Am I a Poet?

(Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on 5/6/08)

I am on the Septa R-1 train on my way to the airport. It is early morning and everyone is in a hurry. The airport train is crowded but I find a seat next to a young man who looks like he might be a student on his way to work. He is neatly dressed in his work uniform and he has an enormous backpack wedged in between his feet and the seat in front of us. He is writing in a small spiral notebook, the kind you use for taking class notes.

We are in such close proximity (and I am famously nosy) that I can’t help but notice what he has written as the title of what he is working on. He has written Am I a Poet?

During our twenty-minute ride the words he is writing take on the familiar shape of a poem. Being a writer myself I recognize a kindred spirit. It doesn’t matter that he is a young black man and I am a middle-aged white woman. I recognize the foot-tapping tension, the vacant stares while he searches through his brain for just the right word – the brain gears clicking, the aha moment, the rush of recognition, the quick confident scribble. The occasional cross-outs and hesitations, the words added in the margins, the steady progress of the words and lines. The whole sequence repeated again and again, as each line is unfurled onto the page.

It kills me that I cannot read what he has written. Although I am trying. I get a sore neck and crossed eyes from trying to surreptitiously read his words without it seeming like I am doing so. I want to know the answer to his question Am I a Poet? But something stops me. Politeness, maybe. I am a stranger to him after all, and he is so intent I don’t want to disturb his concentration and inspiration by an intrusion into his personal space. He stops and starts again, he chews his pen, he stares out the window at the bleak landscape right outside the train window. Is he finding inspiration there, or is there a picture inside his head that he is trying to capture. A tricky business, at best, this poetry stuff. This much I do know.

I could tell him I am a published author myself. I have written poetry and taught writing classes. After twenty-five years of steady work at this surely I could offer him some valuable nugget of knowledge, or at the very least a kind of writer-to-writer pep talk. But in the end, I keep quiet. He is in his own moment, he has filled two pages now. Whatever he is trying to say is gushing out of him onto the page.

Part of my admiration for him, and my curiosity, stems from the fact that it is almost an oddity to see someone, especially a young person, writing longhand into a small spiral notebook. In this day of text messaging and wireless laptops it is somehow quaint to see handwriting fill a blank page.

My stop is approaching. Here is my last chance to connect. I want him to know…something, but what? And why is it so important to me to encourage him, to let him know that we are in the same club?

In the end, as I gather my bags and wait for the aisle to clear, I manage to look over my shoulder as I join the departing crowd. “Keep up your writing,” I say. I look him in the eyes and smile encouragingly. He probably thinks I am some sort of lunatic. Some kooky middle-aged busybody. But I don’t care. I have made contact. I didn’t say what I wanted to say which was, “Soldier on. What you are doing is important. Even if you are on your way to some boring job at the airport, where you will most likely be abused all day by rude, frenzied travelers, keep this part of yourself separate. Keep writing poetry.”

Weeks later, I think of him now, and I still want to read his poem.

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