This is no. 100 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
New York’s streets are everywhere in my poems. In February of 2014 I used the city quite literally. It was for a project called Night Call. The idea was to travel to strangers and read them poems in bed, or in the most intimate space of their homes. For many people this ended up being the kitchen or living room. For one guy, his balcony in Tribeca. Mostly though, strangers walked me right into their bedrooms and offered me a glimpse of their lives.
I’ve lived in New York for more than ten years. It still feels like the city doesn’t need me or know that I’m here. And to be honest, I like that. I’m a writer who thrives off resistance. That kind of pushback and being ignored excites me. In Night Call, I wanted to fuse that feeling with the intimacy of going over to someone’s apartment. Being in a person’s space is often more intimate than sleeping with them. It’s an alluring exchange: people showing you where they spend the majority of their lives. The poem is also an exchange. It’s like showing you a map to the interior though not the interior itself. The poem, to me, is a conversation between people.
I announced Night Call on social media and offered to do readings for anyone who didn’t know me. That was the catch, they had to be total strangers. They could be in any borough and had the choice of four separate Sundays on which we could meet. I’d leave my apartment around eight in the evening with poems and my phone. Nothing more. Maybe a pack of cigarettes (though I was trying to quit). Sometimes I didn’t know the gender of the person I was going to read to (based on their name) and I didn’t care either. I took the N and the R and the 6 and the B trains. Most of the readings were quick. Twenty or twenty-five minutes. Other times I wouldn’t leave someone’s apartment until two or three in the morning and I’d cab back, exhausted and exhilarated both. People offered me drinks, told me stories about their childhoods, affairs, the death of their parents. They took me up to their roofs, made me coffee, showed me things they had written or painted. One stranger cooked me dinner and told me she regretted both of her marriages. “Don’t get married,” she said. “There are more interesting things to do with people.” I’ll never forget the way she kept adjusting a silver pendant around her neck.
At the time I had a nine-to-five job and I’m not sure how I got up on those Monday mornings. Several major media outlets asked to cover Night Call but I declined. I’ve never written or talked about it before. It was private. My interest was to open up a new space between the reader and the poet and between the reader and the poem. I wanted to demystify both. I wanted people, in the privacy of their beds, to encounter the poem like a bedtime story (being read to having been one of the only pleasures of my childhood).
The poems I read were from drafts of my second book, Together and by Ourselves. The strangers in Night Call were the first people to hear it. It’s my favorite book I’ve written and my most personal, too. In some ways I wrote it to survive the change in an important relationship. It’s amazing the things people shared with me when I read them those poems. We usually sat across from each other on top of the bedspread, sometimes about one or two arm-lengths apart, sometimes for long stretches of time, often in silence.
For about a month, in the dead of winter, I went to the Village and Queens and Brooklyn, and almost to Staten Island once but it was too late at that point. Some people I read to ended up becoming my friends. I remember even those I haven’t seen again, which is most of them. I remember what they told me about their lives and I remember their faces. The poem is, of course, a place to remember. It keeps people’s voices and things right there, outside time. And those first hours after midnight, when Night Call would often take place, they feel outside time to me also. It’s a beautiful illusion. The imagination is the only real freedom. That’s what Night Call helped me remember. I had forgotten it too.
Alex Dimitrov is the author of three books of poems, including Love and Other Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), as well as the chapbook American Boys (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2012). His work has been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, and Poetry. He was previously the senior content editor at the Academy of American Poets, where he edited the Poem-a-Day series and American Poets. He has taught creative writing at Princeton University, Columbia University, and New York University, among other institutions. With Dorothea Lasky, he is the coauthor of Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Zodiac (Flatiron Books, 2019). Dimitrov lives in New York City.Thumbnail: Guillaume Técher