allan-andre-typewriter

This New York street poet writes for a better future, all the while striving to break free from the shackles of his dark and bitter past.

Allan Andre sits in front of a little black typewriter, his fingers dancing to the rhythm of youth that encapsulates Union Square. People watch in awe as his fingers move rapidly across the keys, inking life onto the blank page before him. Minutes later, a fresh poem is born.

Over the last six years, the 26-year-old street poet has composed more than 5,000 pieces throughout his career in New York City, often between Union Square and Penn Station. Occasionally, he asks people to share what’s on their mind. Other times, he tries to gauge their emotions simply through their presence while he listens for non-verbal cues. His poems are eccentric and cleverly strung together, often surprising his customers with abstract, sometimes personal details.

I had the privilege of chatting with him one afternoon… His blue eyes struck me, especially when he smirked casually — which was pretty often — but, as I would soon discover, smiles can hide a lot of things. I couldn’t help noticing how articulate and poetic he was even during normal conversation. He admitted…

“I write like I speak, and I speak like I write, and I don’t have any division between those modes of expression.”

Most people struggle with writer’s block all the time (I can totally testify to that), but not Allan. “I don’t think it exists any more than speaking block does, because they’re the same thing for me,” He notes. “There is always something to say, even if it’s gibberish or muttering. There’s always something on the mind. The mind never ceases to run, so a writer’s block doesn’t exist any more than a mind block exists, and I’ve never known a mind block.”

He has a collection of five typewriters and they are like friends of his sitting around him at a bar, he finds comfort in them… “I find them joyful to type on. I love that I can’t edit what I write. When I began writing, I was obsessed with editing. I’m an extremely diligent editor. I would vex myself to the point of hardly being able to write, so having a medium in which I can make no mistakes — or if there are mistakes, they become a part of the poem — has been a great blessing.”

When writing poetry for a potential customer, the words just glide easily off his fingertips and onto the page but he struggles when people close themselves off to him. “The thing that happens often, is when someone — usually a man in a suit — says “write something for my girlfriend!” and just stands back and folds his arms or talks on his smartphone without giving me any detail of what he wants. There is no human connection there, and that’s when a poem gets boring. I do the best I can, anyway. I write as much as I can see of the person and of myself, at that moment.”

Aside from composing poems on the street, he journals for himself and keeps a record of his dreams. “When I’m on the street, I’m devoting my attention to other people and diving into their stories as much as I can. It’s impossible for me to do this if I’m not in touch with my own story, so I have to keep up with that too.”

What is his story?

“It’s a very inspiring story,” he replied. There was a long pause, and I glanced up from my notebook to see his eyes shutter as he stepped back from himself. The silence ensued for a couple more seconds, punctuated by the roar of planes soaring overhead. Finally, he drew in his breath and continued, “I came into my adolescence a very confused person because I grew up in an abusive household, in which I was trapped alone with a very mentally ill woman whom I used to call my mother. Often, I start crying when I take my story seriously. I’ve had a tendency to distance myself, and this is part of what’s known as post-traumatic stress disorder, which I’m currently undergoing therapy for. I spend a lot of time away from the story of my childhood. Part of the story itself is getting in touch with the story, and that’s where the dimension of depth comes in.”

He explained that his mom had been a sex worker, which was how he was conceived. His father had no interest in being there for them, so they spent the first 10 years of Allan’s life in family court where his mom fought for child support, which eventually ended in a settlement that Allan never saw any of.

“I met him once as an adult at a health food restaurant,” he said. “He was extremely nervous and guilt-ridden, naturally, and chatted about many things to distract himself from the pain he was in. And I haven’t seen him since. I’ve spoken with him on the phone a few times. He made gestures of wanting to know me better, but when I challenged him to actually own up to those words, he didn’t. So I considered him a lost cause.”

For the first 17 years of his life, Allan was sexually abused by his own mother, who now resides at the Manhattan Psychiatric Hospital. It was difficult for him to find meaning in his life under those circumstances because he couldn’t match up her words with her actions, so he waded gingerly into adolescence with a slew of existential questions, unsure of who he was and what he was supposed to do with his life.

“Everyone has these questions, but also most people have from birth some answers to work with that they can accept,” he said quietly. Pain ran raggedly over the syllables. “I didn’t have casino pa natet answers that I could accept. I didn’t have any teaching that I could follow. I came from annihilation and despair, basically. So by the time I escaped from home at 17, I was looking for direction very urgently. My search for a workable philosophy turned me to Buddhism.”

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He was in monastic training for a few years as a wandering zen monk. During that time, he spent two years pursuing writing and music at Naropa University, a Buddhist school in Colorado. “One of the connections I had to that school was poetry,” he said. “A lot of the poets that I grew up near — poets who were my neighbors — these people also went to Naropa and taught there.” He also chose that university because of its connection to the East Village, his hometown. He considers himself a product of the 80s in the East Village, a rather specific micro-culture in New York.

“It will always be vibrant and flowing with raucous laughter because that’s the energy of the street, but it used to be much grungier,” he frowned. “Geologically, architecturally and culturally speaking, that is a place of great concentrated energy. And the people will continue to reflect that because people are a reflection of nature. But the character of the block has changed, and while there’s still an immense amount of energy there, it’s much more commercial today.”

He shared with me about how St. Marks used to be a meeting place for a lot of counter cultures, such as punk, feminist and radical intellectuals. His mother used to lecture at a Marxist institution, so strands of the Marxist culture intertwined in their household. “One good thing about my upbringing was that it was a very literate one. My mother, in addition to being extremely sick, was extremely smart, intellectually,” Allan smiled. “She taught me how to read when I was 2 or 3 and I started writing shortly after that on her IBM typewriter. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. It’s part of who I am. It’s probably one of the only things I never questioned.”

His mother was once an intellectual firebrand who used to study film and photography. His dad was incredibly smart, but neither of them really tapped into their artistic abilities. “I come from a lineage of stifled poets. My parents were artistic souls, but they chose to sell out. It’s despicable,” “I know that there are a number of intellectual and artistic people in their family, but to my knowledge, I’m the first poet.”

Not that being a street poet in New York isn’t easy. “This is pretty much the only job I have. Sometimes, I’m scoffed at because I’m a street poet. And I haven’t sought out publication. These things go a long way in the poetry world, so that hurts sometimes. But there are always bullies in the world, and they always need to be fought or avoided.”

While he has self-published books, he wants to work on a proper book. “It’s been hard to set aside time for work that doesn’t pay off immediately, and I’m so focused on making a living most of the time that it drives me to be on the street more than in my studio at home. So it’s been very difficult to work on publications because that work is mostly unpaid.”

I asked him what his life goals were, and he told me he intends to turn 27 on November 14. Chuckling, he continued, “Well, I guess I’d like to be better known. I’d like to devote more time into writing and reading, and have more time to work on artistic projects. I want to get a band together. I used to have a band in Colorado, where I was in a jazz trio.” Music and writing are both interwoven into the fabric of his life. To him, music is an essential ingredient of poetry. “I couldn’t write without music and I couldn’t make music without writing. Poetry is using language as if it were music, and that to me is as close to a definition of poetry as I can hope to get. And the definition of music is so broad that my definition of poetry also becomes broad.”

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He unveiled his shiny golden saxophone, which gleamed brightly against the dark contrast of the city we sit in. He said it used to belong to his friend’s father who passed away.

He told me about a typical day for him, which involves meditation, walking his Chihuahua and spending time with his girlfriend. And then when all that’s done, he hops on the train to Manhattan with his typewriter. “The train ride to Manhattan is about an hour-long. I usually use it to cry.”

I looked up from my notes, wondering if I’d heard him right. “I cry for my past life where I was unable to cry,” he explained calmly. “It’s an exercise in compassion for myself.” We talked about this a little more, and he admitted that he sometimes still struggles to believe that the tragedy in his past was not his fault. “It’s a major struggle for me. I just started therapy about four months ago for the first time in my life. I’m making a conscious effort to include my story more in public and in my life as an artist. Part of the reason I’m able to talk about my past with other people is because I just started talking about it with myself. This year, I’ve been starting to work with my past more.”

One of the reasons he loves what he does is because writing on the street taught him how to speak for himself and with others. “I learned that people are relatively the same.  My writing has become more direct. I used to take refuge in music. I used to hide in it. But now I’m growing and learning to recover from my past.”

And then he said something that moved me even more:

“I wish to be more active in advocating for incest survivors, especially, and in telling my story which is often heartbreaking but has a happy ending.”

After our conversation, he played a couple of songs on the sax for me. Before I left, he told me he was going to stay at the park to play more songs and use the time to cry. “The saxophone is the only socially-acceptable way to scream.” He’s right. Instruments are the voices of our souls. They enable us to express a deeper, darker side of ourselves without holding back. That’s the beauty of music. Hans Christian Anderson said, “When words fail, music speaks.”

As I walked away, the velvety vocal of his saxophone sliced through the afternoon. With each step I took, I thought about how inspiring Allan was. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your bitter past, stare it in the eye and not let it define you. And it takes a lot more to share it it with other people. The fact that he was willing to come out of his shell and spill his painful story to a complete stranger like myself — and now with the rest of the online community — is venerable. All of us are stories, you never know who you will inspire.

Check out his website or follow him on Twitter at @AllanAndrePoet. — Carissa Gan

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