Booker Middle School students will gladly write you a verse . . . on a machine built before they were born.
If you see a group of students out and about in Sarasota typing on typewriters, don’t stop and lecture them on technique, technology or the merits of Wite-Out.
Booker Middle School creative writing teacher Joanna Fox said she’s working on teaching her students, who call themselves the Dragonfly Cafe, how to think on their feet and express themselves creatively through the use of manual typewriters.
“People are quick to point out they aren’t typing on a typewriter correctly,” said Fox. “The kids are learning to develop thoughts on the spot and be comfortable speaking to strangers. Young people are often overlooked in society.”
Fox is the teacher in charge of the Dragonfly Cafe, which a group of young poets. They travel around to different events in Sarasota with their typewriters and a jar filled with words on pieces of paper. Patrons at the events draw three words from the jar or choose three words if they really want to test the young poets, and the students write a poem for them — on the spot — based on the words.
The Dragonfly Cafe began in 2004 when Fox launched the creative writing program. She organized a coffee house night for students and their parents, which she still does. The students get to read their work and the parents are able to see what the students work on all year. She named it the Dragonfly Cafe because, at the time when she came up with the idea, her sister had just given her a dragonfly necklace.
Over the years, their reputation has preceded them in the community. Hotels and event committees started reaching out to Fox and asking her to bring the students to perform their poetry writing in person.
There are four jars that participants can pull out of with 100 words in each jar. There are some repeats, so 75 words are unique in each jar, and an eventgoer has the possibility of drawing 225 different combinations.
Aubrey Patrick has been to two events as a Dragonfly Cafe poet this year. She has blue streaks in her hair, which she wears in pigtails.
“I think it’s fun to learn how to professionalize and speak to people we don’t know,” said Patrick. “We don’t get paid, we get to be known in the community, and we’d like to be known as people who are wanting to have a positive impact on the community.”
It’s not required for the students to participate in the typewriter events around Sarasota, but the students think it’s good practice.
Student Josie Jorgensen said sometimes people think they specialize writing with typewriters, which isn’t true.
“It can sometimes be hard to press down the keys all the way, and there’s no backspace. You can’t delete it if you mess up!” said Jorgensen.
Fox bought most of the typewriters at Goodwills in the area for around $10 or $15. She has a collection now, around 10 old typewriters.
“I got them originally for aesthetic purposes,” said Fox. “A lot of people are surprised to see kids on typewriters.”
Fox said none of the students are required to attend these events the Dragonfly Cafe attends, but the real Dragonfly poets do. They aren’t paid, but they do accept tips that goes towards fixing the typewriters and buying the students food as a reward at events with food trucks.
“I can tell in the first couple of weeks if a student is going to become a Dragonfly poet,” said Fox. “They have a sense of community, they can think on their feet, their forms of expression are clear. They want to help each other.”
Fox said a student she had once explained it best what she is hoping to accomplish with these after-school programs.
“A student came back to visit after many years and said, ‘You didn’t teach me how to write poetry, you taught me how to become a poet,’” Fox said. “I can’t think of a better way to explain it than that.”