Poetry (online) in the Time of COVID

 

Poetry is getting a boost online. We need it, it grabs our attention, it helps. Just this morning a friend posted a link to a Pablo Neruda poem with a shout out to all the artists, writers, musicians, and others out there who are creatively stuck or have had work and gigs cancelled because so much of the world has shut down around us. In “A Callarse” or “Keeping Quiet” Neruda writes:

Por una vez sobre la tierra

no hablemos en ningún idioma,

por un segundo detengámonos,

no movamos tanto los brazos.

 

Sería un minuto fragante,

sin prisa, sin locomotoras,

todos estaríamos juntos

en una inquietud instantánea.

 

*

This one time upon the earth,

let’s not speak any language,

let’s stop for one second,

and not move our arms so much.

 

It would be a delicious moment,

without hurry, without locomotives,

all of us would be together

in a sudden uneasiness.

Moments of quiet, of stillness, usually so hard to come by for so many, are delicious. Sometimes uneasy at first, and then can feel like a gift. This new stillness—quiet for some, something else for others—might be a sudden uneasiness, might offer moments of nourishing quiet. For those of us not in health care, grocery or delivery workers, or others whose pace has become more frantic and stressed, we might be adjusting to different kinds of movement and stillness. We might be spending more time online, dealing with too much or not enough to keep us grounded, trying to take care of ourselves and others. We might be looking for poetry that will help us feel less alone with our thoughts.

I’ve been following some new poetry outlets online the last few weeks. It’s helped me to enjoy moments of calm, to feel creatively connected, to set aside anxiety a little at a time, and even to get back to my own writing that I haven’t been able to do lately. The Haiku for a Global Pandemic Facebook group was started in the middle of March “as a fun distraction” and space for connection and creative play. It’s a closed group, but participants are encouraged to invite others in. I especially love that the short posts just show up in my FB feed randomly throughout the day, whether I am doing “serious” work on FB or scrolling aimlessly when I might be doing something else to better care for myself. Reading these haiku though feels like a kind of care, in the way that reading and writing often are but even more so at this moment. I also love that anyone can join the group and write and post haiku. You don’t have to be a “professional poet” to share in the benefits of poetry.

In one post, a person who works in an assisted living community is including some of the haiku in their weekly newsletters. She writes, “I hope that’s okay. It’s a good way for us to feel connected to you all” and includes a picture of the newsletter with a few of the poems, including one by Nancy I.:

When leadership fails --

trickle-up integrity

It must begin with me

A number of the following comments offer good wishes and encouragement to use not only their small poems but also pictures of critters posted in the group, or anything else that might cheer someone up.

Some of the posts are funny, like the one about a tiny, hairless brown dog on her hind legs walk-dancing backward and its accompanying 3-second video on repeat, and in the comments a picture of a small, white, curly-haired dog in a grey knit sweater who apparently snores like a human.

There are also poems that are so sad I don’t want to repeat them here, relevant and terrible reflections in this new traumatic time, references to symptoms, fear of testing, friends and loved ones on machines or gone off alone to quarantine.

And there are the posts that are off-the-cuff and lighthearted on the surface, but read more deeply resonant, like one by Jaime Williams:

I’m leaving the house

To go to the liquor store?

Who wants to come with?

Scrolling through, I also encounter a series of educational haiku about registering to vote and getting absentee ballots in Michigan, including links to the state voting resource site. And in another series of three poems, Nora Rubinoff begins in a way after my own heart:

I would not survive

a zombie apocalypse

I have discovered.

I relate to this, because I’ve thought about it more than one probably should, and it’s not actually something I’ve just discovered about myself, but have often considered. The series ends with a photo of a block one might have on their desk with an inspirational message, with text that reads:

I think

I’ve seized

the wrong

fucking day.

It’s perfect that this ends with a period. It’s like an emphasis, argument, and response to having been misled by inspirational messages, all in one; a clear and concise statement.

I’ve also been following a public Facebook group, started by Megan Burns: The Online Blood Jet NOLA Poetry Fam which was originally started to bring together poets and other writers connected to NOLA, the Blood Jet reading series, and the NOLA poetry festival, but it’s also open for others to join; it’s a community-oriented space to connect. There are a lot of different kinds of posts there, from links to published work, to visual art, to new writing in the context of life in the time of COVID. In the intro video for the group, Burns tells us that we’ve been here before and survived, and reads her poem “City” which begins:

is city see we city

dream city deem city we

shrink city seems city

where blink and brink is tangent

wading mirror versus ending flight

the city that we city dream in dream of our self

New Orleans, especially, knows about being on the front lines of whatever next hard thing is happening. And now, places like NOLA, like Detroit, and New York, are the cities of survivors tasked with doing this yet again, caught between dreams and nightmares, selves woven into the city fabrics of history and hope for a new future.

Martín Barea Mattos posts a link to an amazing video of him reading “Trabalenguas” (which means “mouthful” or “tongue twister”) from his book Made in China. With a bit of percussion in the background, and images from pop and consumer culture—like Rosie the Riveter, Ronald McDonald, bar codes, a woman running in what looks like a Nike ad, and more—popping up on the screen in front of him, he repeats:

Consumismo común ismo

como un ismo

con su mismo comunismo

como un ismo

con su mismo común ismo

The language becoming sound, the mingling of consumerism and communism in a dance, and we viewers share the beat. Posted in 2016, this video is a sonic punch in the gut, a mouthful of articulation of the difficulty, once again, of reconciling the power of capital to divide us as it builds ever-growing barriers to access, and the real consequences for those with little to no power at all. I won’t here get into a discussion of philosophies versus realities of communism in its various forms, but there’s plenty to think about if you want to spend some time with this video poem.

J.S. Makkos’ post includes a link to their poetic photo essay filled with images of empty New Orleans. Some of the photos look like they’re taken right after a rain, the airy streets seeming to have forgotten Mardi Gras and street music; any hint of grit receding to a safe distance.

And another post shares Donney Rose’s “The American Audit” project in which, as he explains, “there is an extended metaphor of America, as a business, being audited by African Americans” 400 years after Jamestown and the beginnings of slavery in the US. In this ongoing performance, text, and media project, he uses the language of finance that might be included in official audit documents.

His reading begins with a definition of “audit,” and then continues:

Time to investigate

a superpower born of blood and stolen goods

uncover files that contain records of distressed bones

interrupted dreams

fragmented families

repurposed culture

...

sons and fathers of lynched America is big business

...

a global conglomerate hustling a false freedom

...

America is a tired commercial

And the newly created Self-Quarantine Lines is a blog made of work by invited writers. More curated than a Facebook page, participants nonetheless engage with one another by posting original work or writing response or collage poems contextualized by other work on the site, and readers are invited to offer reflections and comments. Mari-Lou Rawley’s “Palm Springs Ekphrastic” begins:

The chalk grey slab of parking lot

is empty

except for a dark square sign

with white wheelchair.

...

The street beyond

is empty --

palm tree, pickup truck, sky

all hollow,

drained of life how can they feel

so heavy?

The open language and images pull together the weight that many of us feel now, a weird and paradoxical physically open space filled with dread, anxiety, depth of intensity.

Including lines from others’ poems, in “Collage no. 10 25/03/20” Lisa Pasold writes:

...A man bicycles down the street past my window saying, “Ouais, ouais, ouais,” which is only odd because I am not in France or Quebec. Let him overreact, I have no coin for it. My toad is all charcoal like I’ve emerged from a cellar. Guttersnipe moth, boring scapegrace, waif of the miniscule additions, ragamuffin of occasional variants, I have failed in the word “matter.” But then so has the media.

She captures the strangeness of space, of feeling out of place and time, of how language doesn’t seem to add up or help to make sense of. As writers, maybe we often feel like we are failing, to find the words, to make a difference. But in this “virtual” space for writing and reflection, for collage as communication and engagement, one might find a glimpse of articulation, of connection, even if the words point indirectly. The poems here take us into other spaces, where we might be constructive in our own writing and thinking, or maybe we just sit quietly and still and not feel quite so socially distant in doing that.

In the process statement for “Exceptional Travel Advisory Notice” John S. writes:

… extract every 19th word from current UK Government Exceptional Travel Advisory Notice (as of 18 March, 2020). Arrange these words in lines of three. Run resulting text through Google Translate, from English to French. Run resulting French text back through Google Translate into English.

This note is reminding us about the importance of process, about how language is arbitrary to some degree, that so much depends on the placement of one word next to another, or how some words are included and some left out. That language is a tool, and can be a power. The piece turns out like this:

Unprecedented takes

Modify transport instructions

British deadline

Keep going for safety

Countries able to help

Quarantine is your

In as for

May cruise

Be sure

And if the alerts

Or become your

You contact responsibility

The published temperature was

Allowed or &

British on us

About you our

All international vessels

The preparation

Update

Tightening in on key words, the poem offers contact points for readers to expand out, each a potential constellation of resonances with the news, language, experiences we’ve shared or internalized. The open and yet specific lines concrete with tension, and ending with “The preparation / Update” evoking a continuing sameness and evolving slow motion kind of disaster.

So as not to end on a totally depressing note, I include this last example, a post linked by an image of the painting “Îles d'Or” (1892) by Henri-Edmond Cross. In the painting, the bright gold at the forefront and bottom of the image moves upward into blues and greens, and the top of the picture captures what I see as a sunrise, slowly reflecting on distant mountains and sky. The poem, “Dear guttersnipe,” by JSA Lowe, might not be considered uplifting, but is heart wrenching in its beauty, the way poems and art can make us feel intensely, so that we know we’re not alone, and we know that maybe, we can in fact, keep writing, keep reading, and keep going.

Those were days we had. A photograph you refused to give me. Now I have this hollow box of detritus and what am I supposed to do with: prints of blue hearts, bats upside down from a bough, a wrapping-paper sketch of me all charcoal like I've emerged from a cellar? … we were each other's children, how to get through pestilence without you, ragamuffin, next to my lips—

 

Clarification note: The blog Self-Quarantine Lines was created by Jennifer K. Dick, and the poem “Exceptional Travel Advisory Notice” written by John Sears.

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