Think: literary prowess combined with mad improv skills, impressive stamina and an uncanny ability to uncover the deepest secrets and desires of strangers. Welcome to Typewriter Rodeo—Austin’s traveling troupe of comedic poet empaths, who are gathering today for a Wednesday brunch-y potluck. Each poet arrives carrying their own vintage typewriter case in one hand and their favorite dish in the other; meeting up to eat and drink…and write poems, like they do.
The rodeo—consisting of Jodi Egerton, David Moses Fruchter, Kari Anne Holt and Sean Petrie, among other word-slingin’ alternates—began in 2013 at the first Austin Maker Faire. “It came about out of jealousy,” explains Jodi. Many of her friends were involved in the fair and she suffered from a serious case of what she calls “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out). So she gathered a few of her writer friends together—Sean from her ComedySportz improv days; David from a writing workshop Jodi was teaching at the time; and Kari Anne, who she knew from the AustinMama.com online community (and who also happened to have a collection of vintage typewriters). That day at the fair, they slammed out poems for almost eight solid hours—it was their first official gig.
David recalls that someone in the crowd called out, “Y’all are like a typewriter rodeo!” and he thought, “We are like a typewriter rodeo!” That same day, they bought the domain name—and here they are, four years later with tens of thousands of poems under their ribbons.
All principal poets are present this morning, save for Sean, who is here in spirit (and in person via a short FaceTime conversation from a bus stop in New York City). He contributed from the “road-eo” his favorite chocolate-chip cookie recipe from when he was 10: Nestlé Toll House, of course. “I’m pretty sure this was the first food item I ever made, way back in elementary school,” he says. “I’ve always loved cookies. So much so that when my mom bought me a blank notebook called ‘The Nothing Book’ when I was ten, one of the things I wrote in it was this recipe. On the first two pages, I also wrote a couple original poems I’d written when I was nine. If only I’d had a typewriter back then.”
Self-proclaimed “terrible cook” Kari Anne hasn’t actually cooked anything for the potluck. Instead, she’s brought the ingredients for a boozy brunch cocktail along with a unicorn-decorated tumbler for mixing. “I was just looking at my Timehop,” she says, “and it was me holding up a baking sheet with two loaves of bread on it…sideways.” (She demonstrates by holding an imaginary baking sheet perpendicular to the floor.) She begins muddling raspberries to mix with strawberry vodka, St-Germain liqueur and lemonade, then says over her shoulder, “I exploded a ham once…and remember those cookies that looked like Hawaii?”
David, on the other hand, is a natural in the kitchen. You can tell by his contribution to the potluck: a spinach-dill-quinoa salad bursting with the flavors of fresh dill and Parmigiano-Reggiano. And Jodi? Well, Jodi is all about her pie. “Last night I said, ‘What the heck am I gonna make for this thing?’” she says. Then the revelation hit: “THE PIE. This is my one recipe that is my own, that I’ve crafted...this is it! It’s my pie! It’s called the ‘Hot Damn, That’s Alotta Flavor’ pie.”
They’ve all generously agreed to write poems today about the food/booze they’ve contributed—in the same manner as they do at their gigs. For those who haven’t yet been so fortunate as to experience the phenomenon, those gigs work like this: The poets sit side-by-side at a long table in front of their vintage typewriters. Guests at the event (book festivals, corporate functions, charity events, etc.) approach the table and ask a poet to write them a poem about a topic of their choosing. And no matter what the subject, recipients are often moved to laughter or tears when they read the finished product.
“Sometimes people start crying before they even finish telling us what they want,” says David. “A lot of the time people are crying just because someone has listened to them.” Kari Anne agrees. “We’re part fortune teller, part therapist, part confessional booth,” she says. “They know they’re never going to see us again, so we get all their deep dark secrets. Then in two minutes, they get that back in an artistic form—a way to interpret the secrets—and then they leave!”
While the poets get paid by the event organizers, the poems are always free, and they all stress how important that is. Writing poems for strangers for free is part of the magic; it both takes all the pressure off the poets and it removes all barriers between both parties.
As they sit down to their typewriters this morning, Jodi warns that one of the poets is known for her sexy-sexy food poems. “I have such a hard time,” admits Kari Anne. “I start writing a food poem, then it always becomes a sexy-sexy poem.” And then they start clacking away, all clatters and whirs and occasional exclamations—“I spelled that word wrong!”—each intent on the task at hand, but never stopping for a second. It’s like witnessing three side-by-side electrical currents flowing from brains to fingertips. Suddenly, Kari Anne’s ribbon is all over the table. “That is one quirk about working on machines that were made a long, long time ago,” says Jodi. “And no one knows how to fix them anymore.”
After a few minutes, they’ve stopped typing, pulled their poems and begun silently reading them before signing and stamping them with the official Typewriter Rodeo logo. The poems are then passed around and layers of reactions and conversations begin tumbling over each other above the now-quiet machines. All of the poets admit that their unique word-wrangling formula only works if they do it together. “We have to have the cacophony,” says Kari Anne.
By Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Travis Hallmark