I first met Samantha Thornhill at AWP Boston. Excited to meet a fellow Trini poet, I decided to keep in touch. I don’t remember when exactly I heard about PUP but I know I was immediately excited. I had often wondered, taking the subway home from NYU, why people never performed poetry on the trains. They sang, they breakdanced, sold paintings, even lip-synched in drag— but never did I hear anyone recite a verse, theirs or someone else’s. Was this, I wondered, why people didn’t know poetry was a living thing? Over dinner one night I had to ask Sam, how do I get involved with PUP? It was simple, she told me, if I could memorize a poem of her choosing in time for their next event, I could join.
The poem was Martin Espada’s “Imagine the Angels of Bread,” and I performed it with Sam and two other PUP’s, Syreeta and Thuli, at the sprawling Queens Museum of Art. PUP’s 25 minute performance that involved singing, poetry and even a didgeridoo, was in response to Peter Schumann’s indescribable (i.e. go see it!) exhibition, The Shatterer. It was one of the first sunny days of 2014. The women of Saheli led us in with their rapturous vocal arrangements to “Change Gon Come.” As the crowd returned to a hush, Thuli’s voice powered in like a locomotive, “This is the year that squatters evict landlords…” I was next. I knew the whole poem by heart, having had more than a month to learn, but would I remember my cue? It was only five days before we’d been given our specific lines. “This is the year that shawled refugees deport judges,” I proclaimed, flying with Thuli’s effusive energy.
The poem built with each line, each new declaration for a better world. With that level of tension, I felt more excited than nervous. I was tightrope walking and at some point, I stumbled. I stole Thuli’s line and while she was able to get it back in the moment, our momentum was now off. When Syreeta followed me, she momentarily missed her line. I felt responsible but there was no time for guilt. I helped her get it back, “and no coin is given to buy machetes for the next bouquet of severed heads in coffee plantation country.” We pushed through the final stanza, our voices stronger than ever, four of us crying in unison for bread to rain down on the masses.
My fellow PUPs could not have been kinder: praising my strength and forgiving my errors. Flub aside, Syreeta assured me it was a great set. She also reminded me that this was what made PUP so exciting; you never knew what might happen in the moment. I also knew that we had a second chance. We assembled an hour later in a smaller room, our atmosphere more densely packed with Schumann’s work. We performed flawlessly. As my voice peaked with the word “fill,” Syreeta, Thuli, and Samantha joined me in finishing “…with the angels of bread.” The intensity and hope in my body at that moment was too much to contain. I grabbed each PUP and hugged her tight, happy to have made it to the other side. I saw another poet in the crowd, tears in her eyes. I had never felt that poetry was more alive.
Poetry predates written language and most of the services we provide in this world. Who are we to think that, with all our modernity, we could kill a giant we are just barely blessed enough to grasp?
- Daria Martineau