People at the Harvard Square subway’s T stop might have passed a young man sitting on a bench holding a typewriter on his lap, with the handwritten sign “I sell poems for a living” propped up next to him. He is Gabe Kittle, an 18-year-old freshman at Emerson College, who came up with the idea to busk in the subway during the winter of 2014. He typed poems on narrow slips of paper, signed them, and sold them to passersby.
“I got the idea from Kevin Devaney, who types poems on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz and sells them,” Gabe told me. Kevin Devaney, originally from Boston, recently started the Art Bar in Santa Cruz. Gabe, who grew up in Santa Cruz, had to face certain realities in setting up his busking operation: “In Boston it’s too cold in the winter to do things outdoors.”
He chose the subway because it was sheltered, with people constantly coming and going. In addition, a performer needs a permit at more traditional places like Faneuil Hall, but not for the subway.
Gabe chose the T stop at Harvard Square. “I sit right where the train stops. There are big crowds of people and everyone walks by me and sees the typewriter. They can’t miss it – you hear the noise it makes echoing through the tunnel.”
One weekend, Gabe’s friend Jake Cushnir, also 18 years old and a student at UC San Diego, visited Gabe from California. “I took a red-eye to Boston. I couldn’t sleep, so Gabe and I and some other friends went to get coffee. Gabe told me that he was writing poems in the subway, so I took my camera and started filming, even though I hadn’t had any sleep for a couple of days.”
“I Write Because I Must” is the result:
According to Gabe, “Jake followed me around with a camera for about four days. I just did what I normally do. I didn’t make as much money those days, though. Some people don’t like the camera so they probably stayed away. At one point the subway police came over and told Jake he couldn’t use the tripod because it was a safety hazard, so he switched to the handheld camera.”
About the inconvenience of not being able to use his tripod, Jake told me, “I was trying to get footage for the time lapse part of the video. Since I couldn’t use the tripod I put the camera on a ledge above Gabe’s bench. I got the best footage from that ledge.”
“The film has a cyclic nature – the rhythm of the subway. You’ll see massive numbers of people, then no one,” Jake said. The constant is Gabe, typing his poems on bookmarks, while hundreds of people come and go through the subway station.
“So many people would come up and talk – sweet old ladies, people high on who-knows-what, and college students. The sound of the typewriter made people’s heads turn.”
Gabe observed that the typewriter, with its heft and noise, attracted people: “The people who came over to me were often older people who had actually used typewriters, some college students, and a lot of kids who tried typing for the first time. A few people have told me, ‘hey, get a computer!’” Gabe laughed. “I love how real the typewriter is. You press a key, and there’s a mark on the paper. It’s right in front of you, not in a cloud somewhere.”
Busking poetry in the subway is part of both Gabe’s and Jake’s philosophy of getting art out in front of the public. Gabe told me, “Bringing art directly to the public is something more people should do. Someone might see what you’re doing and that might change their life. Don’t let art be a thing apart from normal life.” Similarly, Jake said, “Go out into the world and participate in your own personal education.”
In the future, Jake wants to work on more projects like this. He plans to work with Gabe on more poetry videos done in the style of music videos. “I’d like to make a documentary about taking a typewriter around California. I’ll film Gabe typing at different public places and see how people react.
I think of film as a visual poem. There’s a whole world waiting for me to film.”
For more information about Jake and Gabe’s documentary project visit here.
For more information about Santa Cruz’s Art Bar visit here.