[NOTE: Lynn Gentry, who has entered his seventh year of writing for patrons, will officially retire from performance based poetry on October 7th, 2015. Gentry will now only be found writing in public spaces on very rare occasions. Instead he plans to pursue print publication opportunities, brand-new independently produced online content, and exciting collaborations that cannot yet be released to the public. For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/events/927639390660333]
On any given day on 7th Avenue and 3rd Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, you just might come across a young poet using a folding table at his “desk” pecking away on his Royal typewriter composing a poem at the request of a patron. The wait takes about … oh … say … 5 minutes. Just as his cardboard sign reads “Pick a Subject & a Price … Get a Poem” Lynn Gentry will press his fingers to the keys and voila! your poem is created on the fly! He even will read it to you. Poets earning their keep on the city’s streets as does Gentry are called buskers, or persons who entertain in a public place for donations.
Lynn’s approach to the genre of poetry hearkens to a most prolific output of work penned by poets of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Poets of that literary time period chose the genre for artistic expression because “it normally require[d] far less time to compose than prose genres such as the novel or short story. It was ideally suited to the felt immediacy of struggle […]”. The present or immediate moment conjures Lynn’s muse, and in this space, the muse summons a cadre of imaginative forces to assist Lynn as he churns out poems giving voice to matters to which the heart cannot speak. That Lynn reads his poetry fresh off his press customized for the patron signifies, still, an homage to a 1960s tradition that resonates with the “performative […] and affective sounds of a black voice […].”
As I watched a video of Lynn reading one of his poems on a sidewalk outside somewhere–his baritone voice in gentle competition with street sounds, and the wind, and snippets of “that’s so cute” from an interested passerby—I noted not only the “affective sounds of a black voice”; also, I observed the portability of poetry and how the genre, indeed, gladly obliges the present. A poem could dance behind a podium, sashay onstage, and tumble over onto the street for yet another performance, and a patron could take a hard-copy of it home! Impressive!
Any Creative, as Lynn prefers to call himself, finds inspiration from a well-spring of sources. Lynn’s parents, Charles and Sharon Gentry, encouraged their son to be the best in any endeavor he pursued. His mother, a caregiver, nourished her son’s leanings towards the creative. His father, also a poet who has published books of poetry entitled Trojan and Invincible (Tensiongentry), no doubt contributed to his son’s exploration of the power of words through poetry.
I had the opportunity to talk with Lynn Gentry about his craft. In this interview, he discusses the value of poetry, and his relationship with and access to the genre, and, his style for composing his work on the white page.
TDR: Where were you born?
LG: Torrance, California.
TDR: At what moment in time did your interest in poetry develop?
LG: It developed at an early age—6th grade, actually. My teacher encouraged me to write poetry. He assigned the class to write two poems, but up until that point I hadn’t any interest in poetry.
TDR: Do you remember your first poem?
LG: Yes, I do. “The Feather”, but it was a poem that I actually wrote to poke fun of poetry. I saw poets as these fluffy people so I made fun at the idea. In that poem, the wind is the soul of the feather and it pushes it from place to place. Well, I don’t think my teacher liked it but he did like my second poem “The Champion”. This poem is about a boxer, and the concept that when it came time to quit it took more courage to not actually take a punch. I worked with the idea of peace takes more courage than to actually go to war.
I respond to the rhythm of things. As long as I can put it in the pocket, that rhythm can work even if it is not perfect.
TDR: Were your parents receptive to your being an artist?
LG: I’ve stopped using the word “artist” to describe my work. If I need to use a word to describe me I say Creative, and the pieces I produce are My Work. The reason is I feel that art has become a sort of luxury. Many people say that art is important to them, but when I look at every city, it is the artists who are being evicted. As much as I feel for them, I also realize that people have to be paid. Artists leave their homes/families in search to find self/truth or become famous. For me I have given up on such endeavors and only wish to do my work and find a place to build my idea of a sustainable form of creativity.
But to answer the question, my dad is a poet. Really, my parents … their thoughts on art had to do with being dedicated to your desire, and to put in the work to bring it to fruition.
TDR: How did you come to a relationship with poetry?
LG: It actually came about a lot slower than anything else. I played baseball right up until high school, and that was all I wanted to do. When I got to high school, I moved about a lot. I was living in the outskirts of California’s High Desert region in an unincorporated town outside of the city limits called Marianas. It is between Apple Valley and Hesperia, California. I lived there during high school, and moved further out to Lucerne Valley. I had a lot of space, and could just run around everywhere. So, I just played with my neighbor, but I started writing a lot more. I played the guitar, and with that I began to compose these songs but didn’t know how to play them yet. After a while, I started writing songs and getting into Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Through them my poetry came … really through Bob Dylan then I got turned on to Allen Ginsberg!
TDR: What was it about Ginsberg that caught your interest?
LG: I love his philosophy and I really love his voice. When I watched the documentary on Bob Dylan I remember hearing Ginsberg talk, and it was something about the way Ginsberg delivers America. He conveyed the ‘it’, meaning the essence one puts forth whether it be the words, the rhythm, or the attitude for example. When he asks, “America when will we end the human war? Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb!” he isn’t disguising himself with poetry in a sort of way, and I determined then that is the rhythm of words and that is way it should be.
LG: I respond to the rhythm of things. As long as I can put it in the pocket, that rhythm can work even if it is not perfect. Even the philosophy … Ginsberg believed that the artist must be naked before the audience. So Ginsberg’s thinking … it brought out this raw side of poetry that I had not seen in other poets.
TDR: You use an Olympia manual typewriter to produce your poems.
LG: I go through a lot of them … Corona … Olivetti … Underwood … Olympia … Royal …
TDR: There is a visceral closeness with your method. The sheet of paper, the tip-tak of the typewriter keys that compete with the street noise, and the final roll-off from the cylinder of the sheet with the final product–the poem. Talk about you, the poet, and the instrument you use to generate your work.
LG: With the typewriter … when I started composing on the typewriter … all of the words started opening up to me. On paper, I think through things. I play with the idea of rhymes … using syllables and counting out that way. The visual side popped out when I used the typewriter; you could see the words … [and this visual] gives you trust. At the same time I responded to the rhythmic side of the poetry for the most part, and just as well the typewriter delves right into that. I can hear something when I use the typewriter. If the typewriter is not going I know that I have lost the flow.
TDR: … and the computer?
LG: The problem with the computer … it questions your intent … spell check and grammar. A poet should stay inside of the flow. The computer disrupts the flow.
… art has become a sort of luxury. Many people say that art is important to them, but when I look at every city, it is the artists who are being evicted. As much as I feel for them, I also realize that people have to be paid.
TDR: The Poet is likened to a God–one who has direct access to the divine. Do you feel the poet has a function in today’s society? If so, what is it?
LG: In a sense the voice of the society has left. What I have found for the most part is that in the time that I have written—and I have written for everyone including judges, cops, and prisoners–what I have found is that in all of these settings I really don’t see anyone having that many answers nor power. The power of poets is that we have an access to the people. If there is any power that the poet has it is to say those things that people are not ready to say.
TDR: Let’s talk about place and your relationship to place as an artist. You compose poems outside in public. That’s a pretty vulnerable space not only to people but to the elements. I am asking this question because in the film clip from the film A Place of Truth, you say that people come to the San Francisco because they do not know what they want. Do you feel that there is a power in place and its e/affect on the artist and his work?
LG: Oh, definitely. So there’s San Francisco where I worked as a busker for a time. It’s a love hate relationship. I grew immensely while I was there, and I knew where the city was going. There is a freedom that can be expressed in San Francisco that cannot be expressed in the High Desert, Marianas.
While living in High Desert … before San Francisco … I had no idea of technique, and what was in me was a very kind of clay with potential but no form. I didn’t believe in my form and technique so I kept going after these in San Francisco. I finally realized, however, that there was no one in San Francisco to swat my hands nor to bear down upon me telling me what to do. So, my questions were is my real goal to become the next jazz musician or to realize my ideas? What work do I want to put out and to have more a place to actually pursue it?
The power of poets is that we have an access to the people. If there is any power that the poet has it is to say those things that people are not ready to say.
TDR: You majored in Jazz and World Music Studies at San Francisco State University and Music at Victor Valley College. Does music influence your writing style? I am thinking of Langston Hughes and how blues played a major role in his composition of poems.
LG: For the most part, I responded to lyricists than I responded to poets. For me … as I mentioned earlier … I love Ginsberg but I don’t think there is a better poet out there than Joni Mitchell. I’ve never known anyone to combine the imagery and artistry to metaphor and meaning without putting bar to where there need not be bars. I see the most purity of every kind of expression coming through her work. These pure honesties are present in Motown … Marvin Gaye … definitely Marvin Gaye. No matter what you are going to think of him, he lays out the truth. You asked me about Poets as gods well with Marvin I see that. He shows you his flaws, his nakedness … Tupac … a sort of prophet …
LG: For a year and half I was out of commission. During that time … I think I had a nervous breakdown. That time was very weird because I had gotten to the point where I knew something was wrong … like where the essence of my own spirit was not there. I was awake and alive but the idea of sense. I would touch something, and that which I felt as myself left but I did not know it had gone until it came back. In the meantime, I knew something was off. Strange, though, I wrote more music at that time, and other times I knew I could write poetry but I just did not want to. The one control that I had was the knowledge that I could write any day and at any time. I knew I could make a dollar if I had to. On the other side of that coin, though, was the knowledge that I can write but I do not want to and, therefore, I will not make that dollar. It was bad because I wanted so much to feel that what had left.
TDR: How did it come back?
LG: The necessity for it to come back. My friend jumped out of a window. My girlfriend broke up with me. My grandmother died 2 weeks after that. I had to leave San Francisco for Oregon in 2009. I kept thinking, “I’m trying to keep it together but at the same time so many things are coming against me.” I was at this point just dealing with everything. I met my wife, Sarah, in 2010, and then I had a family. So Sarah was taking care of me … that brought me back. That next year we moved to the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. The housing manager kept the place together but it changed owners. I did one gig for poetry, and it took a while for me to be paid. Then I had to go to court because the new company tried to evict me. It was this sort of panic of life that kind of drew life back into me. All the while, Sarah was doing her best to take care of me, so seeing her stressed brought me back to where I needed to be.
TDR: It seems as if life as well as your work has led you to have a strong feel for the truth.
LG: Always. I have tried to find the truth of things. Poetry allows me to dig for it and to give it a voice.
Lynn Gentry writes about 20 poems per day and earns approximately $700 per week in donations—even more in the summer. “Pick a Subject and a Price … Get a Poem” customized for you or a friend or a relative. Visit lynngentry.com, click on ‘request a poem’, and Voila! your poem will arrive in the mail—well … soon as did my own. Need more information? Direct all email inquiries to email@example.com.
Note: All quotations taken from:
“The Black Arts Movement.” in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie McKay. 1st Ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996:1797.