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Through poetry, Alok Vaid-Menon (L) and Alán Peláez López (R) are helping to foster support systems that were disrupted by COVID-19. Left photo by Harshvardhan Shah, provided by Vaid-Menon. Right photo by A.M. Caglioti, provided by López

How two poets are nurturing support networks disrupted by the pandemic

In "the deepest breath," a poem about the beauty of collective responsibility that can spring from a crisis, Alok Vaid-Menon wrote, "I am sorry that it took a virus to help me remember that simple fact — that we breathe the same air."

Vaid-Menon, who uses the pronoun they, said they're always thinking about how to turn a crisis into an opportunity to rethink how we live. "When we remember something as simple as air, we recognize how interconnected we are with one another," they told the PBS NewsHour.

Interconnected, but not always equally vulnerable. Even though the pandemic is affecting human life on a global scale, Vaid-Manon sees that the perils of mental health and personal safety for LGBTQ people that existed before COVID-19 are now amplified by disruptions to support networks.

At the same time, poets across the country are facing uncertainty and financial hardship, as in-person arts events that provide income, ranging from creative workshops to book tours, have been cancelled due to COVID-19.

For Vaid-Menon and fellow poet Alán Peláez López, both gender non-conforming people of color, this moment of isolation has been a time for finding new ways to draw people closer and create community online, as well as to find outlets to share their work while other work opportunities have dried up.

In April, Vaid-Menon, an Indian American performance artist, activist and fashion designer, began to write a poem a day for a few weeks, fueled by the pandemic. Those works explore gender, race, trauma and belonging.

One poem aimed to humanize COVID-19 statistics. Another was inspired by an apparent coronavirus-fueled hate crime against an Asian American family in Texas. When the poems began to take on a more personal note, recurring themes of grief and death surprised Vaid-Menon.

"Poetry is the opposite of distraction," they said. "I'd be up until 4:30 in the morning, night after night, just crying because I was feeling the full extent of this moment."

Vaid-Menon has been performing this work online, and over the course of two weeks in April, they hosted digital workshops on gender identity and communicating feelings through creative arts.

Vaid-Menon said LGBTQ youth have reached out to them as university closures have forced many to return to potentially unsafe situations at home. Studies have shown how LGBTQ youth are vulnerable if, for example, parents or other people in their communities don't approve of their identities.

"Many of them cannot express their gender or their sexuality or their names or their pronouns," Vaid-Menon said, adding that many of them are thinking more about suicide, and experiencing "a lot of deep, deep pain."

Vaid-Menon said that in a post-performance online discussion open to any students at Loyola Marymount University, participants offered emotional support for one another. Students shared their grief about not being around their communities, and frustration toward those who aren't taking the pandemic seriously. They also discussed strategies about coping with mental health and their feelings of isolation and loneliness.

"There's something about the built proximity and anonymity of being online where people are divulging more," Vaid-Menon said. "To be able to create space for other people to grieve and access the things that they're repressing, that's been, I think, the most profound moment."

Until June, Vaid-Menon is organizing the donation of more than 5,000 free books to LGBTQ youth. They're also hosting a virtual tour in support of their pocket-sized book, "Beyond the Gender Binary," which aims to educate people on how gender doesn't need to follow traditional roles of male or female. The book tour will focus on states where anti-transgender legislation was recently introduced.

The shift to a digital space also allowed poet López — who puts the stories of black LGBTQ immigrants at the center of their writing — to share work when job opportunities evaporated due to the pandemic. (During the first two weeks of California's stay-at-home orders, 85 percent of López's bookings until August were canceled, they said.)

In an effort to connect with other Afro-Latinx artists, López and poet Ariana Brown hosted a reading on YouTube live last month that they had always dreamed of, focused on Afro-Mexican poetry.

"I've never seen a reading where black Mexicans are talking about being black Mexicans," they said. "I also think that being able to create a kind of space in this moment offers folks a new narrative" during this time.

López is from the Zapoteca nation of Oaxaca, México, and has lived undocumented in the U.S. for 16 years. The pandemic — and the resulting lockdowns due to COVID-19 — reminded them of their childhood.

"My mom was the only person in our family to come to the U.S., and then I joined her; all we had was each other," López said. "I just remember growing up in an apartment, where we never left because she didn't know anybody."

For migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, social distancing and isolation aren't new concepts, López said, "because it was a way of harm reduction."

In "Intergalactic Travels: poems from a fugitive alien," López addresses what isolation looks like from a migrant's perspective. The poet, who released a free PDF of the book in April, said on Twitter that their goal was to get the book into the hands of as many undocumented people as possible.

López is also working on a "choreopoem" — poetic monologues set to music — during isolation. Set in Oaxaca and the U.S., López's performance piece focuses on a toddler who imagines shapeshifting into a dragonfly to survive migration into the U.S. The choreopoem is influenced by stories López's grandmother would tell them as children, and later as an adult.

They wanted to present a narrative that doesn't link migrants to labor, particularly in a time when a significant number of immigrant workers — in fields like medicine and agriculture — are deemed essential. "These poems refuse labor in the midst of quarantine," they said, choosing instead imagination and "world building."

The play, which they started writing before the pandemic, opens with a child and grandmother eating nopalitos en mole, a traditional Mexican dish of cactus in a chile chocolate sauce. The meal sparks the toddler to craft a story of how a cactus came into existence: Once a falling star, the cactus fell to Earth and began to grow spines to protect itself because it was afraid of the rest of the world, López said.

In this time of pandemic, López said they are "leaning" on this piece of work: "It's about the need to imagine a different kind of humanity in order to survive."

MORE: "Truly the last safe haven": Libraries serve vulnerable communities during the pandemic

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