Poems by New Yorkers
Post published in December, 2013
New York City has a reputation.
I remember my own thoughts the first time I came here. I remember being a little scared as I stepped off the airplane at JFK, arriving alone, directly from Japan in late 1990. There was the promise of a warm bed and a chance to spend some quality time in an array of world-class museums. The attraction was undeniable, but so was the worry.
My early impressions of New York City were not terribly positive. The streets were dingy, and compared to Japan, they felt unnecessarily wide, almost wasteful. People avoided bumping into you. That was a plus, but all the pay phones seemed not to work, and the subways had no schedules or decipherable announcements. By the standards I had grown accustomed to during my years in late 80s Japan, this was not up to snuff.
New York City reveals itself slowly. It is certainly filled with lots of genuinely busy people, but there is poetry hidden under the pavement, not all of it happy, but also not all unkind. This is a city that is surprisingly open and friendly after it is done with first impressions. It just has to be asked.
Maddy Schwartzman is asking. Every day, as she commutes to her teaching responsibilities, she asks. And the city, filled as it is with busy strangers, is giving its answers as poetry scrawled onto wirebound notepads.
A stranger steps up to you on the subway and asks you to write a poem. You pause to consider the request. Then you let down your guard, detach from the rush, open your heart and oblige. In that moment you are being a true New Yorker—friendly, generous, creative, kind.
Maddy knew this project would work because she knows this city. She knows it as I did not 23 years ago, stepping off of that plane. Had I arrived today, with the aid of these poems I would perhaps have known better than to assume this city unkind, cold, backward. It is none of those things … despite its reputation.
I welcome you to sample some of the poems, some of the thoughts that make this a great place to live, work and play. I welcome you to catch a glimpse of the very stuff that gives this city its heart.
An article describing the impetus for this project was posted today, New Years Day, on Today.com.
And on February 1st it’s on the cover of the Culture section of the Wall Street Journal.
NewsHour on PBS did this segment on the project:
Photos courtesy of Madeline Schwartzman