I used to do all my writing in transit: as a passenger on endless car trips, on the subway, on planes and buses. The Notes app on my phone and too many strangers crammed in a steel tube—over time, this combination became my writing desk.
There’s a peculiar freedom to writing on public transportation. It doesn’t seem real—you’re not consciously “making space,” not “sitting down to write.” You’re just trying to keep the boredom at bay. On a rickety subway car, where your body is often held in place solely by the damp heat of other bodies pressed against it, it’s easier to hold a phone than a book, easier to type your thoughts than to read. There’s no WiFi to distract you. The pressure to be brilliant fades & in its place comes creativity.
This is the perfect place for the mind to break free from the outside world, I think, because the experience is inherently strange. You’re rocketing along through tunnels beneath a city, or beneath a body of water. You’re sitting or standing still, but you’re also on a journey. You’re surrounded by other people, and yet, you’re entirely alone. I was not the first person to realize this, I know, but at the time it felt like I was keeping some enormous, euphoric secret—the kind that had the power to transform my writing, certainly, but also maybe my life.
This particular poem, “poem in a cold war hellscape,” was an A train poem, a commute-to-miserable-midtown-job poem, a just-fallen-uncertainly-in-love poem. I have a record of its conception: it was written on December 9, 2015, at 8:05 a.m. Its inspiration came two weeks earlier, when an unexpected new love interest and I spent Thanksgiving Day wandering around Coney Island. It was utilitarian, stark, and almost entirely deserted—and I was thrilled, captivated by the sight of the neighborhood abandoned, by the looming, locked-up Luna Park, and by my own overwhelming feelings for someone who was just days from moving away.
For me, the best writing surprises—it’s uncanny, it’s unsettling, it’s playful. It exists in a world outside of the one we live in, and it takes the moment of its inspiration and distorts it, until it becomes something new, something only the author could recognize. As a writer, I live for those moments—when I am sufficiently distanced from the outside world that I’m able to enter a poem on its own terms and follow it to the place it wants to go. (This is not as easy as it once was, which only makes the experience all the more sublime.)
I no longer live in New York. I don’t miss the city, but I do miss the subway. These days, my job is a seven-minute walk from my apartment; compared to the hours I’ve spent driving through Seattle’s not-quite-gridlocked rush hour traffic, it’s glorious. But long, uninterrupted bus or light rail rides are few and far between. I dream of them sometimes—tedious dreams where I’m riding in the backseat of a car across nondescript state lines or sitting on a train, stuck on the track between stops. When I wake up, I feel alien & far away, like I must have been writing.
And then the world invades.
Photo by: Paul Casals.