Labor of Love: An Underground Poet

At the beginning of the year, I bought a key chain.  It is a gentle reminder to get out of my head and witness the magic that surrounds me:


I resolve to do what I love most—talk to interesting people.  I want to share their stories and their wit, wisdom, and art. 

In a world that lauds celebrity, I celebrate everyday craftsmen.

Lynn Gentry made me stop and take notice. Poised in the busy underbelly of the Union Square subway station, he sits with a small table and an old-fashioned typewriter.  Looking like a young Cornel West, he appears serious, diligent.  In front of his tiny makeshift office, he posts a sign: 
Pick a Subject
And Price
Get a Poem

I stand in line behind a young man.  “Transitions” is his choice for subject matter, as he eagerly awaits news of college acceptance.  Now my turn, I request a poem about men with long fingernails---a subject that leaves me squeamish, although I acknowledge their necessity for finger-picking guitar players.   

Gentry indulges me with a short (but delightful) Q & A:

How did you start writing poetry in the NYC subway system?

I had been writing regularly on Bedford Avenue, but retreated into [the subway] for the colder months. When I lived in San Francisco, I wrote in transit stations during the rainy season, but it was a difficult task. The stations there aren't as conducive to showcasing art. I quickly realized that performing was more profitable than a day job. I chose to work primarily in the Union Square station because I felt I could respond to the space.

Why a donation-based fee structure? 

I've always remembered the story of the "Widow's Mite" (i.e., the Biblical story where Jesus admonishes that small sacrifices of the poor mean more to God than the extravagant, but proportionally lesser, donations of the rich). Whether it was intended to be a lesson about giving or a warning against maintaining wealth, I believe in its validity. 

As an individual from South Central LA, my own history is intertwined with the frustrating relationship of diligence and poverty. Accepting a donation, rather than a set fee allows me to apply this story to my practice while accepting my own history, and putting forth my belief in accessibility.

What is the largest tip you've ever received?              

The largest tip that I ever received was from a man in San Francisco. He simply asked what was the most that I had received for one poem. I replied that it was one hundred. So, he donated one hundred twenty.

What is the greatest gift you've received from sharing your art publicly in this manner?

The greatest gift that I have received (and continue to receive) from writing in this way is the admission that people grant me. While they offer their subjects and converse, they open themselves in a way that I otherwise would not be able to witness.

What is the most interesting topic suggestion you have received from a client?

The most interesting topic I've received was the "Peanut Whale," which is a fictional creature who swims in a school of 500 under the Golden Gate Bridge. I enjoyed the creative imagination of the patron.

Are you single?  

No. My wife and I met on July 10, 2010 on the roof of the San Francisco Art Institute during a San Francisco Arts Quarterly symposium. She was a graduate student there and I was coming to see the live music. Two years later, we had an intimate wedding at friend's home. We are beginning an illustrated book of poetry based on our cross-country travels together, as well as a funding campaign for my upcoming album.

For more information about Lynn Gentry and his work, visit his website .

Monica Parikh