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Why poems can be safe spaces during the pandemic
Weeks after the coronavirus pandemic started taking root in the United States, editor Alice Quinn wanted to capture that sudden rupture of daily life.
Quinn sensed that poets, taking on "the role of the witness in culture," would be compelled to write about the moment in real time.
"It's been a very fertile time for poetry, a very natural time for poetry," Quinn, who spent 20 years as poetry editor at The New Yorker, told the PBS NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown.
That sense of urgency is reflected in the new anthology "Together in a Sudden Strangeness," which collects verses from dozens of poets who share a range of thoughts on how the virus has affected our lives. It's available now as an e-book and in an audio format. A hardcover of the collection is expected in November.
In one poem, Jim Moore notes the death of a friend before writing that he can't think beyond the three items on the list in his head — cheese, almonds, eggs — once the grocery store opens. Amit Majmudar, who is also a doctor, shares a dispatch from the front line of medical workers fighting against the virus, writing, "At sign-out last Friday, we didn't say bed numbers. We said first names."
There are meditations of grief and isolation, and the experience of observing vacant public spaces from our windows while being ordered to stay home. In her poem, Julia Alvarez wonders how poetry itself would be affected by the pandemic. "Will poems be the only safe spaces where we can gather together," she writes.
Tomás Q. Morín writes that a pandemic was all it took "to turn the world into a pineapple upside-down cake." (Of course, social distancing has inspired many a quarantine baking pursuit, in addition to poetry.)
Quinn spoke with the NewsHour about how some poets weren't immediately inspired to write something, and how poetry can help us navigate this global crisis.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I'm curious what the assignment was, in a sense, because this is unusual. This is writing in real time. You're asking poets to sit down and write something new about their feeling, their experience, their thoughts, what they're seeing.
It was very simple. I simply said, "Have you recently been writing a poem about this moment?" And I think that's why the variety is so strong, because whatever your temperament and your sensibility in your circumstance is quite different. And so we have lighter poems and wry poems and jaunty poems and poems tinged with dread. And we have poems about the spring and apocalyptic poems and lyric poems and poems of parents to children and of children bothering their parents — just a very wide variety and a huge diversity and ethnic background, which, I think, we all need community at this point. And we want windows to be opened and to see what each of us is feeling.
It makes me think of a formulation of Elizabeth Bishop's letter to May Swenson. She said, "Poetry is a way of thinking with one's feelings." And so we know that poets are going to be thinking with their feelings. Some of them wrote back and said, "I don't have a poem." And then two weeks later, I did get a poem from [them]. And also they recommended other poems to me. So the correspondence swelled pretty quickly.
As I was reading, I was just making a list of themes: longing, people writing almost sort of diaries of their day, nature. Of course, people are very aware of their surroundings. There are poems that are about the craving for touch, for humanity. What struck you? And give us maybe a few examples of lines or poets.
The poem that opens the book is by Julia Alvarez. And what is so serendipitously fascinating to me is that the collection of poems goes from A to Z, and Alvarez's poem starts, "How will this pandemic affect poetry?" "Will the lines be six feet apart? … Will there be poetry insecurity? Will there be enough poetry to go around? … Will it help build up antibodies against indifference? … What if only poetry will see us through? What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you?"
So there are some poems that really address poetry. In fact, the last one by Matthew Zapruder ends, "I love my son / his little bear pajamas / my wife the grass / the ends of poems." So it's interesting that the book begins with the subject of poetry and ends with the ends of poems.
There's a wonderful poem by a poet named Kamilah Aisha Moon, whose mother was in the ICU unit in March, and her poem ends, "Candlelight for two / is a date; I faintly remember those. / Candlelight / alone / is a séance– / forgive me, / my dearly departed / for crying out / so often, for still needing you / so damn much." So that feeling of grief is very, very strongly there, too.
You're talking about the writing about poetry and the role of poetry. I'm thinking of Ada Limón's poem. The title is "The End of Poetry." And it's sort of about "No more of this. No more of that." And it ends with a line really craving touch.
It's a beautiful poem. She was telling me that she couldn't write a poem. And she looked at her drafts of poems and said, "I felt so passionately about this subject, but I'm not connecting to it anymore." Her whole sense of life had shifted. And so she begins her poem saying, "Enough of this, enough of that." And she even has a wonderful line that references Emily Dickinson's great poem: "There's a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons — / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes — / Heavenly Hurt, it gives us — / We can find no scar, / But internal difference — / Where the Meanings, are." And then at the end, Limón comes to this crescendo: "I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate, enough of the animals saving me, enough of the high water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease. I am asking you to touch me." [It's] very direct.
Another important aspect of this pandemic of recent times has been how it's showing the inequities in our society and particularly communities of color being affected. And then now, as you and I are talking, the moment has changed dramatically again, right after the killing of George Floyd and now riots and protests and violence in the streets. I wonder, did you find any of that reflected in the poems as well?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips has a beautiful poem called, "Fantasia in a Time of Plague." He summons up "the River Man," and says, "Like a river that bends out of sight / But still roars in your head / As the River Man said it would / On those sleepless nights / When you hear the dead / And the living at the river / Complicit as kites and rhyming about civil rights." I think that the moment that we're in is tucked inside of the just previous moment because of the issues of inequality and vulnerability and lack of access to medical care and groceries and jobs and money to pay the rent, helplessness — that's what's being addressed right now.
It does come around to what does poetry do or does poetry even matter amid all of that. I see people asking themselves online. I see it in some of the poems. What's your answer?
I think poetry is a very "I-Thou" connection in a moment when we are isolated from one another, and we read poetry with our own inner voices, just as we read fiction. But I think poetry can, phrase by phrase, slip into the bloodstream very quickly and profoundly as an I-Thou connection. And right now, there's so much uncertainty and grief.
How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?
by JULIA ALVAREZ
Will the lines be six feet apart?
Will these hexameters be heroic like Homer's?
(Will) (each) (word) (have) (to) (be) (masked) (?)
Will there be poetry insecurity?
Will there be enough poetry to go around?
Will poems be our preferred form of travel?
Will we undertake odysseys searching for Ithacas inside us?
Will poetry go viral?
Will its dis/ease infect us?
Will it help build up antibodies against indifference?
Will poems be the only safe spaces where we can gather together:
enter their immense silences,
see snakes slithering inside sestinas,
listen to nightingales singing on the boughs of odes–
hark! a lark in the terza rima,
a hawk in a haiku?
What if only poetry will see us through?
What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you?
April 27-May 8, 2020. Weybridge, Vermont
The End of Poetry
by ADA LIMÓN
Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower
and snowshoes, maple and seeds, samara and shoot,
enough chiaroscuro, enough of thus and prophecy
and the stoic farmer and faith and our father and tis
of thee, enough of bosom and bud, skin and god
not forgetting and star bodies and frozen birds,
enough of the will to go on and not go on or how
a certain light does a certain thing, enough
of the kneeling and the rising and the looking
inward and the looking up, enough of the gun,
the drama, and the acquaintance's suicide, the long-lost
letter on the dresser, enough of the longing and
the ego and the obliteration of ego, enough
of the mother and the child and the father and the child
and enough of the pointing to the world, weary
and desperate, enough of the brutal and the border,
enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.