Public Poetry

Writers can capture the most beautiful meditations on humanity without the faintest desires to ever share them.

Yet what is made of these precious words if never exposed to the world?

Unfortunately, these writers often cloak their collections of poetry or fiction with the vain fear of judgment or misinterpretation–obscuring the ability for compelling literature to truly thrive.

It’s the artistic beings who hurdle their intimacies out into the wild world that pave the way for the brooding writers; to instill the courage necessary to dispense their words to the public, and truly see them flourish.

These public poets and writers are not found on any velvet armchairs but rather on the dirty floor of a subway station, or within the murmur of a busy cross-town bus.

Poets like Lynn Gentry, a multidisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, could be found performing poems for strangers with his antique typewriter at the subway entrance at Union Square.

Gentry, who displayed a large sign saying: “Pick A Subject And Price Get A Poem,”
handed patrons customized poems of their choice for any price they’d name to take with them on their train ride.

Making an average of $700 a week, Gentry traversed the country on his quest to provide an array of strangers with personally tailored verses. Since October, Gentry has retired from on-the-scene poetry work but still maintains the spirit by allowing the public to request poetry on their subject of choice via his website,

“I wrote in San Francisco for five years,” explained Gentry to Business Insider. “Recently, I traveled across the country, supporting the trip by stopping to write in Seattle, Portland, Reno, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Fort Collins, Omaha, Des Moines, Lafayette, and Chicago before arriving in NYC.”

Communities of artists in cities abroad also crave to bolster the literary life hidden within the humdrum experiences of public transportation. One of these initiatives is the short story vending machine.

Thanks to publishing company Short Edition and the city of Grenoble, France, eight vending machines have been installed–delivering free kernels of fiction for the everyday rider.

Depending on the wait for the next bus, the public can choose between minute-long, three minute-long, or five minute-long stories. So instead of grubbing on snacks, sodas, or iPhone-binging, residents of this local French town hope instead for the consumption of culture on these ritualistic daily commutes.

“We said to ourselves that we could do the same thing with good quality popular literature to occupy these little unproductive moments,” said Christophe Sibieude, co-founder, to the Agence-France Presse.

The writers of Short Edition are willingly dispensing their own writing projects–free of charge–to anyone interested in reading. It is also a pilot project supporting the local community of writers and startups to encourage innovative creation.

Grenoble is a city of cultural esteem in which artists seem to admire the feedback of the public as they further develop their work.

According to an explanation by Short Edition: “The city responds to a long-standing commitment in favor of culture and for the promotion of literary creation. As such, it supports the publishing industry but also promotes the development of the practice of writing for the majority.”

These organizations and artists want to take a risk in combating the ever-increasing pace at which urban dwellings run, saying that, “In a society where the daily lives go faster and faster and where time becomes precious, Short Edition, community editor of the short literature, has opted to transform ’dead’ time into reading time.”

It would have pleased Walt Whitman to know that New York City has taken a similar approach. Since 1992, when an excerpt from Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” was plastered on a subway car, the MTA “Poetry in Motion” program began.

After a dry spell of a few years, these lyrical verses within the metallic cars started up again in 2012, through a collaboration with the Poetry Society of America. Along with artwork by the Arts & Design program, classic poems of transit-minded stances started to replace subway ads.

Cynthia Atkins, a young poet employed by the Poetry Society of America, helps select the variety of works displayed on the subway. In an interview with The New Yorker, she provides her hopes for the program to “change the reality down there,” and stated, “We want poetry to be part of daily life, something that has to be accepted and dealt with. We know that the task ahead of us is a difficult one. We know that people are intimidated and spooked by poetry. But is a poem really any more frightening than a poster for wart removal?”

So whether the cadence of a loud typewriter clacking away is heard over street commerce, or an insightful meditation drifts over the grime ridden walls of the subway–with the help of these free-flowing literary agents–poetry is there, and beauty is what you will find.

Feature photo courtesy of Cliff from Creative Commons Flickr.