writing, thus exchanging the urge to quickly write a paper for a deliberate, letter-by-letter way to put thoughts on a page.
“To me, what it’s done is change the level of mindfulness and intentionality that these students are bringing to the page,” Cleghorn said. “They’re slowing down, they’re seeing the steps involved in writing, they’re encountering their minds in a different way.”
Additionally, students have no opportunity to fix mistakes. Typewriters have a back-space key to backtrack and write over past text or slash it out, but there’s no button to ‘delete.’ Everything is laid bare on the page. Texts generated by typewriters are palimpsests, recording every layer of revision. This transparency allows for students to learn how they think and edit, thereby giving them mental maps of their writing processes.
“You’re really finding out what you did – you’re finding out what you think you should say,” Cleghorn said.
As for the poetry aspect of the typewriting project, years ago Cleghorn met Amy Tingle and Maya Stein, co-founders of the arts initiative The Creativity Caravan, in which the duo travels across the country and creates poetry on-demand with typewriters. “I was hooked,” Cleghorn said. Being a poet herself, she became friends with the two co-founders. Tingle and Stein were the originators of the “give us a word, we’ll give you two poems” idea that Cleghorn has brought to the College.
In constructing typewritten poems, writers are given one word and craft a poem in response; they then read it aloud to the requestee and sign it. “We don’t ask any other questions,” Cleghorn said, citing an appreciation for the vulnerability in giving up even a single word for poetry.
The poems, requiring perceptiveness and empathy in how they are crafted, have often left the poem recipients moved with a wide range of reactions: eyes widened, fists unconsciously relaxed, lips bitten and shoulders lowered. With word requests ranging from ‘snuggle’ to ‘cabbage-headed’ and ‘whales’ to ‘family,’ there was a range of experiences and histories captured in this mix.
Student poet Leonel Martinez ’20, a creative fiction writer, decided to take the course after watching black-and-white movies featuring strong, determined characters that also used typewriters. “I wanted that determination,” Martinez said.
His writing process varies depending on the word he receives. “If it’s a noun, I think about what it looks like or represents,” he said. As for more abstract words, Martinez humorously detailed his experience writing a poem about ‘spicy,’ considering every connotation of the word. The sweetest moment for him was writing a poem based on the word ‘forever.’
While Martinez’s style uses a stream of consciousness approach, Adam Calogeras ’18 favors zany rhymes and a lighthearted tone. The writing becomes “less intimidating if you can distance yourself,” he said, by considering the “silliest and most obscene” ways to creatively engage with the word.
Angel Ibarra ’21 forewent writing poems altogether and instead chose to typewrite compliments to his recipients. Ibarra’s connection with typewriters traces itself along familial lines; his grandmother had a typewriter that Ibarra learned about as a child. As for why compliments? “Everyone, once in a while, needs a good compliment,” Ibarra said.
Cleghorn said that the typewriter poem activity is especially powerful in its ability to connect people from all different walks of life with one click and one clack of a typewriter.
“People are looking for human connection through language that surprises you,” she said. “There’s an impoverishment of language that we’re using with one another.” Because of this, people are drawn to the typewritten poetry out of curiosity and a yearning for something more. That is what has kept this effort alive. And above all else, Cleghorn said, people want to be understood.
“Here, I realize poetry serves an equally important function, which is communication,” Cleghorn, who wants to preserve human connections in the context of modern technology, said. “It’s a means of listening to the person coming to you saying, ‘I need a poem,’ which is a powerful thing to admit in this day and age. How many people say they need poetry?”