Subway Ads and The Hatred of Poetry

Dear Ben,

I want to thank you for writing The Hatred of Poetry, a book that I read upon its release in 2016 and loved then, too, but that helped me gain new perspective recently. I hope you don’t mind the following longwinded story.

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While having dinner with my partner Thursday night, I complained about my coworker. Among other annoyances, she’s mentioned a couple times how much she enjoys a current subway ad campaign – the insurance agency PolicyGenius has created ads that poke fun at the MTA’s Poetry in Motion program with its own insurance-related poems, which can be read at the following links: http://www.thedrum.com/news/2017/12/27/us-creative-work-the-week-policygenius-sells-with-subway-poetryhttps://coverager.com/policygenius-turns-subway-ads-into-art/.
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It probably didn’t help that this coworker, upon describing this ad campaign to me, ignored my repeated explanations that I actually appreciate the Poetry in Motion poems (and that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ada Limon, that I’ve had the fortune of watching Billy Collins and Sharon Olds and Marilyn Nelson read, that Kay Ryan’s “Dew” is on the back of the MTA card I received at the Union Square kiosk, and that I enjoy the works of Charles Simic and Major Jackson – all of whom have work that can be read on the subway through this program).

It also didn’t help that she made up her own mock-poem while speaking to me about PolicyGenius’s ads. Not only did her joke fall flat, but she tried satirizing poetic imagery in a manner that displayed her lack of knowledge and understanding of poetry as a whole, much less contemporary poetry from giants in the field. And, again, I already had a few of my own personal issues against this coworker.

This is all to say that, when I came across the PolicyGenius ads myself on my commute one day, I hated them immediately. And through complaining about my coworker to my partner, I complained about these ads to him as well.
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He’s gotten used to me venting my frustrations against this coworker, so perhaps out of boredom he directed his attention to these subway ads instead. What were my complaints about this ad campaign in particular? Was it because they had been created for a company with profit in mind? That would be a flimsy argument, as it could then be argued that any poet creating poetry within a capitalistic system holds at least some value in monetary gain.

Was I angry at the ads for, like my coworker, not understanding poetry well enough and creating this uninformed mockery of it? How strong an argument could I make from that point, if the ads were, in addition to taking a jab at Poetry in Motion, written during the current popularity of “insta-poetry” and its highly debatable merit? After all, one of the ads contains the lines “Poetry / is hard / because / you never know / when to / begin / a new line. / But you must, or / it’s just / a regular sentence” – a common belief among readers whose recent, if only, experiences with poetry have been largely through “insta-poets.”

I conceded that I could have been more receptive to these ads had I run into them on my own and not been told about them first through this coworker. After all, to most subway passengers, the ads must come off as a lighthearted, playful joke. My experience of the ads was negative because my coworker’s enthusiasm for these ads made me view them as negative, and my coworker does not usually bring up subway ads in conversation. But my partner took a more insightful direction with how to think about my coworker and the ad campaign.
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He also read The Hatred of Poetry back in 2016 and mentioned it in this discussion, asking me if perhaps I could look at the mockery of poetry through these subway ads and my coworker’s comments as actually a testament to the enduring power of poetry. After I joked about how these subway ads were definitely mediocre and definitely showed the gap between literal poetry and capital-P Poetry’s promise to reach a sort of divine transcendence, I followed his line of thought.

We brought up that some marketing firm or other surely spent several hours, if not days or weeks, writing and planning these ads. PolicyGenius spent tens of thousands of dollars to get these ads placed in subway cars. Yes, their clever jab at Poetry in Motion for the sake of grabbing passengers’ attention was calculated and made with the intention of sending customers their way, but when all is said and done, the ads drew attention to poetry and its place in our everyday life.

My coworker, while making fun of poetry through these ads, would only have recognized it as a joke against the Poetry in Motion program due to her regular exposure to these poems on the subway, another success of poetry, even if the program’s poems are received with a certain “hatred.”

Small victories – shortly after dinner, I learned that AM2DM, a Buzzfeed morning talk show that is live-streamed through Twitter, was adding a “Poetry Hotline” segment to its lineup after a viewer recommended it to co-host Saeed Jones, who himself was a finalist for the NBCC Award for his debut collection of poetry. The segment premiered yesterday morning, and after reading some brief poems, Morgan Parker spoke about her poetry and what informed her writing. It was well-received by viewers of the show. Any lingering bitterness from thinking about my coworker and the ad campaign dissipated at this point, but I still got to think about the ideas within The Hatred of Poetry and how they had followed my partner and me into situations like this one.
Your book, in addition to being a fun and enjoyable read that got my partner to read the works of Claudia Rankine, turned unproductive banter into interesting conversation and gratitude, so thank you again! I hope you’re well, and I wish you well on your upcoming projects.
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All best,

Monique

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Thank You: GOODBYE, VITAMIN by Rachel Khong

SYNOPSIS: Ruth Young moves back in with her parents for a year after she breaks up with her fiance. She helps care for her father, who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and records her experiences in a journal format.

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July 30th, 2017

Dear Rachel,

I finished GOODBYE, VITAMIN on the train back to my hometown last week, where I stayed with my parents and little brother for a few days to help out around the house and celebrate my dad’s birthday. I’ve been mentally and emotionally preparing myself for this trip due to past issues I’ve had with my family, but my stay was easier to get through than I thought it would be and I think your novel helped me through it. I keep flipping the pages to July 11th’s familial shenanigans, the pain in May 21st, and the sweet nostalgia of February 19th (my birthday). I’ve found the Youngs’ mistakes and small victories comforting because they make me reflect on my own family situation as less daunting than before.

GOODBYE, VITAMIN is the first novel I’ve picked up in years with little knowledge of what was inside. Outside of my friend Isaac Fitzgerald’s Book of the Month Club recommendation, I didn’t know what the book was about, hadn’t heard of it through other friends, and didn’t read any reviews. I’m really happy I picked this novel up knowing so little–it’s about time I picked something up that didn’t have a downer ending! I couldn’t help but literally laugh in public during my subway commutes to and from work. The humor and lighthearted moments of the novel are earned yet somehow still surprising, as if Ruth were a close friend telling me a story that we know I’ll find funny but she knows how to catch me off-guard and make me laugh unexpectedly.

As an emerging writer, your novel reminded me how important structure is and how even something as deceptively simple as calendar dates can create an effective shape for a story to live in. Ruth’s observations reminded me of the poetic feel to Little Book of Days by Nona Caspers or Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement–although neither rings quite so sincere (nor were these books funny). I’ve been struggling with pace in my stories lately, and reading GOODBYE, VITAMIN made it all the more transparent to me how structure can make working with a complex story more manageable and interesting.

I gushed about your novel to my fellow One Story literary magazine volunteers, and I’m excited for your next project!

Thank you!

Monique

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