Monday, April 4, 2011

A Pup Moment by Jai Chakrabarti

What is this difference between private and public verse? We were on a train—we were on many trains—and I remember the spell of Ngoma’s voice clearing away the clutter; it began the space; Samantha and Elana reciting Lucille Clifton in dual-voice began the space. I have been on NYC subways when the last thing I’ve wanted to do is acknowledge the humanity of the person next to me. Poetry is not for subways; it is better left in closed books: I have felt this way too many times, and yet, once in a while, I’ve crossed the field. Empathy is a poem on the Q Train. It’s the woman who takes off her headphones after Jon finishes and suggests a line. This is the strangest and most profound kind of revision: to give the poem as offering on a moving surface and then to receive—laughter, recognition, light.

It was my second time as a PUP poet. I watched as Marcy snuck up from her seat and started. No one knew who the poets were, and sometimes, we found that the poets were not only the PUP regulars but those we ourselves didn’t expect, the ones who had their lines on their tongues ready. This was dialogue. Marcy finished her poem, and a few of the people around me relaxed; others continued being in their own. This was the compromise, it seemed, to the public poem. It would walk as far as it needed to walk. A few would be moved—there were hugs between closing doors, moments of real exchange—but there was also that other part of the city: rupture.

It was our second train. Sometimes you walk into a crowd of strangers and imagine that what is separating you from them are the basic laws of physics, the primordial matter that keeps mountains from spinning into the ether, and wouldn’t the world be different if that principle was understood by you and them? Elana and Samantha popped up with “Miss Rosie,” and there was the wall of teenage souls. They banged their skateboards on the ground and howled—it was a battle for attention—Ngoma added his voice but the swell was thick.

The difference between the public poem and the private poem is risk. The public poem contains entirely too much risk. One is better left to the fireplace and solipsism. Still, we kept together and afterwards rode the Q from Union Square to Dekalb to further in Brooklyn. This time, the energy met us. Jon stood up and Samantha and Elana and Marcy and Ngoma followed. All around me passengers interrupted themselves; they looked up; they laughed; they followed one poem into another. There was a man next to me who said in my ear, “This is New York City, man. This is why I love it.” I couldn’t agree more. “I’ve heard about this,” he said. “People get up and do shit on trains.” I’d been incognito until that moment, enjoying the poems alongside him, so when I stood up, he was astonished. I shared his surprise. I did not think myself a public poet, but there it was, “Squeamish,” a poem about me and my lover finding a cockroach in a Brooklyn bathtub. A juxtaposition of the sweet and the grit—a PUP moment.

--Jai Chakrabarti

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Art of Risking

(photos by Syreeta McFadden. full album is available here.)

-Samantha Thornhill

Risk is a topic artists often talk, discuss. When poets look over each others poems and give constructive thoughts, the question often comes: what is this poem risking?

What do poets risk by making our private thoughts public? By committing experiences, afflictions, lies, and shames to paper? What do we risk to gain? What do we risk to know? What do we risk to change? What do we risk to reveal? What do we risk to risk?

This risk business can become all very abstract.

I believe that every poem is a risk of some sort. Even if the risk is spending precious time on something that sucks.

We were five poets strong on this bustling Saturday in New York City. Any one of us could have been doing many other things. We risk time.

I had to tear myself away from my novel, which was actually going well for once. I risk momentum.

Joining us for the first time, Ngoma rolled out of bed and flew straight downtown to meet us. He risks a growling stomach.

This September 11, I was on my way to the Bowery Poetry Club to do a taping of the Illiad. I was to be Helen of Troy. I hopped the 6 where a veteran for peace was speaking against war, which inevitably means speaking against this country's policies.

Standing not far from him, a stalwart American, much younger in years, began shouting, dubbed him anti-American. By the time I exited the train, the two men had come to blows.

And all I could think about was PUP. We risk getting beat up.

I believe greatly in risk. Tangible risk. Risk you can rub between your fingers and smear on a wall. Risk that changes climates, not just weather.

I think to the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who, after his poems incited revolt and got him arrested in 1938, was tortured, placed knee deep in shit on the warship where his trial was held. To survive that stench he sang at the top of his lungs every love poem he knew.

He risked everything.

Now here I was on the train listening to Adam our resident songbird, blessing our ears with:

If you all right say yeah. Yeah. If you all right say yeah. Yeah...

Though his heart may have been racing like this train, his face showed no fear. I was so inspired by his willingness to bear that burden of being first today. That risk. I never take for granted all of the work a poet must do to meet at the Ghandi statue. To swipe that card and stand clear of the closing doors. To see all of these people peacefully reading, dreaming inside their I-Pods, carrying on conversations. Then to interrupt all of that. To be so bombastic in this belief that this lump in the throat is so crucial that it must bogard the silences between us.

As Adam launched into his piece, I thought. What will I risk?

And so, I had to pull out my ode to twins.

Yes, boobs.

It is a discussion of the body. My body. Its wild ways. And toward the end, I cupped my breasts in the middle of this train car and I felt no fear. Because of this, I know I am freer today than I was yesterday. I risk nothing.

Ngoma was a crazy man! I will ride the train with this brother anytime. He filled the potentially awkward silences with his singing, swinging around, and pushing his pelvis into the pole as he made love to Nefertiti inside the imagination of his poem. He was so incredibly free.

Jon will stun the air with a poem in the voice of the black woman he once overheard on a bus in Queens, then turn around with his white boy litany, a self portrait that juxtaposes how he sees himself with how others see him-- through the prism, race.

And Marcy. Ever since the earthquake hit her mother country, this poem has been coming. It begins with a mournful song. Once people realized the poem was about Haiti they paid extra close attention. I could hear the tears rising up in her throat and wondered if she would make it. Gut wrenching, her line about Haitians worshipping a white Jesus, only to find their own faces white with dust.

Afterwards I told her that I had never heard that piece. Her response: I've never done it before.


On one of our rides a stranger was moved to take center stage and start free styling, making us all clap and rejoice. In that brief moment between not knowing and knowing, I thought he was one of us. And he was.

Some physicists believe when you drop a stone into a pond, the ripples last forever.
These are probably the same physicists who believe that every moment lasts an infinity.
And in the physics of words, I believe both of these theories to be true.

In her poem, "One Art", Elizabeth Bishop instructs us to lose something every day.

I would like to replace lose with risk.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Goal!!! – A Celebration on the Q Train

Goal!!! – A Celebration on the Q Train

- Jon Sands

This past Saturday, PUP tried to get the day warmed up for the US soccer team. I like to think we did our part (as did the Q Train… and Ghana). Jared Singer, Adam Bowser, Elana Bell, Ken Arkind, Marcy Alexis, Rico Steal, Syreeta McFadden and I met (as always) at the Gandhi statue in Union Square. We escaped the summer heat to bring our ruckus to the Brooklyn bound Q train.

I’ve got to say, something in spontaneous art has lit a fire for me. I’ve loved each location we’ve been able to “pop up.” Adam Falkner, Samantha Thornhill, and I were asked to pop at the “Hollywood Does Poetry” benefit for Bowery Arts & Science (which meant Adam & I got to shake Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) hand, as he said, “I yain’t nevah seen nuttin’ like dat.” (I wanted to say “f’gedaboutit.”) PUP popped at an Emily Dickinson tribute reading at the Botanical Gardens. Adam Falkner, Eboni Hogan, and I popped up at a party where this amazing advocate of the arts who works for the United Nations unveiled an “art door” of hundreds of compiled poetry lines. Samantha, Elana, and Akua rocked Whole Foods. The spontaneity and surprise, as well as poetry being playful, serious, spontaneous, anything-but-serious, necessary, community-based, loving, and reaching has been the breeze in this entire sail… That said…

Subway readings are my favorite. They’re spontaneous, although less for us than the rest of the train, which makes it even better. Eight of us board, each from different doors. We sit in different seats. Some stand at the handrails, some have sunglasses, some beards down to their nipples, tall, short, guys, ladies, many different shades of amazing. When we’re all separate, our faces don’t scream, “We’re together.” For me, that’s where part of the magic lies.

The doors closed on the second train we boarded Saturday. Marcy hopped up first from the middle of a group of 10 Indian ladies in traditional garb (If she’s afraid of anything, I don’t know what it is). We were trading off the lead off spot. It’s hard to go first because, as far as the whole train knows, you’re not part of any group. You’re just a person speaking to the Q train… But you don’t seem crazy “cause this sounds kinda nice.” You probably are trying to make a buck “but the doors just opened and closed, so if this is a business, it’s not a good one.”

Slowly in that first poem or two, people learn that no one will ask them for dollars. Nothing gives a crowded train more permission to connect than the feeling that they won’t have to pay for it. Marcy finishes her poem to a smattering of applause, as everyone but the poets thinks, “That was a good way to spend 3 minutes (a la Roger BA), and now it’s over, right?” I love this moment. From the other end of the train, Adam Bowser starts his Michael Jackson poem, and by the time he gets to, “Tell them to remember his James Brown!” this train is whooping and hollering. Adam finishes and one of the Indian ladies hops up and starts doing some dance, and all the other ladies and their children are now clapping and cheering and NONE of the train knows who’s with who or what is happening. We’re clapping and chanting as much as they are.

By the time Jared and Ken’s beards emerge from the stream of passengers attached to poems of punk rock, love, and hearts that are volume knobs, you can feel the train thinking, “This is AMAZING.” Am I the only person not a poet?” And might that be how it should be? Isn’t life more fun when you halfway suspect the person next to you has the capacity to change your day, even if they don’t? It’s changed the way I ride the train. It’s changed the way I walk through the city. As if art lurks around every bodega. It’s gonna hop out of a trashcan. I’m in on it, and I still walk around feeling like something amazing could happen at any moment of the day. I would say that’s part of what Samantha, Adam, and I were thinking when we started PUP. We wanted to leave groups of people feeling like art can happen anywhere… like it might be happening right now. Like, a reverse panopticon. I’ll say it has been 38 times more fun and exhilarating to put it into practice than it was to talk about it (and talking about it was FUN).

That’s how Saturday felt. Elana had the music bug and so the Q train was singing! With her! When anyone could be involved, it means you can be involved. New York City…World... Please keep surprising me. It feels way better than all this expecting. Jon Sands and the PUPers, signing off.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

PUP Barks at the Botanical Gardens by Elana Bell

Poetry in the Botanical Garden, popping up like the first buds of spring, and that's what we were on this balmy Saturday afternoon, as we joined Bob Holman and Marilyn Nelson in presenting the poetry of Emily Dickinson, along with original work. Bob had invited us to share his time and add a little something unexpected to the mix.

We got there just as the reading was starting, and planted ourselves at various spots throughout the courtyard. The crowd was intimate, and the smell of too many sweet flowers to name drifted in on the breeze. But looking around at the subdued crowd, I knew they were not ready for what was about to come their way.

Marilyn Nelson started the reading, presenting a group of Dickinson's poems, along with several of her own which referred to Dickinson or touched on her themes. As the gentle applause died down, I looked over at Samantha with a twinkle in my eye. Who knew what was about to happen? We had a few things planned, but as with any PUP event, we knew the magic would unfold in the improvisation of the moment.

Bob took the stage and read the first few lines of Dickinson's "I reckon." Suddenly, Samantha and I popped up to join him, creating a chorus of voices. The audience gasped. Who were these women, not on the program? As we finished the first poem, Bob made the announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to the pop-up poets, PUP, Poetry in Unexpected Places! Careful. You might be sitting next to one of them right now!"

The crowd giggled nervously, and everyone gave a curious glance to their neighbor. The reading continued. Bob read several of his own poems. Then, another surprise. John Murillo took the mic and began to beat box. Ed stepped to the stage and brought his b-boy stance, and Samantha Bob, and I traded lines on Emily's poem "Answer July," where the poet interrogates the month of July, which in turn interrogates, May, which interrogates the Bluejay...
Answer July-
Where is the Bee-
Where is the Blush-
Where is the Hay?

Go ahead. Read it to yourself. It's almost impossible to avoid the rhythm. Who knew? The crowd was stunned. This was not what they were expecting at a tea-time Emily Dickinson reading!

We continued, and although the audience knew to some extent what to expect, we kept surprising them, like when Ed came out with his cult favorite "Alien Registration Number."
And Bob read from his new chapbook Box, of which he explained when he was finished reading, "The book is in the shape of a box. That's the point!"

The last poem was Dickinson's "Wild Nights," which we performed as a group piece, circling the audience repeating the phrase "wild nights" as Bob and Samantha recited the verses. We ended by getting the audience to join in, shouting "wild nights" into the early evening spring air.
Sweet, sweet. The Botanical Gardens will never be quite the same. Thanks Bob! Thank you Emily! Here's to more wild, poetic nights...

Elana, blogging for PUP

PS- After the reading we fielded questions from audience members wanting to know when they could catch the next PUP/Pop up poet event...

Coming soon to a _________near you!