Home » Fall 2008Great Minds

Love Poems on the Subway and Other Adventures

by Emma Cofer, Class of 2009 No Comment

If Paris is for lovers, then New York City is for writers.


photo credits: Dee Fontenot

No place is so synonymous with the written word and the community surrounding it as New York. And why wouldn’t it be? NYC is “the capital of the world” and an undisputed creative hub, and writing is what brings other worlds, or different ways of looking at this one, into the public domain. New York is the ultimate public domain—an often overwhelming convergence of culture and cultures, everyone swimming around its concrete sea in trains sliding underground like eels, multitudes of pedestrians like darting schools of brightly colored fish. 

As an aspiring writer and a devoted linguaphile, I knew that I had to go there. I’d always loved writing. As a creative writing major at Vanderbilt, I thrived on the energy of our writing community and constant conversation about poetry and poets. New York was where so many of the writers we admired had explored their art in this same way. I felt the tug every time I read the poetry of Frank O’Hara or any of the countless versifiers who breathed the magic of New York into their work. Whitman, in typically effusive fashion, exclaims his love: “Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!”—and all I could do was turn my gaze northward and decide that this California native wanted to be a part of the madness. 

newyork-streetA New York summer 
Wears sunglasses that fog up
From its bazaar breath.

At the farmer’s market, crowds
Select greens for small kitchens.

Each of you is part 
Of the soil of this city
Which doesn’t hold roots.

Between my sophomore and junior year in the College of Arts and Science, I wrote to Alice Quinn, then-poetry editor at The New Yorker, where she had sifted through poems for as many years as I’d been alive. I admired her literary career and expressed interest in the path she took to get there. I then had the chance to meet her during fall break my junior year, which led to the opportunity to work as a summer intern at the Poetry Society of America (PSA), of which she was executive director. With vague directions from the PSA’s managing director to “let us know when you’re in town,” I moved into the New York University dorms on Union Square at the end of May, armed with two suitcases, a few books, and an endless supply of curiosity.

I live on the corner of a college street,
And the park keeps dancing, no matter the hour,
As the coffee shops and the flip-flopped feet
Get their second wind like electric power.

Surrounded by a World of Words

Then I ended up with three internships. 

It was as sudden as that. In addition to interning at PSA for the months of June and July, I worked at The Hudson Review as editorial intern and at the Guggenheim Foundation as Director Edward Hirsch’s project assistant. 

I know why writers come here: to belong
To the city you can’t hold, which belongs          

Only to itself, too vibrant to be held
Within a travel guide. New York belongs

To words about it, because it swells
With everything, and everything belongs.

During the school year I had been in touch with Paula Deitz, editor of The Hudson Review, through my adviser for Vanderbilt’s creative writing program, poet Mark Jarman. Paula invited me to visit her office once I was in the city. I left the office with a job. A week later, when I was at a poetry reading featuring Ed Hirsch, a conversation with him became a month of research for his new book. I was working 9 to 5 and then some. So I managed one of the most challenging balancing acts of my life, because loving New York City is also a full-time job.

Surrendered to the City Beat

While I lived in New York, I took it upon myself to be a constant explorer, like some sort of urban, contemporary Christopher Columbus. In fact, like Columbus, I often thought I had found parts of New York that were already part of the vibrant network of the city. I once made a local Manhattanite laugh hysterically by expressing my enthusiasm about Chelsea, which I declared would be the next great neighborhood. Apparently others know it’s there. But my adventures weren’t limited to what one would expect of a visitor to NYC, although I did attend two Broadway plays and two musicals, frequented museums from MoMA to the Met, picnicked in Central Park, and rode the subway at least twice a day.

I once saw a man on the subway,
Who sat, fully nude, in a calm way,
Though the passengers glared,
He couldn’t have cared,
And, at the next stop, went on his way.

The memories that stick are unique: a visit to a slam at the Bowery Poetry Club, an experimental theatre production in a deserted public pool in Brooklyn, the two-hour adventure to find a slice of red velvet cake favored by a review in The New York Times. While others might remember Times Square, I remember the poetry reading held there. While others might savor a slice of New York pizza, I stood in two-hour lines at our local, legendary parlor Artichoke, which serves only artichoke pizza. Instead of going to the block-long Barnes and Noble on one side of Union Square, I became a regular at The Strand down the street, wandering its musty aisles with a cup of too-hot coffee from my friendly street vendor. 

The myth that New Yorkers are unfriendly 
Is a lie: New Yorkers are helpful, kind,
But they won’t invite you into their lives.
They’ll show you how to get where you’re going,
And wish you well on your parallel path.

photo credits: Marc Iserman

photo credits: Marc Iserman


Written into the Poem of Life

My summer was about words, about poetry. At The Hudson Review, I found a family in the amazing editors under whose supervision I worked. I had the pleasure of reading dozens of past issues and categorizing the works within, a process through which I was introduced to wonderful poets, fiction writers, reviewers and critics. In my project for Ed Hirsch, I delved into the histories of limericks and ghazals, rengas and skeltonic verses, gathering materials for his follow-up glossary volume to How to Read a Poem. And at the Poetry Society of America, I saw how poetry could be brought to the people who wanted it, through events, contests and newsletters.

In my own little way, I brought poetry to the world. I scribbled verse, I observed, I shamelessly stole New York and wrote it into the poem of my life. I frequently sat my two roommates down—a Condé Nast intern and a Carolina Herrera-employed fashionista—and read them poems that moved me. I said, “Isn’t this beautiful?” 

I learned this summer what I want to do. I want to sit people down with a poem like I’m setting up a blind date. Poetry matters. I had three angles from which to view that one truth. Three lessons in what I love. Four if you count New York City.

When I left this city, I wrote a letter on the plane,
I love you—hate to leave you—but I’ll see you again.

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