Several evenings a week, from five to nine, poet Allan Andre settles himself amid the bustling crowds of Manhattan’s Union Square. A sign reading “Poem on Request” catches the eyes of passersby; there’s something curiously irresistible about the sight of him perched precariously on a stool in front of his old-fashioned typewriter. “Do you charge?” a man inquires. “I ask for $5 or more,” he says. “That is, if you like it.” I find out later that it’s how Allan pays his rent; this is no part-time gig.
Allan Andre grew up in the East Village, a few blocks from Union Square, and hit the road as a teenager, touring coast to coast and completing a degree in music and poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, before settling closer to home in Queens. I squirm as I ask the question that every artist must dread: “So, have you always wanted to be a poet?” To my relief Andre smiles, perhaps pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of my question. “I have always written poetry, but I didn’t grow up in a house where there was poetry around, so I learned later that I was a poet,” he says. “I was reading John Ashbery, and I realized that his poems looked like the writing in my notebook. Now I could call myself a poet and it would be true. That’s when I started using the label.”
Any particular form?
Such short windows for assuaging my curiosity are rare for the people’s poet. Andre has many admirers, and while some are content to photograph him from afar, most are eager to interact. While he’s also a musician, he finds that his poetry is a more reliable way of drawing people in. And yet it doesn’t require merely passive participation. “Any particular theme or form?” Andre asks. At first, this suggestion of creative input momentarily fills the customer with embarrassment. But such unlooked-for shyness is short-lived as he continues, “Well, what was your day like?” Andre’s approach has a seductively shrink-like quality. He engages with his customers, calmly listening to their conversations as he types, commenting on the pieces he rapidly produces for them (in approximately five minutes): “Ooh, I like this one.”
Even when one man says, teasingly, “Writer’s block?” Andre doesn’t seem fazed. After all he’s been doing this for six years. “But surely you must have got stuck with some really, really strange requests?” I ask hopefully.
“Nothing that means I can’t write,” he says. “I’ve got too many ideas, which is a wonderful problem. The other day, someone asked me for a triolet, which I found out is an obscure medieval French form. I got the hang of it pretty quickly.” He goes on, “I’m often asked to write about death or broken hearts. The subjects range wildly. Even the same topic or situation can be entirely different in emotional content from one person to the next. What makes things awkward is when people try to put a lot of ego into it. That’s when it’s really hard to write anything.”
As it happens, I witnessed one of these more trying customers. “Can you write in iambic pentameter?” he said. “You know, like Shakespeare?” His poem was titled “One Man Show”; Andre sighed after him, “Of course, there really is no such thing as a one-man show.”
After sitting with him for an hour or so, I worry that I’m beginning to cramp his style. Instead, Andre is apologetic and regrets that his answers aren’t more complete. “The other day, someone sat next to me all evening and it didn’t interrupt my flow at all,” he says. “It’s good when you have an energy bubble—it’s easier to stay positive. Only when I’ve been on my own for too long do I start to feel negative energy. I really relate to Jonathan Skinner’s idea of relational poetics. Most of my poetic insight is based on the exploration of relationships, wanting to speak for the other or with the other. The poem itself forms a relationship, or exposes a relationship that I was only minimally aware of with my conscious mind.”
At first I’d found the idea of ‘”poetry on request” a little unsettling. I’d never really considered art or poetry as something that could be demanded and handed over the counter. But looking at Andre, enchanting all those busy New Yorkers with his at-the-ready creativity, I began to understand the beauty of “relational poetics.” It’s refreshing to see the poet, as well as the artist, amid the scenes he is trying to create. On my walk home, I looked forward to re-reading my shiny new sonnet.