IF I WERE Sean Petrie, I might be able to write this column in two minutes.
Petrie, 50, is a thaumaturge with a typewriter. And no; he won’t send you to the dictionary like I just did. He specializes in down-to-earth poetry, clacked out impromptu on his manual 1928 Remington Portable No. 2.
In West Seattle, home away from home for the University of Texas law lecturer, several times a year you’ll find him escaping legalities at a festival, on a street corner, basically anywhere people are walking by. His sign, “Free Poems: Any Topic,” lures them in. After a brief chat and a few moments of focused rat-a-tat-tat, they leave with a piece of personalized art.
Petrie has collected 45 of his creations and, like a relative of this column, combined them with historical and present-day photos in a charming book: “Listen to the Trees: A Poetic Snapshot of West Seattle, Then & Now” (Documentary Media, 2020).
Which brings us to our “Then” photo, used in the book to augment a poem he wrote for West Seattleite Kerry Korsgaard about her favorite local creatures, the “nightowls.” For her theme, he conjured a 15-line tribute in the voice of the critters “Who shine / When that sun dips down” in the “shimmering / Soft darkness.”
The illustrative image is a roughly 110-year-old, hand-colored postcard of “Seattle at Night, from West Seattle.” The peaceful scene is illuminated by the lights of twin-mounded Queen Anne Hill and the moon, shimmering indeed over dark Elliott Bay while the Mosquito Fleet steamer Kennedy slices the reflection.
In the West Seattle foreground are the lamps of a small yacht and the famed Luna Park, which operated at Duwamish Head from 1907 to 1913. In our “Now” photo, taken at a slightly higher point, atop the Sunset Avenue stairclimb above Hamilton Viewpoint Park, trees obscure today’s teeming Harbor Avenue waterfront, including bike paths, Don Armeni Boat Ramp and (out of frame) the King County Water Taxi.
The poems and photos in “Listen to the Trees” encompass neighborhoods, businesses, parks and people peninsula-wide — an expansive result from a deceptively spare form.
For eight years, Petrie and others in a national writers group called Typewriter Rodeo have nurtured this approach, earning raves from the likes of cinematic thaumaturge Tom Hanks, a typewriter aficionado. “You QWERTY Cowboys,” Hanks wrote (typed). “Thank you … for keeping the sound and fury of typewriting available to all.”
In case you didn’t look it up, thaumaturge is defined as “a worker of wonders and performer of miracles; a magician.” Almost a poem in itself.