It’s not easy to engage determined subway riders with soul-baring, Spanish-language poetry readings.
As the E train screeched to a halt last Saturday and the doors slid open to the electronic announcement of “Jackson Heights – Roosevelt Avenue,” the sounds of the station instantly flooded the subway car: the rumbling of another train, strumming Bolivian guitars, the whisper of a Chinese flute.
And somewhere, under all those layers of noise, the soft Spanish tones of Nicolas Linares struggled to be heard.
“This techno-chaotic religiosity, computerized, digital-esthetic, nothing free,” recited Linares, from one of his free-form poems about modern society’s substitution of reality with technology. “It’s not a multimedia miracle, nor a biosynthetic inner voice, it’s the humanistic response, to the boredom of everyday-work.”
Linares, a coordinator of Poetas en Nueva York, a poetry collective that took its art to a very public space last weekend, drew more looks of bewilderment than appreciation from the hundreds of passengers who flowed by as trains from five different subway lines arrived and departed the Jackson Heights transit hub. Occasionally one or two would linger under the fluorescent lights to listen momentarily to the poets. But most dispersed almost as quickly as they had appeared.
Not so the poets themselves. For the 20 or so who crowded around Linares on the long, tiled subway mezzanine, this public reading was the kind of raw literary expression that they had sought in coming to Jackson Heights, one of the most densely Hispanic neighborhoods in Queens.
They were celebrating the last day of their annual Spanish-language poetry festival – a chance to share their souls, and “to take the poets out of the classroom, the library, the bookstore and put the poetry in context, out in the real world,” said Linares.
Reciting poetry to perfect strangers on a subway platform helps build courage, said Linares. And it enables the poets to share their feelings with a community that shares much of their life experience but might otherwise never hear them.
Still, how much sharing can go on in a subway station, as riders rush past poets who almost shout to compete with the barrage of noise?
“I don’t know what it’s about,” said Carolina Rosas, a Jackson Heights resident, who stood near Linares to use an ATM, but who paid little attention to his poetry. “Because of all the noise, I don’t think it’s a very good location,” Rosas said.
Ideal or not, the poets read on – including visiting Uruguayan poet and documentary filmmaker, Martin Ubillos, whose words seemed to be addressing the subway passengers directly.
“Their shoes walking by, passing without meaning,” he said, as nearly every passenger did just that – passed by without stopping to listen.
Although some of the poets at Saturday’s reading were visitors from abroad, the majority of the group are residents of New York, dedicated to a variety of professions but united by their love for the art.
Linares, the charismatic Colombian who organizes many of the group’s events, works as a waiter, painter, and freelance writer. Diego Vargas, another of the group’s coordinators, is a teaching assistant at a high school in Woodhaven.
Juana Ramos, a Spanish professor at York College, said that her poetry often deals with issues like the difficulty of adapting to the city as a Hispanic immigrant, a common theme for many of the poets.
But even as Ramos read out to the sea of people that rushed by — “you remain in the hand that greets with suspicion, in the word that you pronounce with caution” — it seemed that instead of enlightening passing subway riders, her words were met with apprehension.
Some poets at the event downplayed the idea that they were there to build an audience, even though one of the ideals of their eight-year-old group, Poetas en Nueva York, is to promote development of Hispanic poetry and artistic expression. Through frequent workshops, exhibitions and readings they’ve developed a strong bond as both fellow artists and friends. Last year they also began distributing a free magazine called Vecindad to help bring their work to the community.
“These artists and promoters of culture bring us together as a great pan-Latino family that interconnects and interacts with other non-Hispanic cultures within the city of New York that live with us and become more aware of our presence,” said Carlos Manuel Rivera, a professor of modern languages at Bronx Community College, who writes and performs his own monologues, poetry and drama. Rivera’s reading in the subway was arguably one of the afternoon’s most vivacious, with him almost pirouetting before the crowd with his broad, sweeping gestures and booming voice.
But some who shared the crowded space with the poets weren’t sure if attracting so much attention to their presence was in everyone’s best interest.
“They came late, and right next to us, and without a permit, so they could get us all kicked out,” said Eden Lindstein, who was volunteering at a Scientologist distribution table for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s book, Dianetics, just a few feet away from the poetry reading.
Despite her disapproval of the competition, Lindstein said she’s a poetry enthusiast and usually supports public readings like this one. But she did wonder whether the poets thronged alongside her table were the reason that so few people had stopped to examine her books.
Between the Scientology table, a Bolivian band, and several other people vying for attention in the busy subway, strategic spots were already hard to come by when the group of poets arrived. But to be heard amidst the cacophony of sounds, the poets had to be close to the action.
“There are people who naturally are interested and stop to listen and there are others who don’t take out their headphones,” acknowledged Diego Cunha, another poet from Uruguay who had traveled all the way to New York for the poetry festival.
After two and a half hours, Cunha and the other poets had probably gotten the attention of no more than 30 passengers out of the thousands who strode by them. Cunha shrugged off the small number. “Even if one or two people stop to listen, “ he said, “we’ve succeeded.”