Letter from Washington Square Park
In 1954 Jack Kerouac, wrote about the artisans of Washington Square Park:
"Pitiful drawings of images on an iron fence ranged there by self believing artists with no hair and black berets (...) women with Red banjos on their handbags and arts handicrafty slow shuffling art-ers of Washington Square."
Jack, who is enshrined in myth for supposedly having written his book "On The Road" on one unending scroll. Jack, who looking out his window, saw a slow and foolish parade of humanity. These bald artists hoped a sincere expression of beauty could perhaps be found on the open and grimy streets. He scoffed at their naivety.
Years past and Kerouac is dead, but I know those same bald artists by name and call them my friends. In the park I sell trophies of experience to the slow half-interested tourists shuffling by. I sit cross legged on a skateboard, leaned over a typewriter, where I clack keys. Rapidly chiseling poems about shitzus named Charlie into existence. The words are completed in two minutes or less. Once done they are ripped from the rolling jowls of the typewriter and handed to their new owner, who has been eagerly waiting. Taking videos with their phone of the strange urchin they met in Washington Square Park. They will pull these videos up every time a neighbor visits for lunch and remarks upon the interesting typewriter poem they have framed on their wall back home in Anywhere, Texas.
As the tourist leaves smiling, I scan the courtyard for another mark, and in passing make eye contact with the other artists who surround the fountain of youth. Mark sells Etch A Sketch art. Designing Intricate eyes, which take painstaking hours of knob twisting. Eric sells all variety of prints, stickers, and canvas works. A sticker of his is attached to the bottom of my typewriter where only I know it exists. It reads 'Make art, get rich, ask me how.' A twisted joke. Sharon is a school teacher and only sells her work on weekends and when school is out, to help supplement the pittance provided as a teacher’s salary.
These are the same artisans Kerouac scoffed at for their naive belief in the beauty which can be found on the street. I myself often present as a cynic, bearing the moniker of a grifter with pride. Internally claiming I am fooling each new victim with trickery as they fork over dollar bills. What is the trick? It's simple. I ask them if they want a poem, and if they do, what about. They tell me about their grandfather who just passed, or their anniversary which they're in town to celebrate, or their dog, named Ralphio. I listen to their stories and write them something which I have forgotten as soon as it is in their hands. They read it and they cry. Or laugh. Or stand silently for long, unending minutes as they read it again and again before walking away without another word. Lost in thought. Sometimes they only shrug and say, thanks. Truly a scam for the ages. Most effective because under close scrutiny, it almost seems real.
We are the vanguard of artists forging into unknown territory. Contending with wind, screaming children, happy drunks and angry tweakers. Creating art in strange venues where it is not expected. Little weeds blooming, despite the concrete city which surrounds them. The words I write for that stranger may be the only poem they have read since they graduated from high school. The print they buy from my friend may be the only original art to adorn their dorm wall. We are most often engaging with people who do not walk into galleries, or buy poetry books (let's be honest, who really buys poetry books?), but here all of it is in Washington Square Park, open and free. Or at least, it was.
I am an itinerant poet. I have traveled across North America sitting cross legged, writing poems, making enough for some food, and even more importantly, some gas. From L.A. to NOLA to Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island and all places in between I have been slinging poetry to strangers. I haven't been everywhere but give me a few more years and maybe I have. Victoria, B.C. at Christmastime is great if you sit on Government Street just outside Munro’s, their most popular bookstore. In San Francisco, by Vesuvio, the summer is wonderful if you don't mind sitting at an angle. Montreal is a perfect old world for the click clack sounds of the typewriter, and if you don't speak French all you have to do is sell in the tourist sections. They'll be amazed you can say Bonjour, and unendingly grateful when you immediately swap to English “so they can understand you.” Nashville has cash if you're good at writing quippy poems for bridal parties.
Everywhere I go, people's reactions are the same: they love a unique and accessible expression of art which they can participate in. The reaction of the law is less jovial. It is a cat-and-mouse game to see how long you can get away with making free art on the street before you are harassed out, fined, or possibly arrested. I've been intimidated and shuffled along more times than I can count for simply sitting on the street and writing poems on the ground.
Washington Square Park was different. When I first arrived a few seasons ago I was working my way through NYC, testing alleys and corners to find the best place to hawk poems. Times Square was as awful as you'd imagine, The Met stairs were perfect until policemen with automatic rifles said it wasn't. I sold by Union Square, the historic NYPL, and all manner of random street sides. The hunt stopped the instant I arrived in Wash. There, two vibrant circles of artists ran in rings around the burbling fountain, jazz from three different bands down two different paths swelled in the middle to make a cacophonous fusion of polyrhythms and notes. The message was clear; you do not have to hide your art while you stay beneath the arch, its wide shadow sweeping around the park like a sundial. We whiled away the hours watching tourists take pictures, and offered them poems, or prints, or handmade doodles, if they happened to stray too close.
It quickly became my favorite place to sell and write poems. I was not the only one. Until then, the Mecca of street poetry in my eyes had been New Orleans. Poets ranged around the French Quarter, hidden just alleys off Bourbon street, typing away in the heat under Stetson hats. But here, in Washington Square, by the end of my 7 hour shift I could stand up, circle the fountain, and count up to five other poets all selling poems. It baffled and inspired me, that in such a small space so many poets could exist and all of them came to the very same watering hole, yet none of them failed to drink. As I slowly spent more time there it seemed this current generation could be pinned down to one man.
It was Peter Chinman’s fault that there were so many poets. In April 2017 he started writing here, no table, or typewriter. There was only a sign hanging from his neck reading "Spontaneous poetry." He would amble through the park and drop to the ground to write his poems, pen scratching out metaphor, backed by the slab floor of the park itself. Peter was arrested for using chalk in the park in May 2022. After he was released he continued to sell candles and poems beside the fountain. The tales of a park poet grew each year, and eventually, more followed his lead and began filtering into the park. To me, arriving from many years on the road writing poems and never seeing much of my ilk, it was a fascinating phenomenon to see so many crammed into one space. I can only imagine, and have heard as much from his lips, that for Peter it may be frustrating, to see so many hungry prose pitchers circled around the cup which he created.
Every poet is different. Some write on apple-shaped papers, and place overripe apples around them as set decoration. (Always overripe, as only then do they emit the strongest scent.) Some have typewriters and fold out chairs, some skateboards and not much else. Peter himself has begun sculpting phalluses of all varieties, placing wicks at their tip, and selling them as candles alongside other hand formed art of various persuasions. A few of us are full-time, living exclusively by selling art on the street. Many are only occasional writers, artists, and musicians.
All of us were devastated when the enforcement began. (Tensions had been rising all this summer.) What was once two circles of artists making a technicolor alley encircling the fountain was reduced to just one row. 100 artists to only 50, often less. One Wednesday morning in the late summer, when I was not intending to go into work a cry went up: "They have removed all artists from the park."
I immediately rushed over to see it with my own eyes. I found gaggles of confused and angry artisans circling around and swapping stories, scraps of news, tidbits of hearsay and gossip. Some claimed that the forceful removal was because of the article written about mushrooms being sold openly in the park, others that it's due to complaints of the conservancy, or that it's just because they hate us. Everyone was certain they knew why, but talking to the Rangers myself I was provided only with half-answers and unclear platitudes. It had rained that morning, which meant those who had arrived were slow to set up. This gave an ample foothold for the Rangers to announce before any of them managed to completely unfold their tables, or place their wares on blankets, that they would not be allowed to do so here as this was not an "expressive matter vending park." A nonsense sentence. Some people were removed for having a table. Others for being on the ground. Some because what they sold "was not art". Every reason was different but the intention behind each action was the same: there will be no artists, selling their wares, in this park.
The reason for the removal of artists I posit has nothing to do with any temporary issue of the police being embarrassed by drug dealers. Governmental bodies do not like that which is hard for them to quantify or control. Artists are cantankerous, strange, flamboyant, and excessively hard to pin down. This makes effective rulings and legislation around vending “expressive matter” routinely difficult to enforce. The easiest solution? Remove it entirely. As a full-time traveling street artist I have seen it again and again. The honest truth is that the enforcers of your government would rather have a stale and empty park than one filled with life and art. It's simply easier to control.
Personally? I snapped. For years we have been treated as the dregs of society simply for making accessible art. Seeing Rangers pushing my friends out of the park I knew I had to do something as a personal statement. It was suddenly all to clear to me that Washington Square park was not the bastion away from harassment I had thought it was. This park, just like every other across North America, only allowed our presence for a time. There is always an invisible clock running out until ‘the artists’ of any area are deemed to unruly, and are removed. This is because our government and society do not see the benefit public artists provide, only the nuisance.
I knew I had to take a stand, making clear that I support culture in free spaces. That I believe street buskers and art vendors are not the bottom dwellers who have found nothing better to do with their life, but rather that we are a part of an honorable lineage that traces past Jack Kerouac, peering cynically out his windowsill, past America itself, all the way to the bards and storytellers of yore. There will always be a need for this oral tradition, this honest and human expression. There should always be space for naive, self-believing artists to write individual poems for every dog and their owner in the whole of New York. Not because those poems belong in a museum and should be treated as high art. But in fact because they do not belong in a museum. They belong in peoples hands. In scrapbooks, pinned to college cork boards, in junk drawers, or used as bookmarks. There must always be a place for honest and free expressions of art at a human level.
So the very next day I sat cross legged in front of the fountain, the exact spot they were removing artists from. I removed from my bag a blank scroll I had been up all night feverishly creating with a hacksaw and packing tape. Sitting with my back to the sun and my face to the arch, I began writing the longest English poem of the 21st century. In mere hours, it began to billow in the wind, seeming to take on life as the wind pumped through its paper lungs, making it expand and contract throughout the day. People would crowd around it, holding different sections, reading the ongoing poem while further down the singular page I continued to write. In between yards the line would repeat: "Did you know they are trying to remove all art from the park? Did you know they will not succeed?"
Days passed and I continued to write. The poem grew. First 20 feet, then 70, and eventually 240 feet long. Other artists moved back into the exterior circle, in defiance of the unclear and inconsistent enforcement enacted by the rangers. Finding no easy way to remove them, they relented, for a time. The interior circle where my poem swooped in the wind remained empty.
I was under no illusions that writing a long poem would change bylaws, or city ordinances. But I knew I had to do something as a personal statement that I support this form of art. and that it should be celebrated, not squashed. So I did the only thing I know to do. I wrote. I wrote until my poem was a living statue. I wrote until it was the longest poem written this century (unproven), I wrote until it was sensationalist enough to draw real attention, and open a conversation. A conversation which wondered if perhaps, we should allow art, even celebrate it, rather than squash it at every opportunity.
Jack Kerouac, the cynic, finished off the first Canto of his poem with the words "I want to be sincere". Perhaps even he, looming out of his window casting wide eyes across greenwich village, could see that there was something beautiful. Something deeply human and necessary to be found in the naive, self believing, tchotchke hawking, grifters, poets, hustlers, and artists of Washington Square.