For many New Yorkers and for many who have only passed through, Grand Central Terminal is one of their favorite places in New York City.
My late father-in-law in pre-caller-ID days, with rare exception, answered his telephone "Grand Central Station, Lower Level" -- immediately charming and disarming.
Entering Grand Central Terminal from the S subway around noon on the last Saturday in April, I passed the amazing, ever-smiling counter staff at the Hot n Crusty, the usual lines of MetroNorth ticketbuyers, demographically different on the weekends from midweek's hubbub, a red-capped tour guide extolling Junior's Famous Cheesecake to an attentive circle of well-scrubbed adolescent faces, a French woman instructing her entourage, apparently not for the first time, "c'est la gare…la gare…", and a gentleman holding a Bible closed in his right hand while rotating slowly and speaking softly only to himself.
Up the gentle rise from the main floor on the 42nd Street side, in Vanderbilt Hall, the words of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton and others were being spoken, new poems were being written, and poems were being projected onto walls as the Springfest celebration of Poetry in Motion sponsored by the MTA Arts for Transit & Urban Design in partnership with the Poetry Society of America, unfolded.
On three sides of the eastern end of Vanderbilt Hall, words forming poems from the Poetry in Motion program tumbled into place in Illuminated Verse, the work of Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, sculptor, memorializer, TED Fellow and instructor in NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.
Victoria Redel had just left her post at The Poet is In booth (an inspired take on Lucy Van Pelt's The Doctor is In) and Tina Chang was taking her place behind a desk in front of a typewriter facing a line of people, which grew in her hour-long stint to more than thirty at times, each of whom had three minutes of conversation with the poet before receiving a poem written on the spot especially for them. When her hour was up Tina Chang spoke to me about her experience of the strong connections between herself and several in the line, the initial anxieties, the subsequent intimacy, openness, release, and a word she used more than once -- forgiveness. It was a full, vital energetic connection, she said, adding, "I have the sense more will come of this."
Marie Howe, Poet Laureate of New York and major source of inspiration for and creator of the two-day Springfest, sat down for the next tour, and the line grew so long that fellow poet Spencer Reece drew a chair up behind a typewriter at a neighboring table to listen to and write poems for some of the overflow crowd.
Sarah Rothberg, inspired by Jackson Mac Low's reading instructions and the coincidental purchase of a pulse monitor, created Vital Signs, that delivers, to the delight of many, lines of poetry on a screen synchronized to your pulse rate. Yu-Ting Feng's Dear Deer invites communication via keyboard with the video of Dear Deer, and your answers to its questions are incorporated into poems that you receive on a receipt-like printout. Both of these interactive works were created as part of a course at NYU entitled Poetry Everywhere, collaboratively taught by Marie Howe and Gabriel Barcia-Colombo.
Meanwhile in two other spots in the hall -- under a tent and on a stage -- John Rybicki was leading poetry writing workshops and musicians from Music Under New York (including harpist Erik Heger while I was there) were entertaining the crowd. Periodically during the two days the stage becomes the site for the HUMAN MIC, a call and response experience celebrating poetry.
Leaving Grand Central, heading west on 42nd street to catch a subway downtown for the day's next thing, lines from one of the Emily Dickinson poems Alice Quinn had just recited --The wind tapped like a tired man, and especially the word flurriedly near the poem's end -- mixed with the energy of Saturday sidewalk crowds and Sandra Bloodworth's (MTA Arts for Transit Director) observations that poetry, given the very bright, very diverse ridership of New York's buses and subways, can create intimate experiences of humanity in public places.
The event continues through Sunday April 27 at GCT's Vanderbilt Hall with more musicians from Music Under New York and more poets in The Poet is In Booth.
Madge McKeithen, is the author of Blue Peninsula (FSG, 2006) and essays that have appeared in Utne Reader, TriQuarterly, Best American Essays, and The New York Times Book Review and in several anthologies. She has taught since 2006 in the School of Writing at the New School University, is at work on several works of nonfiction, and blogs here
Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by Lawrence Schwartzwald and are not to be used without his permission.