A little boy sporting a blue jacket and glasses skipped through the recently renovated Fulton Center, clutching a custom-made poem in his hands. “It’s really good!” he cried.
On Thursday, the Lower Manhattan transit hub doubled as a poet’s garret as MTA Arts and Design and the Poetry Society of America joined forces to celebrate National Poetry Month. The event, called “Poetry in Motion: The Poet Is In,” invited members of the public to come and have a poem written just for them, on the spot. The two organizations are also responsible for the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” program, which has put poems up in empty ad spaces throughout the MTA system since 1992.
More than twenty poets came down to Lower Manhattan on Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. to write on-demand poems for anyone willing to wait in line, free of charge. They included New York State’s poet laureate, Marie Howe, as well as Sharon Olds, Patrick Phillips, Bob Holman, A. Van Jordan, Donna Masini, Lynn Melnick, Timothy Donnelly, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and others.
Four poets were present at any given time, sitting at small tables set up in the Fulton Center’s street-level atrium, where they met with individuals for five to six minutes at a time. Each table held a typewriter and a stack of carbon paper, which made the process a little more, well, poetic.
Staffers, from both MTA Arts and Design and the Poetry Society of America, went around replenishing carbon paper (and consulting one another on the proper way to feed the archaic material into the equally archaic equipment). Violinist Luellen Abdoo, a participant in the MTA’s Music Under New York program, serenaded the proceedings, posting up on a staircase landing overlooking the event. Like the poets, several musicians were scheduled to trade off throughout the day.
As the event kicked off, a steady stream of people stopped to wait in line, many with young children and strollers in tow. A group of about ten fourth- and fifth-graders from the nearby Lang School queued up with their teacher, Katy Keenan, who explained that poet Bob Holman was going to write a poem for the class. A few students perched on the edge of the windowsill while they waited, reading and complaining that they weren’t going to get individual poems. Other students were more animated: “Everybody’s smiling with joy!” one girl pointed out, watching the happy customers receive their poems.
Gabriel Skop, a 58-year-old ESL teacher, was one of the first patrons in line. “It was amazing!” he said of his experience. “I don’t know what I was anticipating, what the process is. We just had a conversation, but it was happening from the moment I sat down.” He added, “I’m thrilled with my poem. I’m gonna keep it close to my vest.”
The event’s location, in a transit hub that provides access to ten train lines, offered the perfect opportunity for MTA riders to stumble upon it spontaneously. Alphonse Gonzales, a twenty-year-old musical theater student at nearby Pace University, was on his way home from a poetry café hosted by his Spanish teacher. “My teacher is really passionate about poetry,” he said. The teacher had even started to cry when he read his own poem. “I definitely feel that way about theater,” Gonzales said. He was hoping to deepen his comprehension of poetry: “I respond really passionately to music, but poetry I don’t really understand.” It was a particularly windy, chilly day, so he ducked into the Fulton Center for warmth and, having just come from a poetry reading, joined the line on a whim.
As new poets arrived to replace the originals, some technical problems arose. It took some time for the staff members to realize they had been loading the carbon paper into the typewriters the wrong way. And the typewriters themselves proved tricky to maneuver; plenty of patrons walked away with typo-riddled poems. But the technical limitations only heightened the whimsy of the event. Donna Masini, banging on the sticky typewriter keys with frustration, exclaimed, “This is the damnedest typewriter. I look like e.e. cummings!”