Samantha Thornhill and Jon Sands make art out of what many people fear more than death: public speaking.
Poets in Unexpected Places (or PUP, “Pop-up Poets”) is a New York City-based poetry performance group that creates large-scale poetry installations in public spaces like subway cars, ferries, classrooms, and parks.
Here’s how it works: one of the five PUP poets (called “Curators”) stands up and reads either their own or someone else’s poem. Then it’s another poet’s turn. And so on.
After the third or fourth poet shares something, people start to see that this isn’t a random act of art. They begin taking their ear buds out, or looking up to chuckle with the person sitting next to them. This moment of connection is what the PUP Curators are trying to create.
“You see people sharing an experience. People who were disconnected before, staring at their iPods, are now connecting. They’re part of a story where everyone has a role to play,” Samantha says. “And that’s revolutionary.”
They’ve had audiences react with indifference and (rarely) with hostility, but the overall response since PUP’s start in 2008 has been really positive. Audience members have even joined in and shared their own work—poems, raps, dances, even a monologue from Romeo and Juliet. When this happens, the brave civilians are called “Pop-up Passengers.”
Even for experienced teachers and performers like the PUP Curators, sharing something as personal as a poem (especially an unsolicited poem) in a public space is definitely a risk. Each Curator has their own strategy for dealing with the fear and making something positive from it.
Samantha says she takes power from the surprise of not knowing what’s going to happen.
“I harness that energy of uncertainty and nerves, and I let it bring me to a positive space. Then it’s not fear anymore,” she says.
It’s helped her become a braver person overall. “I was able to tell myself that if I can stand up on a train and do a poem, then I can dismantle other fears that are holding me back.”
Jon says the whole idea for PUP was pretty much a dare. He was riding a late night L train with his friend Adam, another co-founder of PUP, who told him he’d give him $2 if he did a poem—right then and there.
“Of course we were afraid—but when you’re afraid of something, that’s usually a good sign that you should try it,” he says.
Acting on good intentions
Knowing what they want to do—and why they’re passionate about it—helps the Curators stay focused and committed to the act of storytelling and transforming public spaces.
“I believe in doing something with intention—to really dissect what you’re doing and why you’re doing it—otherwise it might seem like a frivolous action. It’s okay to be afraid, as long as it’s not paralyzing or destabilizing, but the intention and the passion have to be there,” Samantha says.
If you’re trying to get to the root of your intentions, Jon thinks there’s something to be said for just going with your feelings and opening up to the unknown.
“There’s really a value in saying ‘yes’ and seeing what happens.”
When have you channeled fear into a positive emotion? How did you do it?