It used to be that once a month on Saturday night, you’d find me at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham where local poetry slams were held. I’d either be sitting on the edge of my seat in the audience or spitting my own work on stage. My scores were never anything to write home about, but I endured the regular ego bruising so that I could be a part of a community of people that shared my love of verse. Together we laughed and cried and snapped and heckled the judges. If it was the scandalous Valentine’s Day slam that didn’t start until midnight, we fanned ourselves and blushed.
In 2019, I stopped writing, stopped performing, and stopped showing up to listen to my friends. Depression (and the anhedonia that went with it) made the idea of picking up my pen or leaving the house seem impossible. My favorite poetry collections stopped collecting notes in their margins and gathered dust instead. I turned to the mindless entertainment provided by sitcoms with laugh tracks that let me know when I was meant to emote.
Enter March 2020. The pandemic hit. While dutifully adhering to self isolation, it was hard not to feel alone. In April, I remembered what T.S. Eliot said about April being the cruelest month. Two months later, the line “It is June. I am tired of being brave” from Anne Sexton’s poem “The Truth the Dead Know” was an endless echo in my head. Whether I wanted the poets for company or not, their voices were always finding ways to make themselves known.
In the fall, I stopped resisting and paid a visit to my bookshelf. When live poetry wasn’t a possibility, I found my battered copy of The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip Hop & the Poetry of a New Generation. I slid the CD that accompanies it into a player. Before I knew it, my eyes were closed, and familiar voices were carrying me away. Billy Collins, Saul Williams, and Viggo Mortenson might as well have been in my living room holding court. Their poems deserved tens across the board.
Soon I was envisioning tattoo appointments where Audre Lorde’s words would be tattooed across my skin in scrawling script. The lines “If you will not sorrow, sister/I will not tell” from my favorite poem in The Black Unicorn felt the most appropriate. After all, it’s the poem I give the women in my life when they need relief from their struggles. Maybe when I’m vaccinated, I’ll schedule an appointment. Make it real. The Handmaid’s Tale tattoo I already have could use the company.
Instead of letting the most depressing lines of poetry run through my head, I’ve been using uplifting words as affirmations. This morning, I reminded myself that in “Love After Love” Derek Walcott asked his readers to fall in love with their selves again; to feast on their lives. I’m trying.
If you’re looking for pandemic poetry recommendations, I’ve got you covered.
If you’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that women’s roles are changing during the pandemic, read No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Women Poets. It’s a reminder that this coronavirus may be new, but the demands society places upon us are not.
Do you want to instill a love of poetry into your kids and keep them entertained when Zoom class is over? You can’t go wrong with some old school Shel Silverstein. (I’m in my 30s, but I still have fond memories of a teacher reading Where The Sidewalk Ends aloud.) Snuggling up with your kiddo and these fun poems at bedtime is sure to lift both of your spirits.
Maybe you’ve hit a brick wall and need some inspiration. Ditch the Pinterest self-care advice and pick up Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation. It’s full of my feel good favorites from the likes of Rumi, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Mary Oliver. (Mary Oliver is the golden goddess of restorative poetry. This is indisputable. If you don’t believe me, you can check out a few of her poems here.)
Are you a spoken word enthusiast? Check out Bum Rush The Page: A Def Poetry Jam for poems that are impossible not to read out loud. Or, if you’re short on time, check out some spoken word performances from Button Poetry. If you’re going the pandemic alone and want to feel like you’re wrapped up in a warm hug, watch “Today Means Amen” by Sierra deMulder.
The pandemic might not be over, but the poets are here to help you get through it.