Airtime: A Public Poem
by Desirée Alvarez
This summer I participated as a visual artist in the 7th annual New York City Poetry Festival with a project called Public Poem, creating a group poem with hundreds of visitors to Governors Island on the last weekend of July. I took the first ferry to Nolan Park where I staked my turf under trees. Next to a lilac bush I put out paper bag and pencils for submissions. Within ten minutes everything including the chairs blew over. It was a windy day but I brought rocks. People wrote lines or words on strips of paper and put them in the bag.
I then scripted their lines with ink brush on bright color fabric and hung the swatches to blow on clotheslines strung between three trees. When I do this project with students I usually provide a prompt but this time given the current political climate I was curious to read a pure zeitgeist so I gave no prompt. Nothing quite worked out as expected.
I’m a teaching artist-in-residence at Artists Space, a non-profit gallery and arts organization in Tribeca founded in 1972. Through a partnership with New York City public schools I teach a poetry workshop to 8th grade teens at PS 140 Nathan Straus School on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. P.S. 140 is 77% Hispanic, 14% Black, 6% Asian, and 95% of the students qualify for The National School Lunch Program. A growing number of its students live in homeless shelters, and many have moved with such frequency that they have never attended one school long enough to master basic skills. We frequently write group poems in class as a way of studying lineation and building confidence in writing long poems. It’s also a great team building exercise and at the end of the year they read one of the collaborative poems as a group, passing the microphone on stage. Here’s one they wrote in response to an image of the Statue of Liberty.
At Governors Island I anticipated a dark apocalyptic response to the current administration. What I got instead was a utopian vision of empathy, kindness and integrity. I also got overwhelmed, unable to keep up with the steady flow of lines written by the public. Here are ten different voices (punctuation indicates a new voice):
I will need to do a second installation to include all the hundreds of lines collected. Another happy surprise was how much time visitors spent reading one another’s writing, photographing the big poem, posting to Instagram and generally hanging out with the installation. Several people asked what I would do with the poem and I have been mulling on this ever since. I feel responsible to these voices, holding their words in my hands on the fabrics. I will work toward creating an archive of the project for the public.
One of my favorite submissions was someone who wrote “Ardently,” a word that sums up the zeitgeist of the weekend. It expresses the mood many public poem writers wished to prevail, an optimistic mandate for approaching the planet and the future with a passion for caring. A park employee gave me a ride Sunday evening to the ferry with all my supplies and told me there were 9,000 visitors to the island that day. I have lots of painting to do.
Note: All photos by the artist except photo #O2 of the artist which is by Michel Franck.
About the author:
Multidisciplinary artist Desirée Alvarez is a poet, painter and installation artist born in New York City. Her first book, Devil’s Paintbrush, won the 2015 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Award from Bauhan Publishing. Alvarez has received numerous awards for her visual and written work, including the Willard L. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Prairie Schooner Glenna Luschei Award and three fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts. She has published in Poetry, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Iowa Review. Her poetry is forthcoming in Other Musics, an anthology of Latina poetry published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2018. Alvarez has exhibited widely and received fellowships as both a visual artist and writer from Yaddo, Poets House, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Program. She teaches design at CUNY and poetry to New York City public school teens as teaching artist at Artists Space.