The first to arrive, I wait at the base of the Gandhi statue and watch as this unexpected March warmth worked its magic through Union Square. We’re all a little more exposed today, offering stretches of previously shrouded skin to spring’s first bursts of sunshine. All too eager to expose enough of myself to don my first sundress of the season, I wasn’t feeling quite as easy about the way in which I was about to expose myself for the first time. There, in the midst of dodging the already drunk St. Patrick’s Day celebrators, I nervously sipped my iced coffee and tried to dodge my own fears. I was about to join the PUP team in breaking down the walls of the expected, breaking the accepted social contract between strangers on the train.
One by one, the PUPs trickled into the park, and it was time to step into the subway and out of my comfort zone. I swallowed my last drop of coffee and the jitters working their way through me and followed, repeating to myself the piece of artistic—and general life—advice a coworker had passed onto me: just say yes to every opportunity, and figure the rest out as you go. So we descended the subway steps and spread out along the platform, and when the train came, we took our different spots along the car, not acknowledging one another. And as the Q train barreled through the tunnel toward Brooklyn, the first poet stood and broke the silence, the walls, the convention.
It all happened for me in a sort of electric blur, a series of flashes, my entire body buzzing. There was no time to remember the jitters nesting in me, no room to let them manifest. Flash. One man pulled out his camera phone and began filming. Flash. I watched the smiles spread. Flash. Adam finished and a woman who had been weaving her way through the center of the train when we got on joined in and wanted to do a poem of her own. Flash. Another camera. Then another. Flash. A little boy holding onto the middle pole with a few other small children looked up at his mother and asked, “Is this how it’s always like on the train?” Flash. Another poet rose and commanded the attention of everyone on their Saturday afternoon commute like a conductor of this symphony of chaos-turned-art. Flash. One woman sitting down turned to me, not realizing yet that I was a part of it, and said, “This is the best subway ride ever!” Flash. I was up and in the center and the poem was tumbling out from behind my teeth and I wanted to exist in that moment forever. Flash. Flash. Flash. And just like that it was over. But the almost tangible charge of electricity continued to surge through me, remained in all of us it seemed, and in those strangers we left behind at Atlantic Avenue, we hoped. Although not so much strangers anymore. We had all exposed, or been exposed, together.
I was recently trying to argue to a friend the merits of messiness, the beauty of a little bit of chaos and the unknown. At a poetry reading in a bar or bookstore or coffee shop, the audience knows what they’re in for, they’ve come for the poetry, and to some extent the poets know what to expect from the audience. And here we were, back out in the subtle heat that seems to have shown its face so early, and yet couldn’t have come soon enough. Here we were, newly exposed. And perhaps more than anything else, I felt pride. Not simply because I had managed somehow in all the messiness to surround myself with some of the most talented and beautiful humans, eager and grateful to bare their own raw selves to an unsuspecting world, but pride, also, for having said yes and allowing myself to figure it out as I went along, despite the quiet and shyness that is so loud inside my head. And isn’t that what poetry does? Challenges you as much as your reader or audience? It takes you to a place inside yourself you don’t feel quite safe going, it exposes you to the world, or the world to you, and what was opened up in you will always remember the warmth of the sun you never expected to feel there, the smell of the pink blossoms exploding into spring behind Gandhi’s bowed head.
–Victoria Lynne McCoy