Saturday, April 13, 2013

Celebrating 100 Years of Grand Central with Poetry and Music

On April 10 in Grand Central Terminal's beautiful Vanderbilt Hall, where the acoustics are so good that every musician should have a chance to play there, the Poetry Society of America and the NYC MTA's Arts for Transit program put on an absolutely terrific show – for free – to celebrate 100 years of Grand Central.

The event drew a good-sized crowd for a weekday evening, but since most people missed it, I'm going to recreate some of it for you. First a friendly warning: If you're in a hurry, you won't have time to read this.

The Yaz Band opened the evening. I missed their performance, but they're familiar from the MTA's Music Under New York program. Here they are playing in Penn Station.

The evening's first poet was Jeffrey Yang. He did not read this poem, but he might have – it's one he did for the city's recently revived Poetry in Motion program of poetry on mass transit.

Aracelis Girmay was the next poet to read. This is not one of the poems she chose – I couldn't find those – but here is her poem for Poetry in Motion, "Noche de Lluvia, San Salvador".

The miraculous all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache stepped on the stage like a convocation of horn-tooting, fiddle-playing, guitar-strumming, vocalizing queens. I love mariachi music anywhere, anytime, but these women were outstanding. But why tell you about them when you can watch the performance I saw right here?

Poet Eduardo C. Corral spoke about his father, a hard-working immigrant sans visa, before reading this poem.

In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
By Eduardo C. Corral

in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.

If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a glob of phlegm
into a jar of water. The silver letters

on his black belt spell Sangrón. Once, borracho,
at dinner, he said: Jesus wasn’t a snowman.

Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed
into a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.

Frijolero. Greaser. In Tucson he branded
cattle. He slept in a stable. The horse blankets

oddly fragrant: wood smoke, lilac. He’s an illegal.
I’m an Illegal-American. Once, in a grove

of saguaro, at dusk, I slept next to him. I woke
with his thumb in my mouth. ¿No qué no

tronabas, pistolita? He learned English
by listening to the radio. The first four words

he memorized: In God We Trust. The fifth:
Percolate. Again and again I borrow his clothes.

He calls me Scarecrow. In Oregon he picked apples.
Braeburn. Jonagold. Cameo. Nightly,

to entertain his cuates, around a campfire,
he strummed a guitarra, sang corridos. Arriba

Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed into
a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.

Greaser. Beaner. Once, borracho, at breakfast,
he said: The heart can only be broken

once, like a window. ¡No mames! His favorite
belt buckle: an águila perched on a nopal.

If he laughs out loud, his hands tremble.
Bugs Bunny wants to deport him. César Chávez

wants to deport him. When I walk through
the desert, I wear his shirt. The gaze of the moon

stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin.
The snake hisses. The snake is torn.

The next poet, Bob Holman, is a champion of poetry spoken and performed. Here he is at Fordham University.

Salieu Suso is a kora player from The Gambia. I see him often on my way to work in the morning and always stop to listen to his beautiful, haunting music. In fact, I saw him playing in the Times Square station the morning after he played at Grand Central and told him so; he seemed pleased. Watch him sing and play here.

Marie Howe read next. When she introduced this poem, she said she had written it about her daughter, now 12, when she was four. She realized she was always telling her little one to hurry and began to question it.

By Marie Howe

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry—
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.

Poem copyright ©2008 by Marie Howe, and reprinted from "When She Named Fire," ed., Andrea Hollander Budy, Autumn House Press, 2009.

Billy Collins topped the poetry bill. That's his new poem for Poetry in Motion above. He spoke about his lifelong relationship with Grand Central – his father commuted via the terminal daily and the family passed through on visits. And then he read this wonderful poem, "The Death of The Hat".

The Death of the Hat
By Billy Collins

Once every man wore a hat.

In the ashen newsreels,
the avenues of cities
are broad rivers flowing with hats.

The ballparks swelled
with thousands of strawhats,
brims and bands,
rows of men smoking
and cheering in shirtsleeves.

Hats were the law.
They went without saying.
You noticed a man without a hat in a crowd.

You bought them from Adams or Dobbs
who branded your initials in gold
on the inside band.

Trolleys crisscrossed the city.
Steamships sailed in and out of the harbor.
Men with hats gathered on the docks.

There was a person to block your hat
and a hatcheck girl to mind it
while you had a drink
or ate a steak with peas and a baked potato.
In your office stood a hat rack.

The day war was declared
everyone in the street was wearing a hat.
And they were wearing hats
when a ship loaded with men sank in the icy sea.

My father wore one to work every day
and returned home
carrying the evening paper,
the winter chill radiating from his overcoat.

But today we go bareheaded
into the winter streets,
stand hatless on frozen platforms.

Today the mailboxes on the roadside
and the spruce trees behind the house
wear cold white hats of snow.

Mice scurry from the stone walls at night
in their thin fur hats
to eat the birdseed that has spilled.

And now my father, after a life of work,
wears a hat of earth,
and on top of that,
a lighter one of cloud and sky--a hat of wind.

The evening ended with a performance by Hot Sardines, and they were hot indeed. This video will give you a sense of what they're like, but for the Grand Central performance they added a tap dancer – très chaud!


  1. How wonderful all of this is! I wish I'd been there. Thank you for sharing these riches of music and poetry. My favorite is the Aracelis Girmay Poetry in Motion poem "Noche de Lluvia, San Salvador."

  2. I wish you'd been there too, Katherine. It was a fine, fun time and I think you would've loved it.