'So much to say': Project inspires strangers to write poems on NYC subway

Madeline Schwartzman was just riding the New York City subway one day this spring on her normal commute when an idea came to her "with a thunk": "Ask a stranger to write a poem!"

The architecture professor says she had the brainwave while "sitting and staring at passengers on the 2 train," and that it snowballed from there. "I started that day, using my iPhone as the repository," she told TODAY.com. "When I got off the train I purchased my first notebook."

  • Slideshow Photos

    Madeline Schwartzman

    Spontaneous subway poems

    Everytime Madeline Schwartzman gets on the subway, she asks a complete stranger to write  a poem. "People seem to have things they want to share," Schwartzman said. "Some people feel so tortured by my request. My job is to break through that wall."

  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    Poetry in motion -

    Architecture professor Madeline Schwartzman was riding the New York City subway one day when an idea came to her: "Ask a stranger to write a poem!"

    Schwartzman, pictured left with her piece "Raw Down Here," has since collected nearly 100 poems from fellow subway riders, and displays a selection of the poetry on her website, Poems by New Yorkers. Her subjects are a diverse mix of men, women and children of a wide variety of ages and races, and the poetry they've produced ranges from serious to silly, with a heavy emphasis on reflections about love. Here's a selection from her project.

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    'An Unexpected Poem' -

    An unexpected poem
    In the morning
    Eating the husk cherries
    I bought the day before.

    Reading a book
    Expecting no one to notice
    Tuning out the crowds
    A moment – or a few –
    Of imagined quiet.

    Who knows where this will go?
    An unexpected poem,
    A chance to think.
    -Jeremy Schwartz

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    'Spushcacao Is A Word Noone Knows' -

    Spushcacao is a word
    noone knows not even
    I. I’m guessing this is
    a sharp rock that never
    ends. Spushcacao
    -Ava Davidovits

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    A Small Vehicle -

    the vehicle travels forth not back
    its divergence is sudden from track to track
    a constant set of new destinations
    will sometimes lead to its frustration

    its metal grinds against the rail
    as every foot roars in despair
    it takes a breath when it tires
    or when it sees something it admires

    and from its break it’s hard to stop
    as time is added to the clock
    but when it starts they all do follow
    and take the plunge into the hollow

    and in this darkness the vehicle is lit
    to guide its passengers through the abyss
    arriving at their port of choice
    they disembark to much rejoice

    and once again it travels fast
    harrowing through the tunnels pass
    where it goes is still uncertain
    but what is known is not a lesson
    - Johan Lopez

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    'Strangers Approach' -

    A stranger’s approach
    sometimes warmer than a phone
    call from a friend.
    Or an attempt at a relationship
    to mend.
    I think I just met a new
    friend :)
    on a subway
    in a strange land
    a stranger became a helping hand.
    -Chris Usher

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    'Feeling Heavy' -

    Feeling heavy today
    like the way it
    is when you
    can’t make jello
    fit in yar strainer
    Get up and just
    go
    cuz you know
    it will all slip
    through anyway
    -Ellie Bensinger

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    'I Can't Believe I Met You' -

    I can’t believe I met you
    I can’t believe we fell in love
    It’s crazy how much I love you
    there’s no doubt you were sent from above

    In such little time you got me
    I fell for you so hard
    love asked me no questions
    it just seemed to swipe the card

    The card that purchased my freedom
    freedom that I find in you
    freedom to live and love
    to be myself stay true

    You make the future exciting
    I live for the thought of us
    The possibilities are endless
    All we have to do is trust
    -Breanna Chevolleau

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    'When The Writing Professor Is Asked' -

    When the writing
    professor is asked
    to write a poem
    on the subway
    After he has been up all night
    grading.
    He thinks it over.
    Being asked by a kind, brown-eyed
    woman, wearing jeans, slightly
    faded
    Ear flap cap
    moss green
    it’s cold outside.
    Two stops to go and
    back out into the cold
    more grading
    And also the grief
    that comes from one more
    thing being done.
    -Matt McClelland

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    Good Evening Ladies And Gentlemen -

    Good evening ladies and gentleman i would like to speak to you about the unspoken territories that speak in the soul of the mind
    Only to find that time is made in the mind
    Our lives bends as it blends with chatter
    Leaving those with shapeless matter as the wind scatters.
    If the heart sees what the mind wants to feel then the more we seek the
    More the soul speaks and our minds may peek as the power starts to steep our lives are the manifestation of the physical derived
    From the spiritual our lives are so miniscule yet we think were so invincible, never listening to the voice of change yes this is the life of the deranged as we become estranged from the life of the tamed. Karmic Retribution sings her truthful lessons paid with all my indirect expressions I am tested
    Ive explored the lure then got bored
    My mind is drifted to the cosmos where no one dares to follow i am no longer hollow no more pills left to swallow. -Justin

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    Visualizing Life -

    Visualizing life
    life in love.
    Life with you.
    Life you take.
    Makes the way
    I see things so
    unreal
    makes the way you
    do things cause
    A reel, of sadness
    in my eye,
    why?
    -Lilli Mitchell

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman
  • Spontaneous subway poems

    of

    We Are All Flowers -

    Well I believe that life is
    what you make it to be. We
    are like Flowers, we were all
    created differently, and like
    all Flowers no one Flower is
    more beautiful than the other,
    like us we all possess our own
    beauty.
    -Ambrosia

    Madeline Schwartzman / Madeline Schwartzman

She's now on her fifth notebook, and has collected just under 100 poems, such as this one by Chris Usher:

"A stranger’s approach
sometimes warmer than a phone
call from a friend.
Or an attempt at a relationship
to mend.
I think I just met a new
friend :)
on a subway
in a strangeland
a stranger became a helping hand."

Schwartzman displays a selection of the poetry on her website, Poems by New Yorkers, where she posts the work alongside photos of the people she asked to write it. Her subjects are a diverse mix of men, women and children of a wide variety of ages and races, and the poetry they've produced ranges from serious to silly, with a heavy emphasis on reflections about love.

“People have so much to say,” she says. “It turns out everyone can write. It is so touching to talk to people. We share many of the same thoughts, desires, and experiences.” 

Jeremy Schwartz writes his poem, "An Unexpected Poem". Madeline Schwartzman
Jeremy Schwartz writes his poem, "An Unexpected Poem".

And the strangers she approaches are usually receptive to the project. "My success rate is 85-90 percent. Some days it is 100 percent," she says, though she notes that it's easier to get women to agree than men. "People seem to have things they want to share. Some people feel so tortured by my request. My job is to break through that wall."

Schwartzman was partly inspired to start the "social art project" by work she'd done over the last 10 years as a professor at Parsons: The New School for Design, where she often asked students to do unusual interactions with the city and its inhabitants.

Madeline Schwartzman also writes poetry while her commute. Madeline Schwartzman
Madeline Schwartzman also writes poetry while she commutes.

But this project goes well beyond what she had ever done before. "Poetry is entirely new to me — a new love," she says.

And Schwartzman isn't the only one who benefits — those who have given her their time and talent say they've been positively affected by the experience.

"I'm often glad when someone breaks the unspoken rules of avoiding eye contact and conversation on the subway," 26-year-old Brooklyn social worker Jeremy Schwartz told TODAY.com. "My reaction when Madeline asked me to write a poem was something along the lines of 'Sure, why not?!' It felt like a fun diversion from my normal commuting experience."

Breanna Chevolleau writes a poem about how she is in love. Madeline Schwartzman
Breanna Chevolleau writes a poem about how she is in love.

"I'd say it was fate that brought Madeline and I to the same Clark Street subway platform in Brooklyn Heights," said blogger and aspiring journalist Breanna Chevolleau. "I think Madeline's project is such a great idea. Madeline gives a few lucky people the chance to stop, think, and express some emotion."

When Schwartzman is not teaching or asking strangers to write poetry, she is a mother of 10-year-old twin daughters, Flora and Ariel. She encourages them to write poetry just like the strangers she meets on the train.

0:00
 
0:00
Your video begins in
0:00
TOP