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.