In April of 2009, a friend told me her roommate was looking for writers for an art project. She emailed me the call and I applied through the normal channels.
A week later, I went to her apartment to wile away a hot afternoon and talk about fruitless job hunting. We sat on her front steps and ate from a big bowl of just-in-season strawberries, wearing shorts and airy dresses for the first time that year. She introduced me to her willowy, broad-smiling roommate, J.P. King, as he hurried inside with an armful of wooden planks – “They were being thrown away!” he called – and as he hurried out again, on his way to buy bolts from the RONA up the street.
There was an overturned wheelchair in their kitchen attached to a growing structure of wood and wheels. “He built all that today,” my friend said. “All out of stuff he found.”
King was building the Nomadesk, a “site-specific, mobile residency” that sought to “expose the writer’s
secret craft to the public, while simultaneously providing the writer with portable solitude,” according to the call. It was a writer’s desk on wheels, a homebrewed link between body and typewriter.
The day of my residency, I was the last of four writers at the Parc du Portugal site, a tiny urban green space in Little Portugal dominated by a gazebo.
I came early. The writer who preceded me had chosen to stay stationary, and the cart was in the parked in the middle of a path. Fat, squatting pigeons paid her no attention. King and I sat on a nearby bench, watching her and chatting.
When my turn came, King asked if I would prefer to stay in one place or be pushed around the busy commercial streets of the Plateau. I wanted to move. We had some technical glitches getting started: loose papers had to be secured with a rock so they’d stop blowing off in the wind, and I hadn’t used a typewriter in years. He had to remind me how to roll in fresh paper, push the carriage back for a new line. I was also shocked at how loud and resistant this particular typewriter was. Each key had to be slammed in, finger by finger, in order to leave any imprint at all. I was used to thinking “and.” Now I had to think “A! N! D!”
As we rolled out of the park, I was aware of how busy the sidewalks were, how we were in a neighbourhood of clothing shops, record stores, cafes, bakeries, and offices, how some people stepped out of our way and some people came closer. But I was much more aware of the damn typewriter. The cart rolled less smoothly than I imagined it would. The typewriter and my body shivered and bounced with the smallest imperfections in the sidewalk, out of time with one another, making my hands fumble for the home row. The energy and commitment it took to get the hammer to strike the paper, combined with the absence of a backspace key, forced me to rethink how I wrote. Ink on paper is forever. Were my fingers where I thought they were? Did I believe in this letter? Was I certain about it? My first few typos gave me pause, but the later ones became part of the work itself. Seeing three Es in a row, overlapping each other, only the last one completely legible, came to hold its own sort of poetry.
King steered slowly. For me, it was less like riding a bike and more like sitting on the needle of a record player, feeling for each groove in the vinyl.
It didn’t take long, though, for all that to pass away. On my way to meet King, I had been listening to Beirut, a Balkan folk band from New Mexico who played grim melodies on the ukulele and accordion. Listening to them on my iPod in the street made me expect a parade to come around the corner or explode through a wall, a parade of sad clowns and gothic monsters playing big cymbals and bass drums strapped to their chests. The image was still on my mind as King pushed the Nomadesk down St. Laurent. I wrote a long prose poem about this dark circus; the magicians and their twisted instruments and the text on the page took over, and the sensations of the real world faded, exactly as they do at my nice, quiet desk at home.
There were moments that would snap me back. When we stopped at intersections, I would look up at the traffic signals and other people waiting. My brain snagged when we encountered someone in an actual wheelchair. At one point, we passed a reflective storefront, and I watched my panning image in the center of this ridiculous-looking contraption. The most memorable was when King told me he was going to pop into a Tim Hortons for a muffin. He left me parked outside and a small crowd gathered, mostly people on smoking breaks from a nearby office tower.
King let me decide when I was ready to head back to the park. I initially though we’d finish when the discomfort and self-consciousness became too much, but in the end, it was when I felt the poem was finished.
I’m one of those writers who almost never uses a pen. I live for my laptop. Writing in motion, writing that made my body ache, writing that was more typos than intention in the end – the physicality of the Nomadesk is what stuck with me, not the exhibitionism. My experience might have been similar if King had been pushing me through a ghost town.
King told me that he doesn’t know what became of the Nomadesk. He left it in its parking spot and only checked on it a year later. It was gone. “It lives on my imagination,” he wrote, “and I see further incarnations of it in future. I really enjoyed my time pushing.”
I enjoyed the ride.
Kim Fu is a writer based in Vancouver. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Vancouver Review, The Tyee, and Room, and has been aired on CBC Radio.