At Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall Friday, about 30 poets engaged passers-by and verse aficionados alike as part of a Poetry in Motion event tied to National Poetry Month. Above, Paul Tran types verses for Rick Dutczak, whose business provided typewriters for the event. Photo: Katherine Warren
The clickity-clack of electric typewriters and the deep tones of a classical cello mingled with quotidinal hustle and bustle at Grand Central Terminal Friday.
In the midst of midtown’s frantic transport hub, people lined up in Vanderbilt Hall to sit across from strangers, open up and try to make a connection.
But they weren’t there for speed dating; they were there for poetry.
More than 30 poets spent the day writing verses for New Yorkers, most of them complete strangers, inspiring people to engage with alliteration and assonance, meter and metaphor. The free and public event, ties to National Poetry Month, was part of a years-long effort to catch New Yorkers’ attentions by the MTA Arts & Design program and the Poetry Society of America. Guitarists, cellists and violinists, performers from the MTA’s Music Under New York project, added their aesthetic.
“This is a really special event where the public gets to engage with living, breathing poets and have a really special connection with them and see themselves directly in a poem,” said Laurin Macios, program director at the Poetry Society of America. “We hope it encourages people who don’t engage with poetry, or particularly contemporary poetry, to feel inspired to do so.”
The array of writers, all of them published poets, were chosen by the Poetry Society and former New York State Poet Marie Howe. They sat at tables beneath signs proclaiming “The Poet is In.” Interested participants and poets would chat a few minutes and the poets would then tap out customized verses.
“It’s what we call on occasional poem,” Howe said. “Someone sits down, we listen to them, we ask them questions, and then we try to use what they give us and transform it in some way and put it back out. It’s this idea of bringing poetry into a public space.”
The poets asked questions such as “What’s a dream you had that you still remember?” or “If you were to tell the story of your life, what would be the first sentence?”
CUNY Prep students Talia, 18, and Jocsan, 17, sat down with Howe, and the poet asked them to imagine an door, behind which was something or someone they had lost and would like to see again.
Independently, both said they would like to see their grandmothers again.
The two students came to the event with two English teachers from CUNY Prep, a transitional school in the Bronx that helps students who’ve dropped out get their high school equivalencies. One CUNY Prep teacher, Latasha Drax, said she wanted to expose her students to a literature-based event and take them out of their comfort zones.
“Poetry is one of those art forms that they can really relate to because it connects to rap and other art forms,” she said. “They make a personal connection.”
After typing out the poems, the poets signed them and read them aloud to the recipients.
“That’s a very important part of it,” Howe said. “A lot of people cry. I think people are moved to be heard and to have what they say given back to them, transformed. And once people forget about trying to be smart or interesting, they’ll just say things that matter.”
Friday’s event was put together by the same groups that bring poetry to city dwellers by way of posters in the city’s subway cars and buses, competing with straphangers’ predilictions for their iPhones.
Claudia Candelario of Brooklyn, a poetry lover who was given a poem by poet and novelist Victoria Redel, said people appreciate reading verse in the subway.
“It’s not only me reading the poetry in there,” she said. “Some people write the name and title down or take a picture. The other day a lady asked me to switch seats so she could get a picture with the poetry.”
Public verse, in other words, invites consideration.
“It’s poetry outreach,” Macios of the Poetry Society said. “Poetry is something that creates empathy and passion and inspires people, brings people together. Getting someone out of the world of their phone and into the public space and getting to read the same poem that the person next to them is reading is really powerful.”