Poetry in a Pandemic: One Year In

May 19, 2021
By Laura Apol
Laura Apol at a book signing, undated.

As did so many at the university, I came back from spring break 2020 with misgivings; there were rumblings about what might happen next, but nothing was clear. I was teaching TE 458: Reading, Writing and Teaching Poetry—one of my favorite classes, and a class that relies heavily on risk-taking, vulnerability, community and interconnection. I fervently hoped we would be able to meet in that week after spring break; it seemed inevitable that we’d be going home, but I wanted to say goodbye and to make even the beginnings of a plan. 

It didn’t happen. For everyone, the shift was sudden and complete. My students and I needed to create—in fumbling, confused, irregular ways—our own community from a distance. At least we’d had a start, face to face. 

When I taught the course again in the fall, it took place exclusively from a distance. But we were better at it by then—more skilled at the technologies, but also more patient. More settled. Less upended by disappointment and fear and uncertainty. We were also more tired. More lonely. More worn down.

In both scenarios—confused or tired, confused and tired—our work with poetry seemed just-right for the moment. I didn’t ever ask students to write about the pandemic, or about the Black Lives Matter movement or about political upheaval—but nearly all of them did. They wrote letter-poems to their past or future selves; they wrote noticing-poems about their daily lives and the lives around them; they wrote poems about people and places that mattered and changed; they wrote list-poems of what had been lost, or found, or both.

The poet Edward Hirsch writes, “Poetry rises out of one solitude / to meet another / in recognition and connection. / It companions us.” I think that’s what poetry has done for many people in the past year—some who identify as poets and some who do not. It companions us. It comforts us. It inspires and energizes us. It creates community. Ultimately, it makes us better companions of one another.

All year, I’ve wanted my students of poetry to write in order to feel, to create this kind of companioning. Putting their experiences into words was a way for them to be more present to themselves and to each other. I have also wanted them to write in order to document this time—not only in their own lives, but in history; to create a record of what it felt like to make the sudden shift into the unknown with no map; to learn to see and feel, resist and embrace, touch and breathe in new ways. To engage in protest and upheaval. To notice what changed and what stayed the same. To attend to their own lives, whatever those lives lost or held.

Vera Sackville-West has written, “It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?” It is easy in a pandemic to feel days slipping emptily by. But the poets with whom I have spent this past year have found ways to capture the moment, and to leave a record of a particular time in history with their words. Their poems, their resilience, their faces on Zoom screens—they tell a story. They companion me.


I WISH (WISHES)

Peijia Zeng poses for a photo in Chicago.
By Peijia Zeng 

March 1, 2020:

I wished I did not need to go to class
and could get up as late as I wanted.
I wished I could have enough social distance
from people I do not like.
I wished I could stay in my room
for the whole day and do nothing.
I wished my loud, annoying, gross, and mean neighbors
were all gone.
I wished the community bathroom in my dorm could totally be used by myself.
I wished the weather in Michigan could be warmer
so I do not need to fight with the wind on my way to class.
I wished I do not need to be in some classes physically
because even when I am there,
I fall asleep.
I wished a lot.

Now:
I wish I could still go to class normally
so that I could get some workout when I walk there.
I wish I could still meet and talk to people face to face,
even if they are super annoying.
I wish I would not need to get trapped in this tiny dorm room.
I wish to see some people back on my floor.
(I do not wish those annoying ones back though.)
I wish more people can share the community bathroom
so it can get cleaned every day.
I wish I can be in some classes physically—
I do not mean I like them.
Even though I will still fall asleep,
I do not want to stare at the laptop for the whole day.
I wish a lot.


2020

Makayla Underwood
By Makayla Underwood

It feels never ending
My heart is pounding
As I expose myself to the public
Sanitize, six feet, don’t cough, don’t sneeze
It’s all too much
My mind won’t stop
I just want freedom
To escape the worry and fear
I hear the laughter and chatter as I walk
Don’t breathe I tell myself
The only place I feel safe is in my own bubble
There I can breathe, but the only thing missing is
Freedom


READ MORE
Student poetry at bit.ly/TE458-Poems