In Zoom Rooms (Knopf, Apr.), Mary Jo Salter, author of eight poetry collections and a coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, contemplates isolation and the feelings that connect people to one another.
Had you always planned to title the book Zoom Rooms? What did you hope it would convey?
It wasn’t always going to be the title. I’d hoped the pandemic would end early, and wondered if anything I wrote about it would seem dated by the time the book came out. I knew I wanted Zoom Rooms to be a series of sonnets, which are rectangular, as the little tiles in Zoom rooms are. Beyond that, I wanted to describe some of the ways in which we Zoom—in a classroom, for example, or at a memorial service—but knew I couldn’t be encyclopedic about it. I wanted, too, to capture the feeling that sets in after a period of lockdown, or of being masked and isolated. On some level, as much as we wish we could communicate with others in person, there’s a shyness and dread that accompanies re-entering the world. Zoom Rooms is ultimately about fear—not just of dying due to the virus, but of living as the undead, as virtual persons.
Can you talk a bit about the role and limitations of the jargon-y terms—“speaker view,” “hide self”—you use in the poem?
Whatever technology we master, we use the terms that have been set down for us; the one that cracks me up is unmute. These metaphors that are part of techno-speak, or talking about the metaverse, are functional. I use them; I can’t pretend I don’t benefit from them. But I do feel that our vocabularies, though they now include a few extra words, in some sense feel more constricted than ever.
How else did the pandemic shape this collection?
The only other poem that’s explicitly about the pandemic is “St. Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken,” which is based on a painting in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. I kept a photograph of that 15th-century painting by Josse Lieferinxe in my phone for years. Every time I would visit the Walters, I would stand in front of this painting of people in shrouds during the bubonic plague and wonder how I could ever write about it. Being in the middle of a plague somehow made me able to write an ekphrastic poem set in another era.
The collection ends on “A Letter to Leena.” Can you speak a bit about the poem and its place in the book?
It was written for my granddaughter, who was born in 2020. Her birth made me reflect on the world to come, one in which we’ll face global warming and maybe other pandemics, and it made me consider how we might try to stay cheerful. Being realistic and somehow hopeful has been a challenge for everybody these last two years. But we have to get up in the morning and think things will be better.