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Citizen poets share details of their pandemic lives in 'Dear Vaccine'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Living through this pandemic has been a shared experience, but also a deeply personal one. It's a paradox highlighted a newly published collection of poetry from people around the world.

Jeffrey Brown reports from Kyle, Texas, for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Woman: Dear vaccine.

Jeffrey Brown: Words of isolation.

Woman: Let me close the distance. Let me hold my grandmother's hand and kiss the wrinkles on her knuckles.

Jeffrey Brown: Of wonder.

Woman: You break the skin to heal the body, kill an illness to save the world. You are a contradiction and the solution.

Jeffrey Brown: Of gratitude.

Woman: I watched the nurse and thanked her and thanked her and thanked her once more.

Jeffrey Brown: Poems from a new book titled "Dear Vaccine: Global Voices Speak to the Pandemic," part of a collaboration of the Wick Poetry Center of Kent State University and the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

Helping shape the project, poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

Naomi Shihab Nye, Poet: I thought of it instantly as, this will be a chorus of community voices welcoming the next phase. And I think everybody was wistful and lonely for many voices mixed together at that point.

"Save us, dear vaccine. Take us seriously. We had plans. We were going places."

Jeffrey Brown: Nye created the template with our own poem directly addressing the vaccine itself.

Naomi Shihab Nye: "We liked our lives. Maybe we didn't thank them enough. Being able to cross streets with people we didn't know."

Jeffrey Brown: Author and editor of more than 30 books of poetry, she's the current young people's poet laureate, a role created by The Poetry Foundation.

Her work through the years as teacher and advocate for poetry has taken her around the world, bringing poetry into all kinds of settings.

We met recently at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center in Kyle, Texas, where Nye teaches classes for Texas State University. This was the longtime home of Porter, the writer who so memorably captured the 1919 flu pandemic, most notably in her novel "Pale Horse, Pale Rider."

Nye says she knew the "Dear Vaccine" project would resonate today.

You weren't surprised by the response?

Naomi Shihab Nye: I wasn't surprised by the response, Jeff, because I have been working in community for my entire adult life. And I think...

Jeffrey Brown: Which means as a poet, right?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Which means as a poet working with lots of people who aren't generally identifying as poets.

And I'd seen this hunger for poetry everywhere I have ever gone. And, by the way, I have never been to a place where it didn't happen, not one place. And that has always struck me as a miracle.

Jeffrey Brown: Indeed, people responded, some 2,300 poems and counting, some writing as or just after they waited at vaccination centers.

Woman: I just received my booster shot.

Jeffrey Brown: All sending their poems to a digital gallery.

Woman: Hello. I'm Dorothy Bevington (ph) from British Columbia, Canada. I am honored to be part of this global poetry project. The virus has separated us, but this project is bringing us together.

Student: I'm not going to lie. It's been a pretty depressing pandemic.

Jeffrey Brown: A number, like Kent, Ohio, high school sophomore Vivian Bladnoch (ph), recording their thoughts and words on video.

Student: Dear vaccine, restore us to each other. Rescue us from the sea in which we are drowning.

Jeffrey Brown: Isaiah Hunt (ph) of Cleveland wrote of his close-knit suddenly separated family.

Man: From my grandma, who I used to laugh and cry with over a bowl of oatmeal, from my little cousin always asking when our next family get-together would be, from my mom, afraid she might pass out in her kitchen and awake in a hospital.

I stood in a long line with others waiting for your pinch in my arm.

Jeffrey Brown: Ophelia Zepeda (ph) of Tucson used her native Tohono O'odham language.

Woman: We meet you and shake your hand in greeting.

Jeffrey Brown: Yisreen Yamani (ph) wrote from Saudi Arabia.

Woman: Dear vaccine, we carried ourselves like precious fragile cargo. Don't touch. Don't come close. We had to erect barriers, become invisible, mask our faces, lose our smiles.

Jeffrey Brown: What struck you about the themes that people wrote about?

Naomi Shihab Nye: I think the theme of detail, hunger for detail, how people really wanted to acknowledge little tiny things that they had felt a longing for. That touched me a lot, as a poet, because I love detail.

Man: Dear vaccine.

Jeffrey Brown: Some addressed the divisions the pandemic, including the vaccine, had brought.

Man: And though some people are afraid of you, cannot bring themselves to trust you.

Jeffrey Brown: Or made a plea for more than physical health.

Man: Vaccine, please, while you're at it, immunize us from our inclination to hurt each other.

Naomi Shihab Nye: It's the sense of like a yearbook of our time. To me, "Dear Vaccine" is a book which acknowledges what we have been through and also expresses profound gratitude.

Jeffrey Brown: A hundred years ago, Katherine Anne Porter was one of the few writers to address the pandemic directly, and the trauma of that time largely faded in cultural memory.

The creators of "Dear Vaccine" hope this poetic chorus lives on.

Naomi Shihab Nye: I do think we live in a time now where people feel, I, hope that, sometimes, to remember things is an important act of humanity, and, hopefully, it would guide our behaviors.

Jeffrey Brown: With the book now published, people around the world continue to set their poetic responses to the pandemic to be posted to the Web site.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Kyle, Texas.

Judy Woodruff: In the midst of all this division around the world, something to bring us together

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