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.