Should poetry be whispered in the dark? Should it be a communion with the dead, transacted silently through the media of paper and lamplight? Ought it to roll out of the whale-mouths of men on stages (maybe grumpy orators in black fedoras?) Should it arrive from the mouths of girls in sequins and combat boots—or from the mouths of boys in sequins and combat boots—whose whiskey-voices crackle in the backs of bars? Should teachers with elbow patches pass it out in stacks? Does it die in the air if badly read?
The questions are both important and silly. Asking them is like comparing ways of worship. I can’t say that it is better to shout and clap your devotion than it is to believe one must preserve a holy silence. The question is always: how do you honor a text?
On a bright May Wednesday evening in New York, I left the writing class I teach in a dark movie-viewing room in the basement of the NYU’s Tisch building. I stopped in the hall to nervously apply red lipstick, and then I boarded the subway on a secret mission.
I met my co-conspirators beside a fountain in Bryant Park. It was one of those first Spring days in the city—when the late light is white-wine colored and everything feels about to explode. Two journalists with camera and microphone arrived to record our experiment, and their presence was both unnerving and comforting. The camera seemed to legitimize our odd project. But part of the project’s ethos is that it doesn’t need legitimizing.
This was my first time. Members of PUP (Poets in Unexpected Places) have been performing poems on ferries, in laundromats and in subways around NYC for a while. I’ve known a number of its members for as long as ten years and asked to join the group months ago. But at the last minute I’d always chicken out.
On this particular Wednesday, someone said something to someone, and then rather magically we strode in separate streams towards Time Square. I had a pain in my stomach that I understood to be excitement and camaraderie. When I was nineteen, I used to compete in poetry slams and I’d get a similar stomachache—but without the feeling of camaraderie. I don’t speak loudly or do “slam” poems. I think that I ‘stage’ them, which is to say that like an actor or musician, I memorize the work beforehand—mine, or someone else’s—and consider my body a sort of prop that’s part of what I’m doing. But though I learned a lot about performance from that world, it didn’t suit me. The system made me feel fiercely competitive, defensive about my quiet style, and somewhat creatively hamstrung.
Slams happen mostly in poetry bars. This Wednesday, we poets are doing something very different. We’re caught in a specific sort of theatre. It is the space in Times Square where Tom Cruise stood, circling, in Vanilla Sky. We have the sense of being airily trapped in a glass bottleneck. Brightly dressed people slip past like hard candies poured out of a jar. The sun’s about to go down, which dresses the billboards in a delicate grey haze. Their neons, built to burn through daylight, to dazzle you half blind in the dark, visibly brighten every second like stop-motion flowers.
One of our guys—a slender brown-haired man, dapper in turquoise pants, puts one hand on his stomach, leans back, and starts us off by singing. We feign surprise; we set the tone by being warm. People move away, then naturally form a circle, and their phones come out. When he’s done, a scary hush seems to fall because no one knows what happens next. Then one of our girls rushes into the circle, talking feverishly and gloriously, working the circle, her energy enormous.
When I chose to go in, it was that way, too. There was no microphone, and the din of ever-yellower rushing taxis all around seemed like bees in my skull. I felt two hands reach down in my lungs, gather up air, and launch fistfuls of it outward. Also, I think the top of my head was smoking. I’ve never felt anything quite like it. The strangers and the strangeness of the moment seemed to make a sort of demand and the piece seemed to change as I offered it.
American poets sometimes feel wistful toward countries that have a different relationship to the form. I’ve heard of places where poems get dropped out of helicopters on holidays, and of places where poets become political representatives. My American arts students mostly think of a poem as a thing you dissect in English class, with the help of someone who may or may not like the genre. Incidentally, I don’t teach poetry. I teach a class on art in public spaces, which asks a person to consider what happens to an art object when you remove it from its customary frame.
We, as a public, even as a literary public, are not always in a state of preparation, so frames matter. One cannot always be ready to be moved. Its true that soldiers have been known to keep poems in their breastpockets. Captives have been known to feed off of memorized poems for survival. So we know that a work will live anywhere, anyhow, if it is so sorely needed. But most of us, who do not live so clearly on the edge, need a little help if a poem is to find its way into our daily business.
When I hear a good, but complicated piece, read off of paper in a dull voice under fluorescent lights to rows of folks feeling virtuously literary in their folding chairs, I do get mad for the sake of the form. What I call “thick” works—delicious works that can’t be grasped in one hearing, or works so sensually delicate they should be allowed to escape the rigorous application of logical analysis, can be destroyed by bad reading or blunt teaching.
Ultimately, one must build or find a good home for a poem. The PUP folks run the risk of getting all of this wrong. They run the risk of disturbing the commuter on his daily business or foisting their arts onto unprepared souls. But they really seem to get it right. People gather. They join in. They hear a Derek Walcott piece recited by a woman whose long red dress flutters in the middle of Times Square. The taxis stream by and the air feels different.