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Subway poetry project connects NYers

April 5, 2014 at 1:44 PM EDT
Madeline Schwartzman’s mission is connect people in what she sees as an increasingly individualized society. Every day as she travels by subway Madeline asks fellow commuters to write a poem in her notebook. Some refuse, some accept, and now more than 100 of their poems are posted on Madeline’s website, 365 Day Subway: Poems by New Yorkers.
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IVETTE FELICIANO: Madeline Schwartzman spends a good portion of her morning like many New Yorkers do, getting to work on the subway.

Yet unlike many straphangers, her mission isn’t just getting to her final destination in uptown Manhattan…the journey itself is her goal…and her success all depends on the openess of strangers.

MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN: Sorry to bother you. Can I ask you a question? I’m doing a project called 365 Days Poems by New Yorkers. You can write about your life, anything…

IVETTE FELICIANO: That’s because on every single trip to and from work since last spring, Madeline asks fellow commuters to write a poem in her notebook.

MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN: I look for people that have this quality of openness. And I could tell instantly…

I can completely recognize who is sort of free to write a poem and almost who can write. I can prove that, it’s amazing. You can just tell. And it’s not necessarily clothing, and it’s not– it’s sometimes a look in the eye, it’s the way they hold their body.

Every time I ride the subway I ask a stranger to write a poem.

MAN ON TRAIN: To write a poem?

MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN: Would you do one?

MAN ON TRAIN: Um. I’ll try…

IVETTE FELICIANO: She then posts her favorite entries on her website, “365 Day Subway:  Poems by New Yorkers” like this one, written to her—one stranger to another

MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN: This is New York, spontaneity. A stranger asks, usually for money. But today this stranger asked for something valuable and free. She asked for a part of me. I love New York.

I’m fascinated by it. I think we’re all becoming more and more alienated. We– we can connect more through the internet, but we’re more isolated. Really, we’re all independent and living apart, but the subway’s this giant connector. So I feel it’s a very fertile site.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Shwartzman is actually not a poet herself. She teaches architecture and design at Columbia University and Barnard College. But she says she’s always been fascinated by how people connect in public spaces like trains. She says while commuting one day last spring, the idea to ask strangers to write poems hit her with a *thunk*. She had the first participants write in her iPhone… later that day she bought her first notebook for the project.

MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN: It’s person to person, it’s hand to pen, it’s pen to paper, and I’m almost thinking it’s so powerful that I wonder if that is something really we’re missing. Like, why shouldn’t we talk to strangers? Why shouldn’t the train be a party? Why– why are there so many boundaries?

IVETTE FELICIANO: Now with more than 100 entries, she’s on notebook number 5.

MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN: Some days it’s torture. Like, if I’m having a bad day, I think to myself at that time, ‘Why did I do this, and how do I do this? This will never happen again.’ And then the next day or later on the way home, it’s easy again.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Why do you think you’re so successful? Why do you think people decide to participate?

I think people have things to say that they’re not telling people. They want to share that they’re in love, they want to share their pain, they want to share that they’re having a bad day. But we don’t really share the bad day with our friends, so they sort of share it with me.

MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN: Should I read it now?

GIRL ON TRAIN: You can if you want to.

MADELINE SCHWARTZMAN: Oh my god.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Shwartzman plans to turn this project into a book someday.

I’m starting to believe it’s kind of connection, that my commodity in this project is connecting, and that you really feel something. It’s almost a kind of elation to connect to someone.