The NYC Poetry Fest is Alive and Well at the End of the World, and So Are We

The specter of apocalypse feels ever-present, but coming together to celebrate both art and each other reminds us we're here now.

The world is ending. I’ve known this for a long time, but this weekend’s global heatwave is refusing to let me forget the Earth’s ever-more imminent demise for even a moment. I’m waiting in line for the Governors’ Island Ferry en route to the 12th annual New York City Poetry Festival, and every inch of my body is blanketed in a thin (yet growing) layer of sweat. The blistering heat is far from new, but the steadily rising temperatures around the world remain news. While bemoaning my lack of preparation (why didn’t I stop at a bodega and grab one of those two-in-one handheld fan/spritzer things?), I find myself wondering how people hold onto their blissful ignorance or stubborn denial when bathed so fully in sweat. The world is ending. How is it that some still refuse to acknowledge it–and how is it that even those who do, those like me, rarely find it in themselves to care?

That’s a question for myself more than anything else, and one I already know the answer to: it’s hard to care, and it’s even harder to keep caring, moment by moment, day after day, year after year. The horrors feel so constant, the doom-scrolling through Twitter–sorry, X–so endless, that sometimes it feels impossible to grieve each calamity or atrocity anew. Be it out of cowardice or overfamiliarity, our state of near apocalypse has become so habitual that sometimes it doesn’t even register. Sometimes it registers a little too much and I become paralyzed with existential dread. But sometimes I pay so little attention to the world ending around me that I don’t even think to bring a fan during a global-warming-induced heatwave. 

The line moves. The sun doesn’t. I board the ferry to Governors’ Island–to the New York City Poetry Festival.

A white banner with blue text reading: "The New York City Poetry Festival."
The banner welcoming attendees to the Festival. Casey Epstein-Gross

Poetry is a divisive artform. Its many detractors see it as insurmountably pretentious and inaccessible–a medium that takes pleasure in refusing connection and reifying old hierarchies. This is the common perception of poetry: a poem as a dust-covered riddle to be solved, the answer held only by the long-dead white man who wrote it. Poetry readings must take place in hushed university auditoriums or underground (literally) hipster bars, and poems are written by taking a common sentiment (“nature is beautiful”) and making it virtually unrecognizable to anyone without a Ph.D. 

This could not be further from the truth, and that’s what Stephanie Berger and Nicholas Adamski of the Poetry Society of New York (PFNY) set out to prove in 2011 when they hosted the very first New York City Poetry Festival: poetry is not inherently unreachable, esoteric, or cryptic, so let’s bring it into broad daylight and demystify it.

“Poetry tends to be hidden in the world, in the corners of bookstores and coffee shops and universities,” Berger said in 2019. “a lot of people don’t even really know it’s out there for them.”

The poet Lynn Melnick, who headlined the Festival a few years ago, seconded Berger’s philosophy: “Events like this take poetry out of that rarified air. You don’t have to go to the fancy bookstore, or to the university reading. You don’t have to take a class. Here, poetry is alive, it’s around us, it’s being written and read and spoken by people who aren’t old white men and those who would read them. It’s for everyone.”

That’s what it comes down to: people love to say “Oh, poetry isn’t my thing” or “Yeah, it’s just not for me,” but the New York City Poetry Festival wants to show that poetry is for everyone–that poetry is for you. You just have to shake off the looming shadow of capital-p Poetry, that mental block shaped like an apparition of Robert Frost, and get weird with it. 

People milling around white tents on a grassy space with trees overhead.
A small part of The New York City Poetry Festival. Casey Epstein-Gross

A short ferry ride and a few minutes of sign-following later, I arrive at this year’s New York City Poetry Festival, made evident by a massive banner proclaiming just that. That banner is, naturally, the first thing I notice. The second is that everyone else there, from attendees to vendors to organizers, all seem to have brought some sort of handheld (most frequently paper) fan. These people know the world is ending, I chastise myself. They know to bring a fan. 

Then, finally, I notice everything else: the white tents, tables, and stages lining the perimeter of Colonel’s Row, the people milling casually around the grassy quadrangle, tacos and THC-infused seltzer in hand. The food trucks, art stands, literary press booths. The myriad of oddities–a man with clown makeup juggling three balls, a group donned in Ren Faire style garb, enough people brandishing miniature bubble wands to make me wonder if I missed some crucial bubble-giveaway-stand and what seems to be the tiniest merry-go-round in the world. I’m also trying to parse three poems at once: standing here, I hear someone on The Beckett Stage cursing their way through an original titled “I Hate the Children;” at The Algonquin Stage, a British man donning an elaborate butterfly mask spitting rhymes; a teenager performing an impassioned slam poem about a breakup on The Brinkley Stage.

With the heat still beating down onto the exposed green, the sensory overload might be enough to overwhelm. But after a few deep breaths, the festival’s individual parts begin to coalesce into a wonderfully quirky whole, and I’m almost taken aback by the rush of affection I feel for the whole affair. I suddenly become unstuck from the quicksand of nihilistic determinism. The world might be ending, but life must go on until it does, and there is so much space for beauty to be found in the interim.

The Festival doesn’t have an official theme, but by the end of the weekend, one emerges anyways, pulsing through every moment like a second heart: poetry as the patron saint of hope at the end of the world.

A black genderqueer person wearing a bright colorful shirt and reading at a stage called "The Brinkley" next to a sign language interpreter.
Sunday headliner Danez Smith performing at The Brinkley next to a sign language interpreter. Casey Epstein-Gross

While poetry can be a freeing medium for anyone, for everyone, this weekend’s Festival drove home that it can be a meaningful form of linguistic and even societal liberation, especially for people who feel suffocated by the world around them, a world that wasn’t created with them in mind. Poetry is more than an ode to suffering or a salve for pain–it’s also a vehicle through which systems of domination can be uniquely critiqued, considering the very medium allows writers to break down and transform entirely the forms of language which all-too-often define and oppress us.

From white supremacy to anti-trans legislation, police brutality to global warming, latent grief to disability rights, hegemonic masculinity to the strange grammar of pronouns and identity, few topics remained untouched by the end of the headliners’ sets. Poems can be–and good poems are–acts of resistance in and of themselves. How could Danez Smith’s fervent performance of their powerful poem “Dear White America” to a crowd dotted with white faces be anything else? 

The prominent poet and memoirist Saeed Jones, one of the two headliners on Sunday (along with Smith), explained that his love for poetry, especially in our contemporary moment, is often fueled by the joy found in seeing people of color, queer folks, and other groups marginalized by society use the medium so uniquely and productively.

“[Poetry] defies capitalism,” Jones said, to much applause. “It defies expectations. The rules change every poem. And I think that confusion, I think that’s really liberating, and that’s why it’s so important to us.”

But not every poem needs to be a call to action to tilt the world on its axis. Sometimes, all a poem needs to do is refuse to acquiesce to the onslaught of awful–to remember, and keep remembering. 

Saturday’s first headliner, transgender cripple-punk poet torrin a. greathouse, read a poem called “Litany of Ordinary Violences” that detailed the cruelty and horror she’s become accustomed to encountering everywhere, from the red line subway to her neighborhood to her daily commute. The violence is senseless, meaningless, and utterly mundane–the scariest aspect of it all is how easy it would be to stop thinking of it as violence and start viewing it as part and parcel of life. 

“Forgive me,” she said towards the end of the poem. “I cannot find the poem in all of this, / but I can’t bear to let it go unspoken. I want to make this / violence a stranger in my mouth. I want to make it / something worth remembering.”

greathouse introduced the poem as “a poem that fails,” but for whatever it’s worth, I’m still here two days later, remembering it. In my opinion, that’s worth quite a bit.

A trans woman reading poems on a stage called "The Brinkley" with another woman, a sign language interpreter, on her right.
Saturday headliner torrin a. greathouse reading at The Brinkley Stage, with a sign language interpreter to her right. Casey Epstein-Gross

It’s a poetry festival, not a climate-change march, but even so, the shadow of apocalypse looms heavily over Colonel’s Row–and not just because two of the four headliners’ latest books are centered around exactly that (Saeed Jones’ Alive at the End of the World and Franny Choi’s The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On).

Every word spoken feels hard-edged and flinty, sharpened on the whetstone of mundane dystopia. Even the love present–and there’s an abundance of it–has muscle to it, bonds forged not only through genuine affection but through necessity. Save for Saturday’s acerbic heat, there’s no visible sign of doomsday, far from it; perhaps thanks to a re-emergence after the worst of the pandemic, the festival is practically overflowing with whimsy (again, just look at that two-person solar-powered bubble-blowing merry-go-round) and the sheer communal joy of being there at all. But the lightness and grace that seems to come so easily is not an accident or a happy side-effect; it’s a choice that has to be made every single day, over and over again. That’s where the steeliness comes from: that unending devotion to being, in spite of everything.

This spirit of finding meaning and community during the end times permeates every nook and cranny of the festival, from every booth to every stage. One booth–“Poetry Camp”–is filled with all the old bonding activities familiar from summer camp: friendship bracelets, MadLibs and even a fake bonfire (complete with a fluttering handkerchief blown by a fan to simulate flames) for visitors to sit around. Another, the non-profit Brooklyn Book Bodega, is giving away free kids’ books to anyone who passes by their stand, with the sole goal of encouraging increased book ownership in houses with children. Every third booth has thrifted and handmade clothes and jewelry, and every fourth offers original artwork (frequently, for whatever reason, collages). One vendor, the poet and visual artist Brendan Lorber, is selling intricate hand-drawn fantasy-style maps devoted to poets and musicians (and if you’re interested in charting the geography of your own life and relationships, he even takes commissions), a practice he began in the midst of pandemic isolation to give himself and others the chance to “discover yourself in new worlds perhaps better than this one.”

A magnifying glass looking at an intricate handdrawn map on a red table.
A close-up on Brendan Lorber’s hand-drawn maps. Casey Epstein-Gross

At the far end of the green, new poets stand in a literal ring of daisies at The Ring of Daisies Open Mic, many sharing their art for the very first time. The Teachers and Writers Collaborative table invites festival attendees to add a line of their own to a taped-together 100-yard poem. “Poets in Parks” (from PFNY) exhibits laminated “menus” teaching passersby to write different styles of poems–there are magazines to cut through to make the Found Poem entree, and canvases to paint on to create inspiration for the Ekphrasis dish. PFNY’s famed “Poetry Brothel” by The Beckett Stage is fostering human intimacy through the medium of poetry, encouraging attendees to choose a “poetry whore” to accompany them into a small tent where the poet reads original poetry to them one-on-one. (I give it a shot myself–the intense eye contact is jarring, but mostly because I’m so unused to it. After that, the experience is disconcertingly moving.) A bright yellow tent called “Messages from the Universe” dangles tiny envelopes with string from the ceiling and instructs passersby to meander around the tent and, upon coming across an envelope that calls to them, quietly unclip and open it to discover the hand-written message inside. Mine reads “You are exactly where you need to be.” In this moment, it feels true.

A yellow piece of paper reading "You Are Exactly Where You Need to Be."
My “message from the universe.” Casey Epstein-Gross

“This is poetry for the people,” PFNY Program Director Tova Greene told Observer about the organization’s emphasis on creating an accessible, meaningful community for everyone involved, from bystanders to headliners. “Poetry is valid whether you started writing ten minutes ago or ten years ago. We’re all about meeting everybody where they are in their poetry journey.”

As such, PFNY explicitly prioritized diversity, accessibility, and anti-hierarchy initiatives in the planning of the event. Vending cost only $50, a stellar deal considering the expected foot traffic of 15,000 people. Further, the festival was entirely free not only to attend but also for performers (save the ferry fare). Unlike most festivals which save peak time slots for big names and shove smaller acts somewhere in the corner at dead times, every stage and time slot was first-come first-serve, with the sole exception of the four headliners, who performed 30-minute sets from 3-4 on both Saturday and Sunday. But right at 4, these critically-acclaimed, widely-known poets were quickly shooed from the stage to make way for poets reading from Urban Word NYC, a collective of local teens performing spoken word and slam poetry.

Poetry today has become increasingly energized by voices that have long been underrepresented, and it’s all the better for it. The perception that poetry is a medium primarily for old cis straight white men becomes even more blatantly incorrect with each passing year. That isn’t to say they no longer write poetry, of course, but rather, that they are far from the only ones, and this belief was at the forefront of the festival’s programming.

“We wanted to make sure the festival was at least 70% BIPOC,” said Greene. “It’s the New York City Poetry Festival, so it should reflect the diversity of New York in every way possible… Poetry isn’t this dead, white, cis thing; it’s something living and breathing and viable and wonderful.”

Even just a quick glance around the Festival made it clear that Greene’s efforts did not go to waste–both the poets reading and the rapt crowd were made up of all ages (with a strong contingent of younger readers and attendees), all genders, all races, all people. 

A woman handing a piece of paper to another woman to hang it up next to other pieces of paper to create the next line of an on-going poem.
A woman adding to the “100 Foot Poem” project at the Teachers and Writers Collaborative table. Casey Epstein-Gross

Gabriel Cleveland, managing editor of long-time Festival attendee CavanKerry Press, says on Sunday that the New York City Poetry Festival is a “singular experience.” 

“This is a gathering of one of the most robust and diverse and compelling communities of people who are just all united by this wonderful drive to share with one another the deeper parts of being human, of existing, the things that make being alive worth it, that make life worth living–that’s what poets are so good at, y’know? They’re good at observing and diving into the specifics, the things that other people take for granted. Poets, including myself, find beauty in scraps on the side of the highway. Who else is going to do that? Everyone else would just say, ‘Look at that trash.’” 

And across the green grass of Colonel’s Row from the CavanKerry table, a group of college students and recent grads are doing exactly that–seeing potential and art where other people (myself included) would see garbage. Their DIY electronics organization, fittingly called the “Disengineering Society,” encourages people to reuse their e-waste rather than immediately trash it. Their table is covered in “supply kits” filled with materials for creating your own “disengineered” projects, as well as zines filled with poetry and step-by-step tutorials for those interested in “disengineering” techniques. They call out to me as I walk by–they have rigged up an unusual “disengineered” sound system consisting of a used vape, an empty Altoids box and tiny amplifier, and are trying to start up an impromptu open mic. I shrug; why not? I read a poem or two. Someone plays guitar, someone else improvises a poem on the spot, someone else recites an Auden poem from memory, all into the makeshift “Vape Mic.”

A crowd gathers. People pull blankets from baskets and start picnicking right in front of the booth. Everyone is cheering and smiling and sharing social media handles. One poet nervously laughs into the vape, saying they’ve never shared their poems with anyone before. When they finish reading, they receive the loudest applause yet. The world is ending–so read your poems here, now, into this discarded vape in front of a motley crew of strangers grinning warmly up at you from the grass. 

A man speaking into a green vape repurposed into a microphone at the Disengineering Society table while his friend records him.
Poet Brandon Bien reading his work into Disengineering’s “Vape Mic” while a friend records him. Casey Epstein-Gross

It may have been Saeed Jones who summed up the overarching message of the whole festival for me best during his Sunday set–and in an off-the-cuff moment between poems, no less:

“I saw someone tweet the other day–‘cause yeah, I’m still in that burning house–‘isn’t it kind of weird you could be naked in bed and find out about aliens? Or that there’s a new war?’ I’m like ‘What are we supposed to do?! I don’t know!’ As it turns out, life continues even as it ends! Desire, violence, white supremacy, queerness, beauty, Beyonce concerts… we still going! We still going!”

As Saturday headliner Franny Choi put it in a poem she read during her set: “Every day of my life has been something other than my last.” 

The world is ending, I’m melting in this summer of soaring temperatures, I’m dying in the middle of this festival and sweat is pooling in every crevice of my body–and someone hands me a paper fan. I stop considering bowing out and taking the ferry home to sweet, sweet A.C. I keep going.

Every day of my life has been something other than my last, and today is, too. The world is ending, but it hasn’t ended yet. Just look at the green grass, the meandering 20-somethings, the bear hugs between old friends, the taco trucks and board game booths and slam poets and drawing stations and hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds who took a ferry on the hottest day of the summer just to listen to some poetry–we’re still here. We’re still going. Let’s read some poems.

The NYC Poetry Fest is Alive and Well at the End of the World, and So Are We