Did you know that museum visitors spend an average of three seconds looking at a work of art? What can a viewer possibly glean from that brief encounter? When I invited poets Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman to do a reading at MoMA, I knew that they would be able to change that statistic for a lucky few. They know how to encourage diverse audiences to join them in the process not only of composing poems, but of looking at and contemplating art and creating a fresh experience with it. So I challenged them to use MoMA’s public as a resource to write poems about works of art in the collection or about the museum experience in general. In their preliminary field work, they spied on museum goers, listened to their conversations, recorded people’s activities, and trained a group of teens from MoMA’s Teen Voices Project to do the same. Our goal was to bring an assortment of people, art, and poetry together, and to spawn unexpected social interactions.
So, as one overheard visitor said, “What happened, man, what happened?!?” Well, Matt and Joshua gathered all of their found words and descriptions, as well as those of the teens, and led two small groups through the Museum’s fourth-floor galleries—which house works by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Fluxus artists, and more—in an after-hours, mobile, and interactive poetry reading called Eavesdrop. As soon as the groups entered the elevators, the poets began to recite some of the snippets of conversations they had recently heard there: “Where are the Water Lilies?” “Is my hair doing something weird here?” Next, they conducted a reading with ten participants whom Matt and Joshua “played like an orchestra.” Each person was handed an index card with a different statement made by an anonymous visitor spied upon in the previous weeks. With the point of a poet’s finger, each reader delivered their statement. Together, they formed a poem consisting of pieces of overheard conversations that had taken place in front of works by Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Man with Yellow Pants and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.
In addition to readings in front of Rauschenberg’s Rebus, Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, and Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, Matt and Joshua shared poems written by the teens in and inspired by the Fluxus gallery, where all of the works on view are composed of text (see related video above). Each teen poet’s task was to construct a poem only using words and phrases—from “lever les bras” to “80 Wooster Street”—included in works in the gallery. Here’s one:
By Francesca Mitchell
Arranged and shuffled with quiet hands
I cannot flow
I am outer space ransacked and disturbed
With bruised youth I break
I am the deep world holy and quaint
With an intense program
I perceive I am expected
Just as Matt and Joshua explained to the teens one evening after eavesdropping, contemporary poetry, like modern and contemporary art, isn’t created as a result of divine inspiration but rather out of everyday encounters. So with that inspiration, submit some of your own poems made out of eavesdrops, overheard exchanges, and daily observations!