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21. Because We Fight Over Poetry

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When you pick a fight with a poet, you expect to win. You are likely to be outmatched, however, if the poet you are up against is Alice Quinn. Quinn is a legend of verse in New York. She served as poetry editor of The New Yorker for twenty years and can recite 140 Emily Dickinson poems from memory. Since 2001, she has been executive director of the Poetry Society of America, where, among other duties, she oversaw Poetry in Motion—you know, the poems program responsible for delivering surprising pleasures (or occasional bewilderment) among the subway ads on our daily commute.

The program had run since 1992; the MTA provided the ad space, and the PSA chose the poems. Then, about seven years ago, Alicia Martinez, a former English teacher at Brooklyn College and the current director of marketing for the MTA, decided to get more directly involved, suggesting additional classical poems to complement the PSA’s contemporary selections. Last year, Martinez opted to shelve Poetry in Motion and replace it with her own program: Train of Thought, which features snippets from famous works of literature, philosophy, and science. “Poetry in Motion had a good run,” she says, but “we really did run through most of the selections you could take that would fit on a card.”

The Poetry Society was surprised by the move—Quinn recalls heading to her fateful meeting with Martinez with “my arms full of poems”—and then angered. “Poetry in and of itself presents an art form,” Quinn says. “Whereas the art of the essay is the whole essay, not just a quotation.” But rather than dumping her armload of poems quietly, Quinn spent last year raising money … to buy MTA ad space of her own. The PSA plans to relaunch Poetry in Motion in January, this time on Manhattan buses. (“I’m told Alice negotiated a very good rate,” Martinez acknowledges.) Train of Thought and Poetry in Motion will soon coexist in a kind of détente of commuter inspiration. All of which recalls the sage words of thirteenth-century poet Jelaluddin Rumi, which you may have once read on the subway, or may soon read on the bus. They can be interpreted either as a throwdown or an olive branch: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing/There is a field/I’ll meet you there.”


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