NEA Literature Fellowships

Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2011 - Poetry)

On Living In New York City in 2009, After Watching a Documentary on New York City in the Late 1800s

God's honest truth, I wake up every morning when my clock punches out its dulcet, insistent clangs, a setting called Ultra Zen Up & Out. I brush my teeth with a blue dollar-store toothbrush and watch one of the five morning TV shows designed to let me know the weather and traffic every ten minutes, despite the fact no one I know in NYC owns a car, or can afford one, really.

At 8:35am, I don't teleport to work, nor hovercraft, nor take a slick clean monorail. I take the subway, or rather three subways, to work. It takes me 45 minutes and I usually see one of the four following people: crazy chatty religious woman; former classmate I pretend not to see & who pretends not to see me; cute guy who always looks a bit sad, a bit drunk; and a woman I fear is compensating for her weight with enormous accessories, despite the fact that she is beautiful.

At work, I eat yogurt with granola I have to hide in my desk (office rules: mice, roaches). I sometimes use a fresh plastic spoon for the guilty thrill of it instead of the morally right re-usable metal spoon. Have you guys fixed the environment yet? God, I hope so.

Work for me isn't very dangerous. Maybe some eye strain, or repetitive motion injuries, or general fat assedness. Everything is inputting into or printing out of my computer. Even putting stamps on envelopes is computerized. No licking necessary. Do you guys lick anything anymore? I knew the invention of the motorized lollipop was a step in the wrong direction.

After work I guess some people go to bars, or have affairs, or snort expensive stuff. But cheap sober me, I just take my three subways home, this time with mostly tourists or dizzy students whose clothing confuses me. When home, I eat. Then there is more TV and writing, plus looking up old boyfriends on the Internet or looking up writer friends and begrudging them their successes (also on the Internet). I should brush my teeth before I go to bed, but rarely do. Outside my window, hundreds and hundreds of people in the Astoria beer garden hum like a happy drunk hive and I fall asleep.

So that's me in 2009. What about you, you who are reading this in the future? Have we cured cancer yet? Are apes sentient beings? Are we still dressing dogs in raincoats? Are people stacked on top of each other? Do cars still run on gasoline? Have we used up all our water? Do you still fret about using plastic spoons, still debate whether words need to be banned, still always sucking it in? Are we all still obsessed with thinking we should all be happier than we are? Are we happier?

What about me? Did I ever make it?

If I did, did it make me happier?

(© Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, first appeared in Everything is Everything, Write Bloody Press, 2010) 

Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Everything is Everything (Write Bloody Publishing, 2010). She is also the the author of the nonfiction book, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam (Soft Skull Press, 2008), which Billy Collins wrote "leaves no doubt that the slam poetry scene has achieved legitimacy and taken its rightful place on the map of contemporary literature." Born and raised in Philadelphia, Aptowicz moved to New York City at the age of 17. At age 19, she founded the three-time National Poetry Slam championship poetry series NYC-Urbana, which is still held weekly at New York City's famed Bowery Poetry Club. Most recently, Aptowicz was named the 2010-2011 ArtsEdge Writer-In-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on an non-fiction book about the life and times of Thomas Dent Mutter, founder of Philadelphia's Mutter Museum. For more information, please visit her website at: 

Photo by Alex Brook Lynn

Author's Statement

I don't think I will ever be as surprised as I was when I heard I was being awarded an NEA Fellowship in Poetry. It literally did not occur to me that such a thing was possible for a poet like me. There are opportunities you apply for because you think you have a chance--however, slim--and then there are opportunities you apply for knowing you have zero chance. But you apply anyway, just so you can say that you could and that you did. Applying for this NEA Fellowship was obviously a latter situation for me... until, I suppose, it wasn't. 

I have always been a working class writer, holding down a steady string of cubicle-based (non-academic) office jobs from the time I was seventeen until just a few months ago. After nearly a decade-and-half of being an office worker-by-day/writer-by-night, I was floored and deeply honored to be given the writer-in-residence position at the University of Pennsylvania. To spend my days reading, writing, and exploring has been such an astonishing and wonderful experience, but an experience that I nonetheless knew would be temporary-- and then what?  

Therefore, to be awarded an NEA Fellowship roughly two months into this year-long residency has been powerfully affirming. With this fellowship, I am being given two truly incredible gifts: 

First (and perhaps most importantly), humbling, unexpected, and energizing encouragement;

And secondly, an electrifying freedom to see what I can do and where I can go with my writing. 

I am so incredibly grateful and, admittedly, still a bit in shock. It is a strange moment when you realize that the NEA sees more potential in you than you did. I strive to be the poet that the committee saw in me, and will continue to work hard to earn my place in that incredible list of past and present NEA Fellows. 


Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

NEA Literature Fellow


Audio Tabs

Poet Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz talks about slam poetry and community. [22:05]

Download podcast: