The Troy Poem Project

The Troy Poem Project: Building Bridges in an Era of Walls

Speaking to Meghan Marohn by telephone about her Troy Poem Project was a unique experience for me, and for two reasons. The first being I had first seen her the year before sitting in Riverside Park in Troy, New York on a sunny summer morning beside the glistening Hudson River. She set up her table and ’64 Royal typewriter in the shade and watched the crowds stroll through the bi-weekly flea market that gathers there. Sometimes people approached, sometimes they walked by without a glance, and others glimpsed with curiosity but are not quite brave enough to step up and say hello.

I, sadly, fell into the third category, although I now wish I did stop and ask for a poem. Getting to know someone by phone without being able to see them when I had originally seen them but didn’t say hello was a bit funny to me, but I happily discovered we had a great deal in common, the most important of which included our belief in the power of poetry’s ability to ignite change.

Meghan Marohn at a steampunk festival in Troy, NY
Meghan is not a full-time resident of the Troy area, but like myself she grew up here and left to see where her words might take her. She currently teaches in New Jersey at Fairleigh Dickinson and a local high school, making trips upstate as frequently as she can, while also visiting family in Vermont. All of this mirrored my own personal route of living in the NYC metro-region and coming north visit Albany and Vermont. We even spent portions of our lives residing in the small village of Greenwich, north of Troy by about 40 minutes via car, although at different times. And while the coincidences stretched into the creative realm and the belief that poetry can break barriers and build bridges between disparate people, Meghan’s desire to put these beliefs into action far outpaces my own—and most others I know, to be honest—by a wide upstate country mile.

One of the questions I had to ask her, of course, was why she felt compelled to put herself into a public forum with a typewriter and offer to write anyone a poem about any topic. It sounds fascinating and challenging, but most of all it sounds absolutely terrifying. Meghan didn’t disagree, admitting the project seemed a little crazy at first and she was nervous in the beginning, but it always felt more like an experimental art project than anything else. Over time, it almost became a sort of public service, one the public didn’t even know it needed. But for those who do stop and see Meghan, it becomes clear the service is vital, and that this importance goes both ways.

Her first poem was for a kind, patient woman who said she was a social worker helping those who led difficult lives, ex-convicts and the like, and she asked Meghan for a poem about dealing with anger and expressing it in effective ways. Meghan began to type, and through the conversation and the act of writing, she realized there is a deep sadness hiding beyond the emotion of anger, a sort of basement within each of us that is dark and lonely, a place where one can feel trapped and isolated, and finding ways to express this can go very wrong very easily. This is the root of so much anger in our world.

Meghan described this feeling and imagery much more powerfully and accurately than this, and I realized later I was so interested in the story that I wasn’t writing half of what she said down. But the image and sensation rings true to me, both the idea that sadness anchors all anger, and the blossoming realization that comes to a poet only in the act of writing. But most of us have these realizations in our homes, or in libraries, cafes, and anywhere we can find a moment to scribble in a notepad. Meghan has them in front of the very people who brought these realizations upon her. This often leads to more talking than writing, and this is the key reason why she is so compelled to bring poetry to the public.

This project, this service, has little in common with all the other vendors set up at the flea market. She isn’t a merchant and will write these poems for free. It’s not about a transaction. Meghan is happy to sidestep the consumerist aspect of the exchange. It’s about sharing the idea that poetry has power. That poetry can transcribe and make clear deep, impactful emotions and ideas. And most of all that poetry is accessible to anyone, and this is an especially important message to share in a place like Troy.

This city has a very small section of downtown that has flourished and attracts a clientele of college students, young professionals, and hip entrepreneurs, with a flood of recent bars, shops, and restaurants that seem plucked up from Brooklyn’s Williamsburg or Manhattan’s East Village. And yet four or five blocks away one might find some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the entire county. You can stand in the middle of Second Avenue and see a popular, flourishing biergarten and turn the other way and see a string of ramshackle tenements. Poverty is a sad reality here, and long has been. Economic barriers, class barriers, racial barriers are all deeply rooted in this community. Meghan believes poetry can play a small but important role is helping us take these barriers down. 
    
“Exchanging ideas and expressions can transcend all these constructs that separate us,” she says. “This project is about talking with each other, sharing poems and ideas, sharing feelings and needs. It’s about coming together to better communicate big ideas that affect us in many different ways, little ways and big ways.”

In effect, it’s a moment between people with art as the bridge.

Meghan stresses that this ability to create a moment of exchange is needed in an age where so many seem to want to put walls up, end conversations, denounce diversity, and for her to be able to build that bridge with someone who might be intimidated by such an exchange, it feels empowering for everyone involved. For many, poetry is that thing we had to read in school that was so hard to understand, this elite, academic obtuseness that didn’t connect to the day-to-day struggle. Meghan is working to help people understand that this artform, perhaps more than any other, is for everyone. We’re so divided by class and money and politics and party and consumption, and we need something that transcends all that.

Poetry can be that thing.

And yet, “its just people,” Meghan says, summing the entire project up with a quiet finality on the other end of the phone. “This whole thing, it’s more than one person sitting at a typewriter. It’s about people.”

Beyond the Troy Poem Project, Meghan Marohn is working on some interesting things both locally and at home in New Jersey. Some are environmental and political in nature, and one project involves a book of poems inspired by works by Mary Oliver. But if you happen to be walking through Troy this summer, she’ll still be out there at the flea market. You should stop by. You may see Meghan fast at work building bridges, spanning divides, breaking barriers, the joyful clatter of her ’64 Royal typewriter sounding the call of community, the collective of commons, doing the good work poetry and people were always meant to do.   
       

- James H Duncan




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