In the Busy Terminal, a Surprise: Personal Poetry

Grand Central Terminal is busy. The traveling public there is always in a great hurry. But one day in April, something unusual made hundreds of people, including me, stop and stand in line in Vanderbilt Hall: poetry!

More specifically, it was the chance for a free, personalized poem. In honor of National Poetry Month in April, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Poetry Society of America celebrated with a series of events, including one showcasing the 25th anniversary of the “Poetry in Motion” project that places poetry in the transit systems of cities throughout the country, helping to create a national readership for both emerging and established poets.

Courtesy of Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Courtesy of Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

On that day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., members of the public got a chance to have a poem written about themselves. Musicians from MTA’s Music Under New York program, which established in 1985 “to bring joyous and engaging music to the commuting public,” played throughout the day.

Courtesy of Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Courtesy of Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

The centerpiece of the celebration featured a special event called, “The Poet is In,” which involved several award-winning poets, including Marie Howe, A former New York State Poet, and Marilyn Nelson, A Frost Medal winner. “‘The Poet is In’ is a way of taking poetry off the shelf and bringing it to the pubic,” Howe said. “Poetry is a living art, and it’s thrilling to be a part of a public experience which is also deeply private.”

Courtesy of Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Courtesy of Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Each visitor to “The Poet is In” – and there were always more than 50 people in line once the event started – waited to talk to a poet and answer questions the poet asked. Based on the answers, the poet sitting in a booth with a three-minute hourglass, setting the time limit, would type the personalized poem on a manual typewriter. After finishing the poem, the poet would read it to the visitor. Each poem was different, depending on which poet the visitor worked with and how the individual answered the questions the poet asked.

My original plan was to watch a few visitors finish their sessions with the poets and then talk to them. However, because each experience is private and unique, organizers would not allow it. So I decided to experience it myself.

After waiting for more than 20 minutes in line, I sat down with the poet Victoria Redel. She wanted to know about me, and I told her that I am a reporter and would like to ask her few questions. But she insisted that she would be the one asking questions in order to write a poem for me.

The first question: “What’s your happiest experience in your life?” It took me a while to think about that, but I finally told her that my happiest experience happened near the sea. After taking some notes, she asked me about my background: Where am I from? What do I study? Did I grow up in a big city, etc. I told her that I am from a big city called Shenyang in China, and I am studying journalism. It felt a little like a job interview, but friendlier and more comfortable.

The poet continued to take notes as I spoke. Then, based on what she’d written and on my answers, Redel started to write a poem on her typewriter. She almost did not stop typing because she was so focused. Redel smiled and looked at the timer several times during the process and finished the poem within three minutes. She then read the poem to me and made some corrections.

I finally understood why she asked me so many questions: The poem was based on my answers. At the end of the poem, it said, “Always there is a pen in hand. Always there is another photo. Always there is this blue ocean that holds all the cities where we have ever lived.” Redel wrote my name, by hand, on top of the poem and wrote her name at the end of the piece. She then added a stamp on the poem that said “original” before handing it to me.

Redel told me she likes the process. “It is so incredible to sit with a person who you don’t know, ask them questions, have this kind of very brief intimacy, and then give them a present of a poem made of the words that come from their mouth,” she said.

After finishing the conversation with her, one of the staff members said that I should not interview any poet when he or she is working because it will take too much of other people’s time. So I waited in line again for another 40 minutes and started to work with another poet, Dorianne Laux. This time, I decided to just enjoy the experience.

I thought she’d ask the same questions. So I was prepared to talk about my happiest experience, but instead, she asked me “Why do you go by Steven if your first name is Zhiming?” Then she asked me a series of short questions: “What’s your favorite animal?” “What is your favorite color?” “What are the three words that come to your mind now?” and “What’s the most important thing to you now?” She started to write the poem after taking notes of my answers. Laux did not even look at the timer while she wrote, though she did correct some mistakes by hand after typing out the poem, which used key words from what I said.

“He has a new name. It means dragon; it means love. He longs for what is new, authentic, smart…” She continued to read the poem, and I felt like I was so lucky to get such a personalized poem.

I was not the only one who felt like this. Another satisfied customer at the poetry event, Johanna Goodman, said she had waited for about 20 minutes to get her poem, and it was worth the wait because she got what she felt was a personal and high-quality poem. “The experience is terrific because this is not what you usually get to do in the beautiful environments of Vanderbilt Hall,” she said. “It’s a nice moment, of having a really personal, quiet moment in the busy city.”