Seattle is one of the least likely places to sit down with coffee and hear a paean to low technology. But in the universe of the three-woman Typing Explosion, that's exactly where conversations often head.
Talking typewriters with these artists is like discussing wheels with hot-rodders. Names are spoken in loving whispers: the 1948 Remington Rand! The midnight-blue Royal Deluxe! The contour, finish and touch of every species is dissected and hailed for its singular qualities.
"Let's get sentimental," says Explosion founder Sarah Ocampo. "The writing world lost poetry when it switched over to digital tools. Remember the delicious smell of warm typewriter ribbon? That thrill when you sank your fingers into an old card catalogue?"
Sitting beside her, Sierra Nelson gives a sigh. "As a child, I really loved to play on the typewriter. My mom's a lawyer and her Olivetti filled me with awe."
New mother Rachel Kessler rocks her daughter, Ruby. "I think we each have our own typewriter fetish. There were years and years when I could only write on my old Underwood."
Pet machines are slowly revealed: an IBM Selectric equipped with an early "golf ball," a white Brother Opus, a Hermes 3000 portable. Such equipment, with its hums and clicks and personality, forms an essential part of the Typing Explosion's mission.
The Typing Explosion is composed of writers who collaborate to create poetry on-the-spot.
In operation, their metier sounds hilarious: Rapidly clicking keys are punctuated by burping horns, a constant chiming of bells and the periodic shriek of whistles. But their whole aim, says Ocampo, is to generate an assembly line of sound, one whose secret center is the actual production of serious writing.
They do so surrounded by ink pads, antique paper holders and a randomly filled jar of pencils--dressed in secretarial gear with cups of coffee next to each of them. Working together, they offer the viewer "personal" poems for the price of one dollar.
The process of composition is staged as a performance, beginning when a "client" chooses the title for his or her elegy. Titles may be plucked from a vintage, four-drawer card catalogue, or written out on blank cards the Explosion provides.
A client must then walk from typist to typist as the poem evolves, verse-by-verse, among them. But Explosion members do not speak as they sit creating. Instead, they signal finished stanzas with their bells and whistles. As each writer completes a verse, she plucks the poem from her typewriter, hands it off and takes up another. When a piece is finished, the trio sounds three bicycle horns.
Every poem is then signed and dated, rubber-stamped "ORIGINAL," and presented to the waiting customer.
Ocampo chose to bill the group's debut appearances as performance art, carefully omitting any mention whatsoever of poetry. "As my boyfriend says, 'The worst three things a woman can admit to are being a mime, a model or a poet.' So I resorted to a little bit of trickery." It was by carefully rehearsing their marriage of noise and logistics that they soon evolved what Kessler calls "our typing language."
Although they choose the titles of poems, their purchasers play a minimal role. They must remain obedient to those "rules" projected onto the wall.
These include standing at least a foot away from the typists' action, and a prohibition of any comments or suggestions. "Typists Reserve the Right to Begin and End Each Poem" reads one rule. Others include: "No Biting," "No Spitting," "No Horseplay" and "Do Not Touch the Typist."
Every 35 minutes, Kessler sounds a silver whistle. Then, the wall projection proclaims "UNION BREAK." The typists rise, and proceed to depart from the scene.
All these little strategies, says Ocampo, have their targets. "We want our audience to help create the whole event. So, they have to stand in line and figure out the poems' titles. We don't talk to them, so they have to start talking together. One will start explaining how things work to someone else. Or a bunch of people will confer over a title."
"Very quickly we become authority figures," says Kessler. "People are respectful; it's like they're getting their fortunes told." But co-authoring 50 poems at maximum speed takes a definite toll. "That's why it's easy to maintain the poker faces," she adds. "By the end of the evening, we're wrung-out from concentrating."
More than 300 titles for potential poems are in their file, typed on index cards the waiting clients may peruse. Selections include "You Were Never My Favorite," "The Shiny Pink Blanket," "Three People Kissing" and "Why Children Eat Dirt." There are also more fanciful titles, like "As We Are Not in Love, Let Us Go Out and Look at the Stars." Every poem the typists write, however, is original. For once a title has been used, it is then retired for good.
CAPTION: The Typing Explosion, from left: Sierra Nelson, Rachel Kessler, and Sara Ocampo.