When Marilyn Nelson's poem, "A Strange Beautiful Woman" appeared in New York subway cars this year, she saw lots of selfies with the poem on Facebook. Most fans presumed the narrator in the poem was an older woman coming to terms with aging.
In reality, Nelson wrote the poem in her thirties. The power of poems popping up in surprising places is an invitation for a moment of reflection, a pause in the everyday for a conversation with oneself or with another, regardless of the interpretation. The Poetry Society of America and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have collaborated for 25 years to place poems in the path of 6 million daily subway riders.
Poetry in Motion presents "poems to people who might not seek them," Nelson said. "But there they are."
Nine Poetry in Motion poets celebrated a quarter century of transit poems Oct. 25 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center at Lincoln Center.
Billy Collins, Aracelis Girmay, Major Jackson, Jim Moore, Paul Muldoon, Nelson, Patrick Phillips, Katha Pollitt and Kevin Young read their poem and two others from a new anthology The Best of Poetry in Motion: Celebrating 25 Years on Subways and Buses. Published by W.W. Norton, the anthology is edited by PSA executive director, Alice Quinn. Elise Paschen and Molly Peacock of PSA read poems by Lucille Clifton and Walt Whitman from the early years of the program they co-founded with the MTA.
Many of the poets told stories of how honored they are to hear back from appreciative readers via social media and email. "Poems once in motion...continue to move their readers," according to Collins.
Veronique Hakim, MTA managing director, agreed. "Our customers tell us they love this program."
Hakim and several poets praised MTA Arts & Design director Sandra Bloodworth for pairing the poems with MTA art commissions and placing poems on the backs of about 5 percent of MetroCards since 2012.
"This is a way of making a poem something that can be used," said Nelson, winner of the PSA Frost Medal for lifetime achievement. "That you put in your pocket, not just as a keepsake, but as something that is useful."
Above Girmay's poem "Noche de Lluvia, San Salvador" is art by Elizabeth Murray, also the cover of the anthology of 100 poems. Girmay echoed the other poets when she described the personal affinity she has with her favorites. "So many of these poems feel like mine because I've ridden with them," Girmay said.
Return to The Best American Poetry blog Friday for Minnesota poet Jim Moore's coincidental above-ground exchange with a fan on Spring Street and Saturday to read email exchanges between Patrick Phillips and Poetry in Motion lovers from across NYC.
Catherine Woodard is the author of Opening the Mouth of the Dead, a story in poems recently published by lone goose press in two editions: paperback and limited-edition book art. She helped return Poetry in Motion to the New York City subways and is a vice president of the Poetry Society of America. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, anthologies and CNN online. A former journalist, Woodard chairs an advisory committee for the News Literacy Project.