The Struggle of Writing Poetry During a Pandemic

We’re all struggling through the pandemic in our own ways. Whether we’re marathoning too much TV, FaceTiming relatives at odd hours, or juggling sudden homeschooling with working from home. For creatives like poets, there’s the added pressure of trying to string together words into meaningful stanzas in the midst of all this. How do we write poetry during a pandemic?

During the last semester, I was in a poetry workshop thematically focused on medicine and mortality, which seems oddly prescient now. Just before spring break, our school moved all classes online and shut down the campus. As the semester trudged along, more and more poems submitted each week were reflecting on stay-at-home orders and COVID-19. But not all poets feel the need to write about our current situation. “As a poet,” Valzhyna Mort told me via email, “I don’t see this news as a writing assignment. I don’t think that poets need to prove their relevance by immediately responding to current events. I write as I always do: taking notes, stealing writing time from my day.” I’ve felt much the same way personally, continuing to write intersex poetry and pointedly NOT writing about the pandemic.

Some don’t have the luxury of not writing for artistic reasons, however. Hadara Bar-Nadav, poetry professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (and full disclosure: my poetry professor), said, “On a daily basis, I am full-time parenting, full-time teaching, directing the graduate and undergraduate creative writing programs at UMKC, and advising our undergraduate students. Even though I do not have the time, energy, or focus to write, I am taking in imagery and language and feeling and information.” Similarly, Sachiko Murakami gave birth shortly before the pandemic and told me, “Newborns aren’t super conducive to the long stretches of concentrative effort that (I find, at least) writing a poem requires.”

As I was driving to get groceries the other day, a quiz question on NPR said that more and more Americans were finding time to read the classics right now. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of so-called classics, but I’m definitely reading. Even if poets aren’t finding the headspace to write, many are reading as much, if not more, than we were before the stay-at-home orders. “Because my head is splitting from the blabber glued into simple sentences,” Mort said, “I turn to M. NourbeSe Philip. She breaks through the blabbering social discourse with the language that disrupts our cultural amnesia, our haunted cliches and myths.” She’s also been reading Tolstoy, Inger Christensen, Dickenson, and Gogol, diving deep into those classics.

In the midst of all this panic and chaos, some poets are writing more than before, feeling inspiration or staving off boredom. Usually-a-novelist Leigh Stein started a Poet-in-Residence newsletter, but it was more than just writing poetry during a pandemic that got her working in verse. “On March 2, I decided to stop drinking alcohol—at least for 30 days,” Stein told me. “On March 13, I started writing poems again for the first time in nearly a decade, beginning with a poem based on a metaphor Dr. Fauci used to explain that the virus was like starlight—it was already on its way to us in the United States before we could see it. For me, there has been a significant correlation between not drinking right now and writing poetry. It feels like a miracle to be writing poetry right now—almost like a part of me I thought was dead brought back to life.”

Writing has been my escape. My final semester of my MFA program looms up ahead in the fall, a bit of a Schrodinger’s Semester. Will it be online or in-person? Will curve actually flatten? Will antibody testing and contact tracing become part of life? Will this virus surge back again later this year as some experts theorize? I don’t know, but the news doesn’t give me hope. So I’m writing. I’m writing on my thesis/novel set in 2018, well before this pandemic. I’m writing non-pandemic poetry. Maybe one day I’ll write about this, like Sachiko Murakami said, “I have to write from after, not during.” For now, I agree with Henri Cole, who told me, “Most poets are like chrysanthemums. We grow in darkness. But I am like a tiger. I pace inside my cage without any red meat. Then I collapse into sleep.” Except I’m vegetarian, but you get the gist.

Hadara Bar-Nadav’s most recent book is The New Nudity.

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Henri Cole’s book Blizzard is due out September 1.

Valzhyna Mort’s book Music for the Dead and Resurrected is due out November 3.

Sachiko Murakami’s book Render is due out September 29.

Leigh Stein’s novel Self Care is due out June 30.

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