The Poetry of Mail
by Micah Ling
Mail is intimate. If it’s not a bill or a credit card offer, then it’s like finding a gift. It will forever be exciting to peer into the mailbox and find something unexpected. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo Radley leaves Jem and Scout little gifts in the hole of a tree. They get into the habit of checking: wondering if there might be something new the next day, and the next. The mailbox is similar. It offers hope. An envelope with a name printed on it. Someone spent time creating it. A series of hands touched it on its travels. A code of direction was deciphered. And it arrived. The mail carrier is trusted to go into our little box of special, secure space to leave messages from far off places—or from just down the street. It’s amazing; it’s weird.
When I moved to New York City in 2012, I first lived in Brooklyn. I have since moved to Harlem. I’ve run in all of the boroughs: I’ve learned the street grids, the parks, and the landmarks. I notice things and stick them in my mind for when I’ll need them later.
The oldest surviving pieces of mail are the 14th-century B.C.E Amarna letters: correspondence between Egyptian pharaohs and the leaders of surrounding areas. We’re talking cuneiform on baked clay tablets. A lot of, “Hey, supply us with more troops, help us defend our city,” and, “We’re sending you a cool statue, hope you like it!” Cuneiform was the kind of thing that probably couldn’t be returned. They’re beautiful: they make you want to learn how to carve letters in stone and write things that should be dug up in thousands of years. They’re the equivalent in beauty to seeing a city for the first time from an airplane: delicate and organized. The letters are like fireflies and boomerangs. The stone is like soap.
I’ve had a fascination with the mail for a long time—the stamps, the carriers, the collections boxes on street corners: it’s always seemed archaic and wonderful. When my project of mailing poems all began—April 1, 2014—it cost thirty-four cents to send a postcard in the United States. A stamped postal card cost four cents more than a postcard stamp, but I liked their uniformity and simplicity. Postcards force the writer to be concise: trimmed. They can’t be returned or traced—they are absolute faith in the system. I was writing poems long before I started sending them to The New Yorker. But once I was writing poems to send, I was thinking a lot about what it really takes to make a poem: how difficult it is to write a poem; how difficult it is to write a poem every day. It was a task—more of a dare—for myself. A set routine: write poems, go to the mailbox, every day for a year.
Writing a letter with the intent of sending it forces a person to really think about time in a different way: will this still make sense in three to five days? Is what’s being conveyed really important? Should I tell them this, or ask them that? Sometimes it’s easy to write: when you can’t see or talk to the only one who matters, you can’t write enough. Novelist Scott Russell Sanders, author of over twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, met his future wife Ruth when they both attended a science camp for high school students at Indiana University. After, they wrote each other letters. For five years. Through the rest of high school, and college, and up until their wedding. Hundreds and hundreds of letters. Boxes of letters. They still have them—in the attic—pages of a relationship. The foundation of their “us.”
The rules: mail a poem each day for an entire year to The New Yorker Magazine. Address each poem to Paul Muldoon, Poetry Editor. Mail each poem by going to a postal collection box (not necessarily the same box) every day. Label each poem with the appropriate number (ex. Poem 162). No formulas. No length requirements, beyond the limitations of the size of the card.
I didn’t send poems to Paul Muldoon, really. His name was just a placeholder. I sent a document in 365 pieces out into someone else’s space, using one of the most ancient forms of art (poetry), with the most impressive system of communication as a vehicle (the mail).
I sent lists, revisions, previsions, invented words, definitions, sections of articles from The Post, The Wall Street Journal, other publications: blacked-out—redacted.
As I wrote, and sent, I learned things I never expected to learn, about the city, and the postal system, and about why people keep things. My first trip brought me to the post office at 60th and Broadway where I bought 30 postal cards. I liked the post office. Instead of buying all 365 cards all at once, I decided to never be more than 30 ahead of post date. I visited post offices all over the city, buying 15, 20, 30 cards at a time. These days, the post office is like a combination of the liquor store in a rough neighborhood and the long forgotten mom-and-pop store in your hometown. Sometimes there’s bulletproof glass, but there are also holiday cards and commemorative stamps. The employees at the Park Slope Post Office really appreciate when you have exact change.
I learned to have an eye for the blue collection boxes on street corners: they’re everywhere in New York City. My favorite one in Brooklyn is at Carroll Street and 7th Avenue. Battered by a car or truck backing into it, it looks like it has knees and is bending over to pick something up. My least favorite is the one closest to my apartment, right in front of the Hamilton Grange Post Office. The chute never fully opens, never completely closes. I’m always nervous about whether my postcard has truly made it in. There’s a postbox near Prospect Park that’s blocked by scaffolding, and has been for months, but I still use it. I love the one in front of the New York Public Library’s Schwarzman Building. I always like to try a new collection box.
I have a habit of carrying poems with me, in the hope that I run into the people they’re intended for; I tend to make people appear. A poem about David Byrne, founding member and songwriter for the band Talking Heads, stayed in my bag for months until I ran into him, walking into the Brooklyn Academy of Music one autumn evening in 2012. I’d been working on a series of poems about music and explained this to Byrne as I handed him my Talking Heads piece. He acted like this was an entirely normal thing, receiving a poem about yourself. Maybe it was, for him.
Sometimes I mailed the day’s poem as soon as I was out of my apartment in the morning, and sometimes I held onto it until the day was almost over. I thought about the mail throughout the day—about my cards—but also about mailing other things to other people, and about whether or not I’d have any mail in my box when I got home. I felt like I was doing something secret and powerful.
Genghis Khan implemented the first real postal system. For him, of course, it was all about power. It was more like he set up his own Amazon.com. He could send for items of importance: weapons, soldiers, supplies. Other leaders were envious. There had been messengers before, but not a whole system: not a way to get whatever you needed, from wherever you needed it. Organization. But it was also the new comfort of knowing that someone else was out there, and not just gone. Now we have tracking codes and confirmations: we can follow our mail on its journey; except for postcards: postcards are still on their own.
I wrote poems about what was going on around me—poems about what I saw on the subway or while I was running around New York City neighborhoods. I wrote poems about things I overheard, or smelled, or read. I wrote poems about when I found out that I have an unusually slow heartbeat. But I also had to address the cards—this took more time than I thought: it became a habit to do this when I had mindless down time. Paul Muldoon, Poetry Editor, The New Yorker, 4 Times Square, New York, NY 10036. But sometimes, I messed it up. Sometimes I looked back through a stack and realized I had put my own zip code instead of Paul’s. Sometimes I had left a line out and had to go back in and squeeze “Poetry Editor” next to “Paul Muldoon.” Those times when I caught myself, I worried about when I hadn’t.
On July 26, 2014, I hand-delivered a card to Paul Muldoon. I had been invited to read at the New York City Poetry Festival on Governor’s Island: as the schedule of events worked out, Paul Muldoon would be reading on the same stage an hour after me. As I’d hoped, he was milling around, drinking a beer, having a sandwich, right around the time I read. I’ve heard Muldoon described as looking the part of a poet, but I’d say he looks more like a rock star: Einstein hair, hipster glasses, confidence. He could easily be turned into a Muppet. I handed him poem 116, and read four other poems to the crowd. Afterward, he asked if he could have the David Byrne poem that I’d read—the same one I had handed Byrne after carrying it with me for months. The poem had been published by another magazine, but the game was on. Poem 116 hadn’t gone through the post, but Paul recognized it. My system was working.
The whole idea of having someone else carry messages all over the place proves how rules evolve: the decision of stamp currency, and numbers on buildings and boxes, and no mail on Sunday. It’s necessarily complex. The average annual salary for a mail carrier in New York City is $65,400, and they get 13 days of sick leave. I had a paper route for a few years when I was a kid: I remember that almost weekly, I wished I didn’t have to deliver. But I also remember how well I knew my route: porches, steps, yards, special instructions. I remember wondering if someone had died when their papers piled up. In graduate school, I was neighbors with my mail carrier, Tom. He had two daughters. A kind of shy tomboy, and an outgoing spaz. One summer they built an amazing tree house, with a rope ladder and windows that looked out on the cemetery behind our street. Tom used to drop off tomatoes or zucchini bread, and I’d take them plums from my tree. He loved his job, and on days when I had to sit inside working, all through the glorious autumns and springs that the Midwest is blessed with, I envied his job.
I ran into David Byrne again, just 2 days after the Paul Muldoon incident. This time we were on the D train, and it was nearly 100-degrees out. He was wearing all white, as is his habit. I reminded him of our BAM run-in, and told him about the Poetry Festival. He was surprised that his poem—the one I’d written about him—couldn’t be published in The New Yorker. There were rules of publication, I explained, and I had to play by those rules.
I now carry my David Bowie a poem in my bag, a talisman for my quest to meet him.
Not every postal system is as efficient as the one in the United States. Despite the fact that the Universal Postal Union exists, to ensure that mail is treated the same in all areas of the world, in Nicaragua, there isn’t much of a system. It’s difficult to find a post office (oficina de correos), even in the bigger cities. There are no street addresses and few road signs, even on major highways. Looking at a map is largely pointless, because you never know where you are. Postal instructions (to be printed on mail) are designated in proximity to major landmarks (2 blocks west of the cathedral, etc.) Most people recommend saying a prayer before mailing. The post cards that I mailed from Nicaragua took over two weeks to arrive to New York City, and were covered in 4-5 different stamps on each.
Besides the painstaking tablets, Egyptians wrote beautifully on papyrus. They set the bar for a continued history of communication through letters. And one thing that time hasn’t changed is undelivered letters: unopened letters. I like to think that The New Yorker has a CSI-like room with all of my postcards pinned up, and red marker circles where one, or several, have gone missing: never shown up. The Letters of Heqanakht were found in a tomb in Egypt, and it’s not exactly clear why they were never delivered. Some of them were even folded and sealed: ready to go. The long lost letters had mostly to do with business, but maybe it was information that someone didn’t want to get out. Having a scribe is likely very dangerous: widening the intimate circle. When I’ve handed a postcard to a worker at a post office, rather than slipping it in a box, I’ve gotten strange looks: like, “What in the world is this?” I assume that mail carriers read postcards: I would.
My ideas for poems waned around day 282. I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to do one. He drew a picture: a poem without words. As soon as I mailed it, I started fearing Paul would know—someone would know—that I hadn’t done that one.
Lee Israel’s obituary appeared in The New York Times that day. She was a famed biographer and editor, but also a forger. A remarkable forger. She collected typewriters and old paper. She had access to library archives and would steal original letters written by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemmingway. She not only copied and sold famous letters, she also created new, completely made up letters from these people. Fictional communication: signed, sealed, and delivered. In her memoir, she said that the letters were her best work. Sure, she got caught and served probation and six months house arrest, but she had inhabited someone else’s voice. She had broken into the system. How much more intimate would we all be if we could give like Boo Radley?
The thing about Boo, is that by the end, he did want to be seen: he was just behind the door. We send letters and postcards—sometimes even poems—because we want to last: we want to be kept. Even kept in a box. We don’t save voicemails or emails or texts—not forever. Once they’ve served their purpose, they’re deleted. But we save letters. Real mail serves a purpose greater than just the information within: it’s tangible proof of importance. We put letters in museums and in books. People read “the collected letters” of the famous and infamous. Through their letters, we can imagine our idols in their everyday lives, mailing things to other people. The Egyptians carved messages in stone so that they would last the trip to their destination; but maybe too, so that they would last as a marker of humanity: we’re here, doing the things we do.
Micah Ling earned her MFA in poetry at Indiana University. She teaches in the English department at Fordham University. Her most recent collection of poems, Settlement, was published by Sunnyoutside Press.
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Thanks for writing this wonderful piece, Micah. I really enjoyed it. As an aficionado of mail myself, I found this powerfully exciting.
So true that no one saves emails or texts. People do save mail.
Excellent story! I too love the magic of mail. I plan out when I’m going to my po box every day to check for treasures. So many different roads to take, and all taking less than 15 minutes to get there. I used to get mail at my house. But I love going to the post office! I get to use my special key to open a little door. And sometimes that tiny space is stuffed full of surprises. I hope the mail is around forever. It’s such a special part of life and yet, accepted as routine.