Pop Up Poets will speak across the city

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PITTSFIELD -- Samantha Thornhill has written poetry since she was a child, and in Tallahassee, Fla., she began reading it out loud with a poetry group, in barbershops and gas stations and around town.

When she got her Masters degree and came to New York City, she performed there at universities and in coffee shops, but she felt something missing.

"I missed that direct engagement" with people," she said. "Reading poetry in a waiting room with people waiting to be tested for HIV -- they'd never have seen the inside of a poetry venue if that room hadn't become one."

She suggested the idea of unannounced public readings to four writers she had met at the Louder Arts Project, a poetry reading series and gathering of writers at Bar 13, and three years ago the Pop Up Poets -- Poets in Unexpected Places -- gave their first performance. The group has grown, and the five founding poets and co-curate and coordinate the performances.

Jonathan Sands had done guerilla poetry on trains, Thorn hill said, but the idea has come as a new one to most of the writers who have joined in. Adam Falkner found it refreshing. It came to him at a time in his writing when he wanted to step into risk, not out of it, he said, to try what scared him.

"I became aware of the possibilities," he said.

"When you speak to poets," Thornhill said, "some have an urge to do this but are afraid."

They're afraid of the audience's response. After all, the audience doesn't choose to come to these performances.

"We make these people an audience," Thornhill said.

On a train, at the laundromat, in Times Square, on the Staten Island ferry, in a shop -- sometimes the poets play to a captive audience, and sometimes to people on the street.

And the audiences gather. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they join in.

"Their responses show such a need for this," Thornhill said. "In New York, people perform all the time," on the streets, on subway platforms, and people passing by will tune them out. "But they're hungry for it," she said, "in ways they don't know."

Writers bring well-crafted, emotional words into a space, and anyone can relate to them.

"You don't get poets often in public, but there's something about the spoken word," she said.

People get involved.

They begin conversations that would never have happened without the poetry to warm and open them up, Falkner said.

The way Pop Up Poets puts together the event builds a space where people can be curious and can share what they feel, he said. In the city, if someone starts talking to him on the street, he sill assume they either want to ask him for money or they want to change his mind about something. Pop Up Poets carefully does neither. They set up a shared space for listening.

He and Thornhill will come to WordXWord for the first time this year. Sands, who performed last year, has encouraged them to join him. They don't know what the week will hold -- and they like it that way.

Curiosity and improvisation, she and Falkner agreed, made the week exciting They will come prepared to enter any space, to try anything, to surprise and be surprised.

"I'm prepared to be present here," Thornhill said.


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