If poetry is good enough for the likes of Bill Murray and Anthony Weiner, it's certainly good enough for us. This week, the MTA Arts & Design and the Poetry Society of America set up poetry booths for the public at the MTA’s Fulton Center for Poetry in Motion: The Poet Is In. In celebration of National Poetry Month, over 20 poets (accompanied by musicians from the MTA’s Music Under New York program) assembled with typewriters on Thursday to write poems on the spot for anyone who wanted one.
People were allowed anywhere from 6-10 minutes with a poet; they would talk for a few minutes first, with the poets asking questions (how was your day, what's your favorite color, what's something intense that has happened to you recently, etc) or just having a conversation. Then the poets would type something up and read it to them. Treating poetry—an art form that demands contemplation—like instant ramen might seem like a contradictory idea, but as Poetry Society program director Charif Shanahan put it, "It's not about high quality verse as much as it's about the relatability inherent in poetry."
— Esther Sung (@essny) April 23, 2015
At its most intense (and best), it was less Poetry In Motion than Therapy In Motion; we witnessed many, many people tearing up and hugging their poet after their brief but profound connection. And even people who weren't interested in opening up got to have fun with it: the Wall Street Journal asked poet A. Van Jordan pen an ode to the MTA's funding shortfall.
— MTA Arts & Design (@MTAArtsDesign) April 24, 2015
And these were no Bloombergian poetasters writing verse—these were award-winning scribes, including such luminaries as Nick Flynn (author of the classic Another Bullshit Night In Suck City), Bob Holman (founder of the Bowery Poetry Club), Timothy Liu, Eduardo C. Corral, and the poet who came up with the event, NY State Poet Laureate Marie Howe.
Howe told us she initially came up with this project for her daughter's elementary school class; she was inspired by the booth where Lucy van Pelt from the Peanuts comic strip gave advice. "So I asked someone to make me a booth, and I said, 'The Poet Is In,'" she said. "The kids came and I had a typewriter, carbon paper and a bell."
— M M De Voe (@mmdevoe) April 23, 2015
Howe generously talked to us about the genesis of the idea, the intimacy of poetry, and her ambitions to create a permanent exhibition and bring the project around the state.
How old was your daughter then? She was probably four or five. This was at her school. People would come up and I would talk to them for a while and I would write a poem. And I always had this dream of bringing it to the streets of New York somehow. And then, happily, I was made New York State Poet. So I thought, 'Wow, maybe somehow we could do this.'
So I spoke with Sandra [Bloodworth, MTA Arts for Transit Director], who I didn't know, and said I'd love to talk with you...She was in the midst of a huge project and asked me to contact her when that project was finished...I finally talked to her and I said, 'Here is my dream, well, should I tell you my dream or my extravagant dream?' And of course Sandra's the kind of person who said 'the extravagant dream.' And after she heard it, she said okay, we gotta do it.
We created this thing called Springfest at Grand Central last year, with the Poetry Society and the MTA Arts & Design. We had a five-ring poetry circus, with many more aspects, but 'The Poet Is In' was the clear hit. It was a two and half hour wait. Within a few hours we went and got another desk, another typewriter, another poet. By the end of the first day we had three desks. I was literally running to get more lamps, more desks, more everything.
Then this year, they had an anonymous donor who said he or she wanted to help and support this, just to do it here. But the dream is to take it out in the streets, and other places: Utica, Troy, Schenectady, and the malls, where people are dying for meaning and authenticity.
It's funny, I live in the city, and like a lot of other people here have a very city-centric view of New York. But you are the poet laureate of all of New York. Well I'm from Rochester. Originally, many years ago. And Rochester may as well be Canada, you know. But there are a lot of poets there. And there are poets throughout the whole state.
Anywhere there's a university, there's going to be some poets. I created a template—my dream is to try and send the template out to arts groups who can then replicate this where they are. But I would like it to really keep the spirit of this, because no money is exchanged, for example. Even for a good cause, which is tempting: "Oh, we could use this for our fundraiser. People will spend $10 for a poem, $100 for a poem, $1 for a poem." No.
The idea is that it's a gift. And these poets are paid very little. And that, I think, is important. They work for a living, they teach. But I love the idea of anybody, people who've got money or no money, they can come in and sit down, have someone ask you a bunch of questions, talk with you, and transform what you've given them. And people get to witness a little of the transformative alchemy. And then we see the gift of a poem.
Were you inspired to bring this idea to the MTA, as opposed to doing it yourself, because of their previous poetry projects like Poetry In Motion? Of course I knew about Poetry in Motion, and I loved the Poetry Society of America, but truly I loved the idea of this Grand Central Terminal thing. That was my vision...well, this was actually the original dream. I would love to have some permanent installation in Grand Central Terminal.
And different poets could come? For so many hours a day, and then it can become a destination for people. You come to New York, you gotta go to the poet event.
Your out of town relatives come and say, "What are we gonna do today?" You gotta go to Grand Central Terminal.
Swing by and get a poem. A poem made just for you. Just for you. And we have to find funding for that, because it would be great if the city could actually, or somebody, could pay for that. And then maybe we could go to the other places—like you and I know, we live in New York, there's magic everywhere, and suffering, and poverty, and noise—but to go out into the state would also be great. But for this, you need real poets, you know, who really can riff. All of these are award-winning poets who have written books and books.
And none of these poets ever want to get up from the table. Last year, a man walked through Grand Central Terminal, and somebody called me—he was the poet laureate of New Mexico, or Santa Fe. And he was on a way to Connecticut College to give a reading. He said, "What's going on here?" So I showed him. He said, "Can I come back tomorrow and do it?" I said sure. He came back the next day, he sat down, he didn't want to get up. He said, "No, no, another hour, another hour, another hour." Because it's relational. Something happens between the person and the poet, the two persons participate in something beyond both of them.
That's a really lovely way of putting it. Look at Nick [Flynn]. Everybody hugs, everybody cries.
So it's been very warm, positive reactions? When you read your poem, everybody cries. It's just...something happens.
A lot of people I imagine are not used to experiencing that. People lose touch with poetry outside of grade school, people get intimidated, there's a gap between the idea of poetry and actually reading it. That's why this is here. To fill that gap and say, "Look, this belongs to you." This is not something you need to learn, it's not something you need to get tested on in school. Poetry has been with us since we were in caves with our children singing around the fire. This belongs to us. You get to have this, because you are human.
The sweetest thing has been all the different kinds of people. Last year, a guy sat down in front of a poet and said, "Write a poem that will bring my wife back to me." A young Chinese woman sat down and said to me, "Would you write a poem to my beloved, I am going back to China, and she's a woman and we're not allowed to love each other in China."
That's one of the things about poetry, it seems to break down a lot of defenses with people. It seems to be something where you... you can have silly and you can have fun ones, but it seems to bring out the depths in people. There's a seriousness, an emotionality that people don't allow themselves, especially in other casual encounters they have. And it brings everybody to their senses at the same moment. And that's where that alchemy relationship is really something.
— Ben Yakas (@yenbakas) April 26, 2015