It started almost 10 years ago in Tallahassee, where I was born into spoken word. I was younger then and much more fearless. With my poetry troupe (BACK TALK!) I used to do poems on the streets of New Orleans and everywhere else we travelled. Keith and I used to perform poetry and hustle our CD’s in barbershops on Fridays (pay day). And more recently: my 40 minute featture at a 7,000 person audience in Prospect Park–99% of them definitely not there for poetry. A needle exchange program in midtown, the one by buddy Jon runs. Rikers Island Jail. The health clinic waiting room where I performed poems while people waited to get screened for HIV. Halfway through my set I asked the audience if they had ever been to a poetry venue. They watched me. I asked them if they liked poetry. The answer: we do now.
That equal parts warmed me and angered me. I do not think I should be someone’s first good impression of poetry but I was happy to have to do for the time being.
Then there was Roger’s poem, which was about him reading a poem he loved on a train , only for the riveted audience to learn in the end that the incident never happened.
I asked myself: well why the hell not?
And so I started PUP–Poets in Unexpected Places. And this Sunday was our first official meeting. First to show was Moses, not one of the poets, but a photographer/ aspsiring filmmaker who is passionate about our venture and was happy to capture it. Seven poets, a magnificent seven, showed on this drippy day, all in varying moods and states of mind, to gather in front of the statue of Ghandi hardly anyone knew was there until now. The locale was no coincidence. This had everything to do with being the change.
An hour later, we found ourselves underground, all seven of us boarding the Brooklyn bound Q train as perfect strangers, everyone seating themselves…except for me. And so it begins. The inst ant the doors closed I announced to the entire car:
“Miss Rosie. A poem by the late great American poet, Lucille Clifton.”
Elana would later tell me that the moment I uttered the Lucille Clifton’s name, a woman across from her smiled–an auspicious blessing to our debut as a collective.
And without an inch of fear in my heart, just love, I launched into one of my favorite poems in the world. The commut-iny had officially begun!
My captive audience knew not what to make of me. I hardly even looked in their faces., so I cannot say what they looked like. I reveled in not caring. How liberating. Not caring about anything but the words of Lucille Clifton belting out of me. This was the closest a poem not mine could ever be to being mine. And here I was, sharing it with 50+ new friends. What insane fun.
The commuters that put me in the crazy box lifted their eyes when in the second stanza, of “Miss Rosie” Elana rose and joined me, also off paper–a group piece! If folk didn’t know it then, they knew it now: this was no accident. And if I was a crazy girl, then I wasn’t being crazy all by myself. Because here was Elana, my partner in crime (literally, now) finishing my lines and meeting my gaze for an instant only to whip around attack the other end of the car.
“I stand up,” Elana and I said in unison. “Through your destruction/ I stand up.”
We sat down. Say Word! I yelled.
Some people looked about, delightfully confused. Whose universe had they just walked into? Ours, dammit. Others remained cool like they see this every day. Liars. I was certain they were exploding inside. Some swallowed their smiles and others made billboards of them, advertising their glee.
One by one, each with their own swaggalicious attitude, the poets made themselves known. Akua liberated her hands of her umbrella, tossing it down to the floor. Pacing the car front to back, front to back, she shared with us her thoughts on “nappy headed hoes” and mused on her own cantankerous mane. She was great to watch, swinging around poles like a pro, sometimes even stooping to address certain people directly, a graceful confrontation.
Say word! Word…
They weren’t quite there yet, but were starting to warm up to us. Suspicion fell away. Conversations stopped. I-pods clicked off (or turned up!); headphones remained on for protection. Especially when Jon stepped on the scene with his goofball intelligence and sharp poetic logic. His imagery is so disarmingly off the wall it makes you think. Like really think. While tickling you with its feathers that soared across the car. People began to smile with teeth now. Laughed, even. They couldn’t help themselves.
Say Word! Word.
Only for Jai to rise, June Jordan book in hand. Hoodie covered head, he read with this stance , turning the train into his surf board. I’ve seen Jai perform countless times and I have never seen him perform like this. We were no longer on an elevated stage confined behind a microphone. We were underground, baby! Straight up guerrilla style! People to maneuver. Shopping bags to side step. Babies to consider. Poles to swing on and cling to for emphasis, safety, dramatic effect. The train became a playground. And everywhere each of us looked, at least one of the magnificent seven were there , to support the moment.
The Q train emerged from the underground, plunging the car into daylight. A stunning view of Brooklyn assaulted our gazes, its brown buildings. The dreary day created an intimacy that could only help our cause. Which is to say, finding the comfort outside of the comfortable. Which means, being much less silent than we have been. Ambassadors for our craft. Making it known that poetry lives and breathes–often right beside them. People looked about. Who would it be next? And why was no one asking for change? We were simply being it.
Say word! Word!
Awkward moments passed, even for me. Three poets left to go before we finished this round and hopped another train. Silence. Were people chickening out? Commuters looked about. No one knew who they were sitting next to. Was that the last? Others looked suspiciously about at others. Are you next? Are you? Then Ed, who had been seemingly engrossed in a text stood and began to read from his own chap book. Alien Registration Number? he asked. Cleverly weaved, with very few words, he made his point without making it, and every immigrant in the car couldn’t help but smile in silent recognition, including me.
And just when they thought they heard it all, here comes Adam. Adam who is so damn charming and disarming it makes your teeth hurt. Grabbing onto the pole dramatically, like an old curmudgeon telling us youngings a tale of his wild youth, Adam spit a poem about his younger days, when he was first learning to dance to Black music. The nostalgia of remembering all the embarrassing things we did to impress our peers, we chuckled and laughed emerged from the poem incredibly warmed.
There was the demon train, where very few people showed appreciate for us. We later discovered that the cars in that particular model are considerably longer than the newer models, and the chairs aren’t conducive to energy flowing, making us work incredibly hard, not realizing why. That train was draining but I loved it! The demon train. Next time we’ll be ready for it.
One car in particular, the “love train” we came to call it, was so outwardly appreciative of our presence we left the car overwhelmed with the sound of their clapping trailing us. They applauded more appreciatively than some slam audiences of today. By the third poet in, they were warmed and with us, and understood what we were about. At the end of that ride with the love train, the most amazing 20 minutes of concentrated joy I’ve lived in recent memory, after everyone else said their piece, I stood up.
Full circle when I launched into one of my personal favorites. The first poem I ever did on a train–two months prior. It was a Wednesday morning as dreary as this Sunday afternoon. Except I was alone, and surrounded by strangers. Not alone and forever lonely. It was one of those dreaded mornings, a personal struggle to get out of bed. I was on the first of my three train commutes to Juilliard where I teach. It’s a great place to be, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do it today. I looked around. Everyone looked as I felt. As we crammed our bodies into the car , waddling into one another like penguins in our black winter coats. Huddling without touching. Touching without being touched.
My heart racing with fear, with amazing rage, one that is growing in me with each passing day, welled up out my throat and exited in the form of “Signs”, one that slipped out my pen years ago in Charlottesville, VA where I attended grad school. This is a poem that has made its travels. South African television (people, stopping me on the streets), Prospect Park Bandshell, Trinidad, prisons, Bar 13, Bowery, Nuyorican, and bars and coffee shops across the country.
And here I was. In a place I spend more time in than any of those places. And instead of the whine of the latte machine or the loquacious guests at the bar, my competition was the rattle of this express train raping its rails.
I went to the end of the car and looked at these people we demanded be our audience. The MTA frowns on this behavior because this here, was a captive audience. Captive indeed. And inside that audience, six magnificent faces stared back at me, these people I will never, ever forget. This moment. I was not alone or lonely this time.
“The same thing that slowly kills us is exactly the thing keeping us alive.”
This time the response was overwhelming, as the crowd roared. Moments later, the car doors open. We thanked our audience for listening (even though they had no choice) and they thanked us profusely with their well wishes and lasting clapped. Before we left the car, we said: You just got PUPPED!
After two hours, we all ate afterwards and stewed in what had just taken place, recalling moments, trading observations, gratifying moments, disintergrated terror, what worked and what didnt. But mostly we teased: jai’s surf board stance, akua’s confrontation ed’s stalker piece, when he yelled a line out the door to an exiting commuter right before the doors closed.
I reached home in the early evening and plunged beneath the covers, the hardest I think I ever performed. It was brutal; it was benign. It was freeing. It was draining. So much so that I did not get out of bed until the following morning, when I woke up, full and full of disbelief, bypassed breakfast, and visited my work station to write this.