Arts & Culture

North Raleigh 'Typewriter Guy' writes poems on demand

Matthew Roth writes a poem on his manual typewriter for a customer at the Solas Coffee Cafe. Roth charges $5 per poem, customized for each person.
Matthew Roth writes a poem on his manual typewriter for a customer at the Solas Coffee Cafe. Roth charges $5 per poem, customized for each person.

With a sheepish grin, Matthew Roth admits that, to the regulars at Sola Coffee Café, he has become “the typewriter guy.”

It might have something to do with that fact that every month, he sets up his 1969 Olympia SM9 typewriter at the café’s pop-up market and writes poetry on commission.

His practice is called “ Poems Typed Fresh,” and for $5, his customers receive a typewritten poem created on the spot. Requests for poems can vary widely. Roth says sometimes he gets a person’s life story, and other times, a single phrase.

“I had someone come up to me the other day and she said her request was ‘the cat that wouldn’t stop biting,’ ” Roth said. “And I stopped her and said, ‘Great. That’s all I need.’ ”

He has written poems dedicated to a woman’s long-distance boyfriend in Thailand and the memory of wrestling legend James Hellwig, known as “The Ultimate Warrior.” Once, a little boy requested a poem about Star Wars.

“I love Star Wars,” Roth said. “But I never would have written myself a poem about Star Wars. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me.”

For the 28-year-old, that is part of the appeal of writing poetry on demand.

“I don’t get to choose. It’s not my poem, it’s someone else’s,” he said.

Typically, a customer will make a request and then leave to explore the rest of the market while Roth creates the piece. It usually takes just 15 minutes to complete.

The majority of the finished products are first drafts – typos included, which Roth says adds to the charm of the typewritten poems.

The tight time frame can be a challenge. Revising and second-guessing one’s own work is one of the most fundamental aspects of creative writing, Roth says, but it can also be crippling when it comes to producing a finished work.

“When I have really limited parameters, then there’s a very limited space that I can explore,” he said. “But I still get to explore it.”

Roth is not the first person to sell poems in this style. He was originally inspired by “ Poems While You Wait,” a similar operation that started in Chicago in 2011. And he is quick to point out that there are others in North Carolina, such as Eddie Cabbage in Asheville.

“We would all approach it from a different place,” he said. “I don’t really have to distinguish myself from someone else ... (our) poems could not be more different, because (we) are different poets.”

Since his first appearance at the Sola Pop-up Market in April, Roth has written over 100 poems on commission. Although customers keep him busy at the markets, he is not a poet by trade. He works a regular job in the clinical research industry and calls the balance between a business-oriented career and his love of poetry a “central tension” in his life.

A lifelong lover of poetry, Roth wants to continue to write as a passion rather than an occupation.

“I’d rather have a life writing poetry than a career writing poetry,” he said.

Ultimately, he wants to use Poems Typed Fresh as a way to give people an experience with poetry. The $5 fee and the customization, he says, engage customers and give them an investment in the piece.

“It’s rewarding because it’s an interaction,” he said.

And the typewriter?

“It’s so novel,” he said, adding that he often has just as many conversations about his typewriter than about his poetry. “If I was just sitting there with my laptop on a table, I just wouldn’t be as magical to them.”