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The Soul of the Old Machine

Hearkening to the Poetic Song of the Typewriter

January 25, 2004|ANDREW JOHN IGNATIUS VONTZ

In our wireless-broadband-text messaging era of instant gratification, the manual typewriter would seem about as relevant as the Pony Express. But for Jen Hofer, poet, typewriter collector and escritorio publico, the imperfection of pre-digital technology is the stuff of romance.

"I like that you have to write a little bit more slowly than you do on the computer," says Hofer, a Spanish speaker who owns 21 manual typewriters and honors the Mexican street tradition of letter-writing-for-hire by setting up her own booth on busy Los Angeles thoroughfares. "I like the sound. I like the way the letters bite into the paper. I like that they're uneven. I like that you can feel there is a human being involved in doing it. I like the whole manual mess of it."

If all of this seems a bit seems a bit lyrical, perhaps it's the poet in Hofer coming out. She studied writing at Brown University and translation and poetry at the University of Iowa. Hofer, whose father is Argentine, refreshed her childhood Spanish when she went to Mexico City to work on an anthology of Mexican poetry. Today, the Cypress Park resident works as a translator of Spanish language poems, fiction and nonfiction.

A frequenter of thrift stores and estate sales, Hofer paid just a few bucks for her first typewriter, a Royal Quiet De Luxe. "I write a lot of letters and so I started using this to write letters and poems," she says. A collection was born that today includes four Smith-Corona Sterlings, three Royal Quiet De Luxes, an Underwood Universal and two plastic children's typewriters. "I don't play favorites with my typewriters," she says. Except one, that is: an Olivetti Lettera 22 with a Spanish language keyboard that belonged to Hofer's grandmother.

The 22 is the weapon of choice for Hofer's escritorio publico project, a poetic undertaking that's as much literary performance art as a professional sideline. Hofer sets up shop every 10 days or so with her grandmother's typewriter, a folding table and a sign outlining her prices--$2 for a letter, $3 for a love letter and $5 for an illicit love letter.

Hofer has written everything from love letters to an apology to the New Mexico DMV for a man sending in a check past due. Takers range from creative types who view her services as an art project to Spanish speakers who don't bat an eye at what they view as a normal element of city life. She lists her oddest commission as a letter for a student applying to Stanford's master's of fine arts program. "The guy was like, 'Yeah, so-and-so from Time magazine said he would write a recommendation but he said, "You write it and I'll sign it." ' '' Instead, Hofer says, the applicant "described his work to me and how he knew the guy, and I wrote the letter."

For Hofer, the point is sharing the power of the written word and using language to bring people together. "The happenstance, incredibly beautiful human connections I have every time make it worth it," she says.

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