Friday, March 26, 2021

Rhyming in the Face of the Apocalypse: How Poetry Has Kept Me Sane During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On March 16, 2020, my state shut down in response to COVID-19. I am a teacher, and schools were closed indefinitely. It became clear to me that this was going to be a thing. A serious thing. And I decided that, to keep my own sanity, to tether myself to the present and fight the fear of the future that was exploding inside me, I would write a poem every morning until it was over. I'm still writing. At the same time, I decided to read poetry every morning. These two acts became the pillars of an evolving morning routine that has been the cornerstone of my sanity and survival over the course of this intense and exhausting year. That decision to write a poem every day has resulted in a historical, artistic and creative artifact comprised of nearly 400 poems.

When I first began this process, I thought I might have 100 poems. By the time I reached poem 365, I had become compulsive and could no longer stop. The routine has become a kind of magical ritual for me, as if the act of engaging with poetry, as reader and as writer, is itself keeping some sort of dark forces - the virus, depression, madness - at bay. 

At first, I saw the poem-a-day project purely, and explicitly, for myself alone, with no intention of becoming a more public creation. But then, a moment happened where I became aware of the power that reading the works of other poets had, the way their work was comforting me, grounding me, saving me from the storm. And then I read one of my own pieces and felt the urge to share it, in its imperfect, unvarnished, unfinished form. I made a video of the written draft and myself reading it, and I posted it on Facebook, my own small act of resistance against the destructive spirit that was increasingly inhabiting that space. People responded, and soon, my act of daily poetry became something I sporadically shared. Some days, I shared the work of other poets that had spoken to me. On other days, it was my own work, always with the rough vision of the first draft scribbled in my writer’s notebook. There was something about the embrace of unfinished imperfection that seemed right for a moment in which uncertainty reigned and “good enough” became a mantra. It was an ongoing declaration of the need for grace - for myself, for all of us, during an impossible time that was real. By sharing my poetic journey, I discovered that I was not alone in finding comfort, hope, courage, and connection through poetry during this pandemic and all the other insanity around the world that came along with it.

I also discovered the grounding power of form as a kind of lifesaver. When I sat down each morning to take my spirit’s temperature and listen for the words that would give it voice, some days that voice was harder to hear than others. On those days, form became my creative midwife. Acrostics allowed me to explore certain words that had suddenly become part of our communal song - words like shelter in place, quarantine, coronovirus, sanitizer, social distancing, flattening the curve. Sometimes, a theme was present to me in a single word, like the word “uncertainty.” Focusing on a single word created boundaries and scaffolding for me that left space for the poetry to find its way out into the open. 

Soon, rhythmic forms also became part of my scaffolding - sonnets and haiku, for instance. Sometimes I set myself a challenge - repeat the ending of a line, spread a phrase across the start of each line, and so on. Numbers seemed so present in conversation about the virus, so it seemed only right that numbers became part of my poetic journey. I started playing with the notion of quarantine, a word that references 40 days, which was how long ships kept their cargo on board during the Black Death. I created a form inspired by and named for this, consisting of 10 lines of 4 syllables each. I played with variations on this form, other configurations of 40 syllables, but I always came back to that initial configuration. I think I liked the sparseness and simplicity of it - like a haiku, but with a bit more elbow room to wander through a notion or image.

The poets I read during this journey were important voices in the conversation:

Mary Oliver, Rainier Maria Rilke at first, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, to name just a few, made up the soil in which my own poems were growing.

This task I set for myself has functioned as a guidepost and grounding influence, a reminder of what matters, a place to reflect on the emotions and events that have unfolded around us, a space to explore my own reactions to this strange point in history. There were days when all I could manage was a haiku, and there were days when I worked and reworked a piece. My work schedule, teaching online, often dictated how much time I had in the morning.

I did some revision as I wrote, but when I reached the one-year milestone, I began revising in earnest. In order to keep the full shape of the journey, I decided not to get rid of any pieces, even those whose first draft seemed weaker than the rest. Instead, I sought to hone the craft of each poem while maintaining the psychological and emotional truth of the moment in which each piece was born. This approach to revision has proven to be a fascinating challenge. The self who is revising, one year into the pandemic experience, is not the same self responsible for the initial act of creation. And yet, the revising self has an obligation, a sacred duty to the initial creating self, to honor the moment of spirit and outside reality that gave birth to each piece, to honor the intent and emotion and perspective of each piece. I have become my own translator in a way, engaged in a dialogue between present and past selves.

Perhaps one day this artifact, with its alchemy of personal and global experiences, will become a book. Certainly, I am treating it as a creative project with a public future. For now, what that means is revising, conversing with my poet mind as she makes the journey, attending to the changes and shifts that time has wrought, and continuing to engage with the muse and the pandemic. Survival through poetry. Rhyming in the face of the apocalypse.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Why Write? Why Read

Here I am, reappearing for my annual check in with my creative self.

This past year I revisited poetry a bit, and of course kept journaling, journaling every day - but life - well, life demands what it does. I immersed myself in my teaching life and it felt grand. My personal life placed new demands on me, demands at a deep, soul-level as I encountered the realities that aging can throw your way. So this year was about learning.

Now it is summer. I meet my writing self as you might meet an estranged lover after a long separation. It's awkward, uncertain. I wonder if the old spark is still there, and whether I want to reignite it again or not.

But I have been reading. A lot. Poetry, nonfiction, essay, novels, articles. Funny how reading can feel, these days, like "goofing off" or "doing nothing."  But writers read. Writers read.

And humans read. Perhaps I will begin to remember why I write by noticing why I read. I read to explore topics and stories that resonated with friends and acquaintances and they recommended to me. I read to explore ideas and tales that sparked my interest when I encountered them in other text. I read to expand my thinking on the world. I read to get lost in a story that ultimately widens my vision of what it means to be human. I read to find comfort and wisdom and advice. I read to challenge myself to think more deeply about other people's experiences and history and culture. I read to escape. I read to engage. I read to take part in the vast human conversation that transcends time and space.

And that is why I write, too.

Friday, October 12, 2018

An Update from the Writing Desert

It's been almost a year since my last post. I choose to post again more for myself than the world, as my blogs feel more and more like messages in a bottle in the vast ocean of cyberspace. I post today's update as a way to check in with my creative self, see how she's doing and what she's up to and why she hasn't ventured forth much lately.

During this past year, I participated in two storytelling performances, one with Portland Story Theatre and the other with Solospeak. Both were powerful experiences in exploring true stories from my own life, stories that swerve close to the bone. They were great lessons in crafting structure, choosing details, and thinking about overarching themes that expanded my creative vista into the more vulnerable realm of personal narrative.

The other big creative event for me last year was a performance of my own poems at my 30th College Reunion at the invitation of a classmate. Being so public with the raw emotions embedded in some of my poetry was an incredible experience - to speak with that voice in that place witnessed by those people. Afterwards, I told myself I wanted to explore other chances to share and perform my poetry. This December, I will do just that, as part of a culminating reading for a poetry class with the fabulous Claudia Savage.

Other than that, I've written some poems and posted them on my other blog, Pamplemousse, created a one-hour edit of Macbeth for Willamette Radio Workshop's Halloween show, read, tended to my health with yoga and meditation and wandered around in cyberspace. I find myself putting my energy into the needs of my family, nurturing relationships, and the demanding vocation of teaching. I write every day in my journal, but I seem to have given up any pretense of seeking publication, even self-publishing beyond my blogs. I alternate between accepting that and being horribly disappointed in myself. I dance between neglecting and abandoning my identity as writer.

Perhaps this shift is a function of that word "identity" and its collision with mortality and a changing  concept of self. The whole notion of "I" or identity seems, as I age, less important than the notion of the larger human organism, the world and the great arc of time, of which I am only one infinitesimal part. Making my peace with that truth seems to occupy more of my energy, and a desire to have public recognition for writing seems to dwindle.

Or perhaps it is laziness, or an honest self-assessment of my own abilities and chances, or just simple  despair. However, here I sit, typing this entry, reminding myself once again that the written word is my chosen form of self-expression, for good or for ill, in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Refilling, and Stirring Things Up

It's been a while since I've posted in here, mostly because I've been focusing on recharging and generating work, and just functioning in the world, rather than writing about writing. And, to be honest, after a long streak of rejections and non-responses to submissions, I was engaged in a lot of soul-searching about my writing life, like you do when the world seems to shrug apathetically at the products of your soul.

In any event, here are some things that have put a little wind back in my sails.

First, the friendship, support and inspiration of other creative people. My husband, Sam, and I spend a lot of brunches kicking around creative ideas about our respective artistic lives. Some of those ideas overlap, some don't, but it helps me remember that I exist as a creative individual.  My writing friend, Suzanne, not only inspires me and holds me accountable every time we get together for coffee, but she recently gave a concert of songs she'd written and it was so freaking brave that I found myself challenging my own fears and disappointments around the submissions grind.

Next, feeding the soul. I didn't write much formally this summer, but I spent almost every day communing with nature, God and my soul through a dance between the beautiful outdoors and the written word. I read inspiring writers. I journaled - A LOT.   And I recently took an 8-week class on Mindfulness in Education through Peace in the Schools. All of that work, and the habits of mind that it fed, has left me ready to dive in again. Sometimes, nurturing the spirit is the best thing you can do for your creative self.

And finally, stepping outside my comfort zone to stir things up. I signed on to be part of not one but two separate storytelling performances in the coming months, a process that will ask my writer/storytelling self and my performance self to join forces in brave and vulnerable ways. I decided to dive into self-publishing one of my novels (more on that when there's more to tell). And I attended an Open Mic poetry event through Portland Ars Poetica, where I read some of my poems, met a lot of new poeple (all poets of one sort or another, all ages, genders, styles), heard a wide range of work, and gave my words a life outside myself (which left me inspired to polish a few more pieces in preparation for the next open mic poetry event).

So, I've managed to give my dying creative spirit a serious IV infusion and now it's looking a lot healthier and recuperating from the batterings of life and rejection.

If you're finding yourself floundering, and wondering whether to keep on creating, but knowing in your heart you can't help yourself, and pondering the fate of your creative soul in this dilemma, try a few of these ideas:
  • Connect with other creative souls. 
  • Take time to nurture your spirit and refill. 
  • Look for a ways to step outside your comfort zone and give your words an audience through a non-traditional avenue.

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