What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, as Friedrich Nietzsche observed. And for Ryan Ashley Knowles, that adage rings painfully true: He lost his mother to domestic violence when he was fourteen. But while his upbringing was filled with grief and tragedy, he is determined to carve out a career that thrives on positive interaction among strangers.
Knowles, a 29-year-old native of Virginia, moved to Colorado three years ago and is majoring in hospitality at Metro State University, having developed a love of dining as a child. But he also loves poetry, and so he launched Untouched Poetry last fall. The concept of this performance-poetry project is simple: You name a subject, you name a price, and Knowles writes you a poem. To meet potential patrons, he sets up shop -- and his typewriter -- at various events, where he creates his one-of-a-kind poems.
Westword recently interviewed the man behind the typewriter to discover what motivates him.
Westword: When did you decide to pursue writing as your full-time career?
Ryan Ashley Knowles: I have always been writing. I've always enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember, but I never took it too seriously. It was a coping mechanism in my teenage years and a way to express myself in my young adulthood. I would find notes and ramblings on little scraps of paper when I would move out or clean my apartment. I was always in a different state when I would write these -- usually intoxicated -- but it was good writing: excellent nonsense, gibberish, Beatnik-ish. My insecurities seemed to fade when I was writing, but when I would read them in a different state, it also revealed that I was escaping a bigger picture and that my behavior was unhealthy and destructive.
How has your major in hospitality influenced your work today?
I've spent the past decade working at different restaurants as a server who thrives on connection to guests and is able to provide them with a good time. Untouched Poetry is similar to dining, in a strange way. It's a job, but it's a way to engage with strangers, very naturally and communal in a sense, like eating and talking, but never forced.
The guests are looking for you to provide them with a good time and a great service. Sometimes you spend your time making others smile so much that you forget to smile at the end of the day. I have had conversations with people that have been like therapy, working in restaurants and writing poems. But how great is it that people depart with a poem -- a piece of art, a memento, a keepsake of our interaction and experience together? That is the beauty of Untouched Poetry.
What subjects have people requested poems on?
Surprisingly, many people want poetry about their dogs or pets. Some have asked for poems on the death of loved ones, which gives me the chance to connect with them and make it positive. I wrote an amazing poem on a samurai attack. Many are humorous and lighthearted, like phallic imagery or pot. I am not going to get super-deep or elegant about a penis, so some are clever and tongue-in-cheek. But it depends on how the person presents their subject at hand.
What does the "untouched" in Untouched Poetry represent for you?
Untouched Poetry was originally Poems for Sale, but I didn't like the connotation of money and consumption, so I changed it. I like "untouched" because it represents that these poems have never been read or created before. Each is entirely unique, and in the moment.
What is the range of payment you have accepted for poetry?
Wow, I've accepted many things, like pieces of paper with phone numbers, a smiley face, or an IOU scribbled on them. The average is five to ten dollars, although I do get the occasional twenty when someone is especially satisfied with their poem.
What is your attraction to typewriters, and how many do you own?
I love typewriters, because I purchase them from antique stores and I imagine all of the owners who pressed the keys before me, and how many letters, stories or words that it produced. They have a positive energy. I have three typewriters, but only two work. I need to come up with names for them.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I'm inspired by everything, but my lady friend Jessica inspires me the most. She encouraged me to really turn my life around and become focused on my creative outlets and turn my past experiences into something healthy. She rescued me from my self-loathing and destructive habits. Now I am writing poems for people, and it feels right. I eat healthier and don't party as hard as I used to.
My father shot my mother in front of me when I was fourteen, and he was sent to prison. I was left with my grandmother and had to suffer adolescence on my own terms. It was a horror, but I survived it, and now I want to inspire others and show them how they can use their creativity to produce positivity in their lives. I am an open book, and I don't have anything to hide from. In fact, if I ever publish a book, I want it to be called The Open Book. I learn and grow from my experiences like everyone else.
What are some events you have lined up this year? Most First Fridays art walks on Santa Fe, and at the Denver Arts Society. I'll be on Boulder's Pearl Street on any random warm winter weekend day. Denver's Farmers' Market just accepted my request to post up at their events starting in May! I am contacting some markets in the city to post up at, such as Wash Park and others. I am also going to be searching for art festivals of all kinds to work at this summer. I want to emphasize my desire to work private parties and events such as weddings, birthdays and whatever else.
We paid five dollars for a poem about fashion, and it goes like this:
in the eyes of design your oblivion is masked the situation of beauty formed closer to a task
the comfort of knowing the ability to prepare a form of expression with materialism you dare
fare formalities of style your energy is unique brave your own creation don't forget about your feet.
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Contact Ryan Ashley Knowles here.