When Ryan Knowles isn’t waiting tables at Barley Swine, he straps on his suspenders, grabs his folding card table and unloads a 1950s Olympia typewriter. The farmers’ markets and streets of Austin become his workspace.
Knowles used to have a habit of writing poetry for people at bars and on restaurant napkins. But when his then-girlfriend’s mom encouraged him to turn it into something more, he began the project Untouched Poetry in 2010. Now, he sets up his typewriter every weekend in popular places, such as South Congress, and waits for people to request a poem.
“I dubbed it Untouched Poetry because it’s art being created without ever having been seen before,” Knowles said. “It’s right there on the spot. It’s untainted.”
Before writing, Knowles gets to know his customers and asks them what they want their poem to be about. People choose topics such as loved ones, dogs and holidays.
“There’s a connotation with poetry that it has to be deep, but it could be about blueberries and Legos,” Knowles said. “I’ll get a little bit of information, and an image pops up in my head. I write a line or two about it, and usually everything just starts to unravel.”
After about two or three minutes of writing, Knowles hands over the typed free-form poem, signed and dated on antique-looking paper. Although he doesn’t charge customers, most people tip him.
Journalism senior Hector Perez filmed Knowles for a day while working on a video assignment for his “TV Reporting and Producing” course. Perez said most customers gave Knowles $5 or $10, but one customer, who asked for a Mother’s Day poem, gave him $40.
“Writing is tough, especially right there on the spot in two or three minutes, just cranking something out with a person there looking at you the whole time,” Perez said. “And it wasn’t just a bunch of words on there. It was all really good.”
Accounting junior Christina Chatterpaul requested a poem at a farmers’ market a few weekends ago. Knowles wrote a poem about her and her friends’ trip to the market to buy turnips. The poem began: “You find your self rooted / like the turnips in hand / like the childish love / of a perfect violin.”
“It was written really beautifully,” Chatterpaul said. “It’s really cool to see this guy take a lost art or old school thing and bring it into today. Most writers write books to try to be published, but he’s writing for a direct audience.”
In addition to writing on the streets, Knowles works events such as parties and weddings. Knowles said he hopes a year from now, Untouched Poetry will be his full-time job. He has been writing poetry since the third grade, but certain events have encouraged him to turn to writing more than others. Eight days after his 14th birthday, his mother was killed in an act of domestic violence. His father, now in prison, was convicted of killing his mother in front of Knowles and three of his siblings.
“I started writing a lot more,” Knowles said. “I always considered myself a sensitive, romantically observant person. Once I was faced with that tragedy, I would turn to the pen to release expression.”
Over the years, he turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with the trauma. Now, Knowles has removed those substances from his life and finds solace in meditation, but the sadness he feels over losing his mom continues to influence his writing.
“Sadness is almost beautiful because it’s real and it’s raw,” Knowles said. “I’m working with myself to allow those things to come up and to not run from them but to sit with them and find healing.”