Two weeks in NYC bombards me with an abundance of sounds, smells, tastes, and sights so different from my peaceful suburb of Midlothian VA. So intense the sensory stockpile that I seem to find poetry in everything – a subway ride connects strangers like siblings in the womb, tenement tours whisper thousands of stories from across the globe, lunch at Congee Village transports me to China.
And, yet, traces of Virginia keep popping up in this crazy, chaotic city. At the NYC Poetry Festival on Governor’s Island Nick Flynn reads a poem based on research of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson. The representative from Underground Books points out titles on his table from Virginian authors. A young writer exclaims she graduated from Hollins University when I explain I post social media for Poetry Virginia and ask if I can take her photo.
The festival itself is like most poetry gatherings, earnest participants and low attendance. I walk from stage to stage listening to poets pour kerosene out of their hearts and light it on fire for anyone that cares to be touched. The heat radiates on this small island mere feet from Manhattan. Literally - the heat index is approaching a hundred but still there are poets that wring out words on three stages non-stop from 11 am to 5:30 pm. There is a lot of poetry to admire. Plus the t-shirts are pretty cool.
Most everyone is welcoming, especially when they learn I’m a Virginian. My red Poe Museum shirt triggers conversations. A lady points toward a couple of colonial-style buildings and says the Indians that were buried over there haunt the island. Three women sit on a bench with old-school typewriters perched on their knees. A sign directs to give them a word and they’ll write you a poem. A man in a cape starts a poem in English then transitions smoothly into Spanish. The word “fuck” peppers almost all the poems. An editor from Apogee Journal tells the sweaty crowd that they seek diversity then introduces a poet who recites a poem about being gay in America. A woman sports a black tank top with “S is for Soul Sister” stamped across. There are all sorts of people. All sorts of poets. Everyone is a minority here – we all love poetry.
Later, on my last night in the city, I visit the Gotham Writers Workshop. I map my route and exit the subway in the middle of the Garment District. A charter bus blocks the street directly in front of me and rising up behind it in the distance like an arrow is the iconic Empire State Building. RICHMOND VA is plastered in huge white letters on the black bus and I wonder if it’s a sign I have been away from home long enough.
I forge ahead to the fourteenth floor of 555 Eighth Avenue. There’s two rooms of us and I get sent to the second where I watch out the window Asian women work with huge spools of fabric, while fellow writers trickle in and sit at the table I’ve dumped my notebook and pen on. A man with reddish hair and a contagious grin informs that there will be a fifteen minute writing prompt, sharing and comments, a socializing break, then we’ll repeat the process. Everybody writes. A few people share. We find the positive in each other’s words.
At break I chat with a woman who explains she’s not a “real writer” and admits she’s always been nervous to read her essays in front of people. At the end of the second session the instructor looks at her and says his intuition tells him she would like to share. I chorus, “Read! You can do it.” She stumbles and gets through it wide-eyed and red-faced. When she raises her head there’s that flicker of accomplishment in her smile and I know another emerging writer has crystallized.
When the instructor says everybody should come back for the next session I tell the room I’m from Virginia. He grins and says, “No way,” gives me a high-five. A young man with his hair in a topknot says he grew up in Midlothian (my suburb!). An energetic woman points out she’s originally from Norfolk and walks me to the subway, reassuring me which trains will get me back to Brooklyn and the apartment I rented.
It’s a small world packed with people that appear extremely different. No matter what topics drive us to write, what approach or sentiment or experience we come from that nurtures our work – poets are cut from the same bolt of cloth. When I saw the young woman hunched over, scribbling frantically into her notebook on the subway, I knew she was a poet and headed to the festival (sure enough, I found her on stage later that day reading her poem about an incident that occurred on her way to the event!). Perhaps Philip Levine said it best in the quote I found while flipping through the Five Points Journal that I picked up at the festival, “I believe the truth is we form a family with other poets, living and dead, or we risk going nowhere.” I’ve enjoyed my immersion in NYC writing life and now I’m happy to bring traces of NYC home to Virginia.