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Writer Asks Queens Residents to Type Line of Poetry for Art Project

By DNAinfo Staff on June 6, 2013 7:21am

 Newtown Literary's Gabriel Cabrera is going around Queens having residents contribute to a massive poem.
Traveling Typewriter
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By Cesar Bustamante

DNAinfo.com New York

NEW YORK CITY — This might be a keystroke of genius.

A Queens writer is trekking across the borough asking random people on the street, outside stores and inside colleges to jot down a line of poetry using a manual typewriter as part of a quest for a borough-wide epic.

Gabriel Cabrera's “Traveling Typewriter” project aims to publish a collaborative poem as an e-book or chapbook, bringing together the myriad voices in Queens.

“I didn’t have this growing up. I didn’t have relationship with a lot of other writers growing up with Queens,” said Cabrera, 27, the poetry editor at the new Queens literary magazine Newtown Literary. “That’s what I hope to get from this project. To get people to write and to bring everyone together.”

 Gabriel Cabrera, the poetry editor at Newtown Literary, is taking a manual typewriter around Queens to collect a line of poetry from residents for the Traveling Typewriter project.
Gabriel Cabrera, the poetry editor at Newtown Literary, is taking a manual typewriter around Queens to collect a line of poetry from residents for the Traveling Typewriter project.
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DNAinfo/Cesar Bustamante

The project was originally part of the “Queens Writes!” event, a borough-wide event in mid-April designed to raise money for Newtown Literary, a semi-annual journal featuring fiction, essays and poetry.

After talking to his mentor, LaGuardia Community College professor Kristin Gallagher, Cabrera decided to do something experimental.

Instead of setting up a single writing session in one specific spot, the Queens College MFA student decided to travel across the borough with a typewriter and give everyone an opportunity to write and be published.

To do this, he bought a tangerine-colored Smith Corona Super G manual typewriter from Etsy.com, which has stripes like a racecar.

“It’s nothing I’ve seen in my generation,” he said. “This one, you really are in tune with it. You and the typewriter. Your fingers get dirty with the ribbon. You’re able to be one with the typewriter as lame as that sounds."

For Cabrera, who did his undergraduate studies at Queens and Hunter colleges, interactions with the participants have been one of the best parts.

The poem, now over 100 lines and growing, has a diverse group of contributors from high-school students to award-winning poets, an MTA worker, nurses and a man writing a book on Native-American hair.

One woman, Leona Godin, who is blind, wrote: "They say that love is blind but I had the opposite experience."

Others seem lighthearted.

"This is just not real life, you plus me equals pooping happily," one reads.

And another says: "Happiness is like a bunch of skittles in the palm of my hand leaving colorful stains behind…"

He saw older people nostalgic about getting to use a manual typewriter again and younger people enjoying typing on one for the first time. Regardless of age, people tended to react the same way when they decide to get in front of the typewriter.

“They sit down. They contemplate for a little while. They smile at their brilliance and start typing away. It’s a really great thing to see writers at work,” he said.

In one case in Astoria in April, Cabrera was ready to pack up his vintage manual typewriter and go to another site when a group of high-school students hurried his way. After seeing the typewriter, each one wanted to get a chance to type a line on it.

“They were really into it. They love the idea of just taking out all the other distractions when you’re sitting down and typing. There is no way to go to like Google in between typing,” he said. “They were like, ‘Oh, where can we get one of these?’”

Originally the “Traveling Typewriter” was supposed to last for only a week but it proved be so popular that Cabrera and Tim Fredrick, the Newtown Literary’s chief editor, decided to continue the project.

“[Gabriel] was getting invites to places and it seemed like there was a lot of interest in the borough, so we decided that the Traveling Typewriter should continue its journey,” wrote Fredrick in an email.

Tyler Rivenbark, a Queens College adjunct lecturer, asked Cabrera to bring the typewriter to his classroom so that his students could have an opportunity to participate.

“Writing became active and participatory for the students in a way I don't think it had until then,” Rivenbark wrote in an email. “And that's exactly what writing should be: active and participatory.”

The “Traveling Typewriter” next stop is at the launch for the second issue of Newtown Literary at Odradek’s Café on June 6. You can follow Cabrera's twitter account, @GabesTypewriter, to find out where he’ll be next or reach out to contribute a line to the poem.

Cabrera said he hasn't decided when he will stop accepting contributions, but he wouldn’t mind continuing the project for a long time.

“It taught me that if you're doing something you love, something you're passionate about, people are going to feel that," he said. "People are going to be receptive to that and they’re also going to want to share in that joy and that experience of what you’re doing."