Poetry in Motion: A Spontaneous Spoken Word Poem on the 8th Ave Local


I was on my way to Rutgers University this morning, taking the 8th Ave local from West 4th St to Penn Station, and I witnessed an improbable event that seems only possible within the dense urban heterotopia that is New York City. An elderly woman sitting across from me, who was in the midst of cleaning out her wallet of old business cards and scraps of paper, broke out into a chant-like speech which I can only describe as a performative soliloquy or a spoken word poem (complete with the socially aware consciousness of that genre). She began with a refrain (and here I can only approximate her forceful cadence):

TAser GUN poLICE BruTAlity
TAser GUN poLICE BruTAlity

I had a lot of trouble making out the middle of her poem, but it recounted, in the first person, an experience of being traumatized in Nazi Germany for being Jewish. And the poem concluded with the same refrain:

TAser GUN poLICE BruTAlity
TAser GUN poLICE BruTAlity

I had a strong suspicion that the woman was addressing no one in particular (a man beside me was nonchalantly reading a book), that this was, to allude to John Stuart Mill’s famous distinction between eloquence and poetry, an example of “feeling, confessing itself to itself in [a] moment…of solitude.” But, at the same time, I felt utterly convinced that her poetic chant was meant only for me (and this is, in my opinion, one of the potent ways that poetry can interpellate an audience). The woman seemed to have been uncannily aware that I was thinking of institutionalized, state-sanctioned violence; earlier that morning, I was perusing the new “war” issue of PMLA, and while I was having my coffee, I was reading the Chilean novelist Diamela Eltit’s account of the utterly oppressive violence of the Pinochet era.

Before I rose to get off at 34th St, and as if she had anticipated this too, the woman lifted her head (was she looking at me? I don’t remember…) and added a kind of postscript to her poem—“Also MTA police brutality, also MTA police brutality”—which nicely gave her performance a site-specific resonance.

While I do, in certain respects, appreciate the MTA’s Poetry in Motion project (which seems now to be losing steam compared to the newer Train of Thought program which excerpts prose), these decontextualized snippets of verse have never struck me, or unsettled me, in the same way that this woman’s impromptu poem had.

This event also seemed to attest to the particular power of performance, and I am today very much looking forward to seeing Cecilia Vicuña’s performance.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Cecilia Vicuña, 2009-10 Estelle Lebowitz Artist-in-Residence
Public Lecture and Poetry Performance
“A Tongue Within Tongues”
Reception for the Artist: 6pm;
Performance: 6:30pm – 7:30 pm
Mabel Smith Douglass Room, Douglass Library
New Brunswick, NJ

“In her poetry performances Cecilia Vicuña creates a space for silence and transformation. Words, sounds and the audience are woven into new sensory perceptions. Playing with many languages as she reads and chants she transforms her texts as she goes, incorporating the present moment.”

~ by Michael Leong on October 21, 2009.

One Response to “Poetry in Motion: A Spontaneous Spoken Word Poem on the 8th Ave Local”

  1. I was just looking into instances of MTA police misconduct and think now that this woman’s performance may have been a protest against Jesse Archer’s recent beating in Grand Central Station.


    Anyone who has experienced violence at the hands of the police or anyone else should contact the Anti-Violence Project’s 24 hour bilingual hotline at 212.714.1141.

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