This is no. 102 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
So I’m stuck in traffic in a taxicab, which is typical and not just of modern life. Twenty-Eighth or Twenty-Seventh. I’m not looking up. I’ve resigned myself to being late to this meeting (I don’t want to go to) with a bunch of business people who have no ideas but plenty of fancy job titles. Who cares! You know the thing is, a poem can happen anywhere. That’s not the problem. The problem is you need a reader. The catch is you need someone you’re writing to. You can’t write to the air!
And of course I’m checking Twitter, I’m checking Insta, I’m checking the New York Times (help me). It’s just as uninspiring as these business people I’m about to talk to. I’m starting to think they’re all training us to be business people. To sell nothing. To keep lying for the clout. To just fake it. (No way! I’m not nearly that depressed with the world!) So there’s the traffic and the city. The new kicks I’m wearing. My black jeans. My black shirt. The usual irritations. All good poems start with irritation. This one having to do with how low my bank balance is and how wrong the decision to take a cab was. Not that it stops me from opening my Notes app and starting to work. I clock in right there. Twenty-First. Nineteenth. Okay, movement. Someone honking. Someone crying in front of Chase bank.
“To the people reading this poem—hello.” That’s the first line of my workday. That’s sort of when I realize I’m writing a poem in a cab and I go with it. What else can I do? After I write a line I look at it visually. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Is it too short or too long or too anything yet? I spend maybe a minute considering if the em dash is pretentious. I decide that it is! I decide to just keep writing because I have maybe another five minutes before I say bye to my poetry brain and go up twenty floors.
You have to steal time as a poet. You have to write poetry while you’re going to meetings and teaching five classes and crying at Nowhere Bar about some rejection again. The trick is not to feel sorry for yourself. The other trick is to resist everything that’s in vogue. To not be understood by critics. To not join schools or movements. To make what you want and explain nothing. Yeah well, I think I took my own advice after all.
Here’s the story. After that day I got stuck in a cab, I started writing a fourteen-page poem in the Notes app of my iPhone and only in cabs. That was the rule. Those were the limits. It was September 14, 2017. Sometimes I was alone. Other times I wasn’t. I had friends with me, I had dates, I had strangers that weren’t so strange a few hours in. Mostly I was sober. Other times not. But you know that’s what editing’s for. You have to clean your apartment to remember you have Helmut Lang boots you stole from a boyfriend one year! Discovering beauty is kind of an accident. And beauty is important. No matter what people tell you these days.
Anyway, at some point I started editing in cabs too. Usually this would happen in the daytime. My lines got very short. I could only write a short, skinny line because I was constantly moving. I felt overwhelmed! Well good, I thought. If you’re not a little overwhelmed by life, what do you have to say about it anyway. This was going to be the longest poem I’d written. And that’s exactly what happened. It took me close to two years to finish. Two years of cab rides which, really, I wish a grant would have paid for somehow.
I also had this crazy idea to put my number in the poem. Just in case anyone reading it felt as spontaneous as I did when writing. Sylvia Plath and the Confessionals? They didn’t have iPhones but let me tell you something, they wouldn’t do this. And since the book published I’ve received so many texts from strangers. Michigan and Ohio and New York. California and New Mexico and Texas. My favorite thing to ask is what their zodiac sign is and what they want most out of life. I hope everyone who’s said it out loud, or typed it out I guess, gets exactly what they want.
In August of 2019 I took the last cab ride and called this entire experiment “Poem Written in a Cab.” The next morning I was leaving for London for two weeks. When I took the cab to the airport, finally free of my project, I got out and said, “I’m done with this city. I hate it!” I smoked a cigarette outside the Delta terminal and watched a woman put her dog in a Louis Vuitton carrier. Psychotic and chic! I wish I was that dog. But I was only a poet. That hadn’t changed. I had a very long poem. I had the keys to my New York apartment. And even though London made me feel happy, I have to admit, I missed the bridges here. I missed the cab rides and writing my strange little poem. When I returned to New York I said, “Okay, this isn’t so bad.” You walk down the street. You go into a bar. You pretend you’re a new person again.
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: Rafael Leão