Poetry is key to why he's an ACE awards honoree

Poetry is key to why he's an ACE awards honoree

ST. JOSEPH — Jim O'Brien focuses on the black-and-white-lettered keys on his red 1960s Olivetti typewriter. A blank, narrow piece of cardstock sits there waiting for words.

It's so quiet in the St. Joseph township library that you can hear tires swooshing over the rain-soaked highway outside.

Suddenly, the clicking of keys pierces the silence as O'Brien pounds out another of his "Poems on Tap."

Title first.

"On Every Corner"

Then, more silence, thinking. He re-adjusts his flat cap. "Hmmmms" a bit. More clicking. Another pause. He bobs his head side-to-side, taps his feet, all in a sort of rhythm. Clicking again.

O'Brien deliberately strikes each key. No backspace on the Olivetti. No exclamation mark, either, but he makes it work. His poetic ditty takes shape.

Extra! Extra!
Read all about it:
Dinosaurs roam the city of Champaign.
Well, not like in the movies or the history
books. Today's version are dinosaurs only in
the sense that history has moved on beyond
their time. Some might say poetry is one,
which I hadn't considered until she asked
me about a world where there was none.

Rather than the usual poetic requests about dogs, cats or favorite colors, O'Brien is pondering the idea of a world without poetry.

A serious challenge of imagination for this 56-year-old father, husband and UI employee, who not only devotes much of his free time to writing poetry but also commits many hours to helping others write poetry at weekly Champaign Public Library workshops, or inspiring others to share their words at "Poets at the Post," a regular event of his making at the Iron Post, or coordinating an annual poetry contest — with the winning piece displayed on MTD buses. That has inspired a program at Urbana Uni High that does the same with students' poetry.

"It's bringing more poetry to the community. So that's great," says O'Brien, who will be honored with the Volunteer ACE Award at 40 North's annual celebration Thursday.

An ambassador of poetry, his own work has appeared in "Pegasus," "Bear River Review," "Pilcrow & Dagger" and many other publications under the pen name James Escher — because a quick internet search yields a lot of Jim O'Briens.

With traveling typewriter in tow, he has penned more than 200 "poems on demand" for people at farmers markets, festivals, private parties, the Wheelhouse in St. Joseph, wherever.

Free verse, personal pieces, he types while people wait, fleshing out their chosen topic in conversation and reading the poem to them when he's done.

"I always have tissues," he says, explaining that some choose very emotional topics.

But he gets good lines and ideas from his Poems on Tap that inspire his own writings for publication.

"The two feed each other," he says.

After several minutes, his Olivetti is still clicking away in the corner of the library, interrupted with an occasional ding.

He pauses, looks up from the keys.

"When I refurbish my typewriters, I always make sure the bell works," says O'Brien, who has six Olivettis and still finds typewriter ribbons on eBay. "People love to hear the bell. I do, too."

Back to clicking.

The moonlighting poet, who lives in St. Joseph, knows he's typed 200 of his bookmark poems, because that's how many cards he's gone through so far. A friend saw one of his poems tacked to a woman's refrigerator once.

They dubbed him "refrigerator famous" and even wrote a poem about him with that title.

"It was beautiful," he says.

A fan of fiction, especially from favorites like Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac, O'Brien slowly drifted into writing poetry years ago to help boost imagery in his writing.

"And I never looked back," he says.

By academic standards, O'Brien says, his bookmark poems probably don't qualify as poetry.

"But I enjoy doing them and people enjoy receiving them," he says. "For a lot of people, it's their first experience with poetry, or they haven't experienced any in a long time, other than a Hallmark card."

Back to dinosaurs.

Twelve minutes after banging out the title, he finishes "On Every Corner."

I countered with the daily newspaper, whose
editions used to be hawked from every
corner by boys with shoulder bags that
hung to their knees each time a special
event happened, or at least that's how it
was in movies, which seem to be thriving.
Movies whose scripts used to be typed on
machines like this one, on the edge of extinction.
Not if I can help it.

Honor roll

40 North will honor seven people or businesses at its annual ACE (Arts, Culture, Education) awards celebration Thursday in Champaign. The honorees, whose stories we'll tell between now and then:

Advocate Award: Kelly Hieronymus
Artist Award: Peggy Shaw
Volunteer Award: Jim O'Brien
Business Award: Exile on Main Street
Teacher Award: Brandon T. Washington
Student Award: Natalie Wakefield
Lifetime Award: Dorothy Martirano

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Topics (2):Books, People