Five poets with collections forthcoming in spring discuss the experience of writing during the pandemic.
U.K. Poet Laureate Simon Armitage’s The Owl and the Nightingale (Princeton Univ., May) is a translation of a medieval English debate poem.
“This translation unexpectedly became a lockdown project. I became a writer in residence in my own office, and like many writers, found it difficult to concentrate with the background of bereavement and anxiety. One of the great tragedies of lockdown and pandemic was that the normal channels of communication were completely disrupted. I was without all the coincidences of everyday life you need for your own writing. Working on a poem of debate in the middle of a time of great silence was odd, and I don’t think I fully processed that.
“It was peculiar, too, trying to convert the language of the poem into conversational poetry, because I wasn’t getting much practice at conversation on a day-to-day basis. But there is something slightly ‘other’ about working on translations. You don’t have the same anxieties about where to start a poem, where to finish it, as it’s all laid out. It became a crutch through lockdown—I could pick four or five couplets up each day and turn them over in my mind. It was a form of companionship that I was very glad to have.”
Ada Limón, a National Book Award finalist, probes the concept of interconnectedness in The Hurting Kind (Milkweed, May).
“Silence changes our creativity. Anxiety and fear change our creativity. On a basic level, I couldn’t write in the beginning of the pandemic out of worry for my loved ones. Then I realized what I needed to search for more than anything was connectedness. Many of the poems came out of asking, ‘What is that connectedness? Where can I find it in unexpected places?’—even if it was just a few trees in the backyard, or the crow in the front yard, or the fox that came to visit—to find those ways of feeling in connection with the wider world when I was so isolated.
“This book is also very much about honoring. It felt like a time to wholeheartedly start to honor in a way that I had held back from in the past. I thought it was important to remember what it was to honor the ancestors—plants, animals, humans—when you’re feeling shut out and like it’s easier to give up and surrender to the darkness of it all. That was my way of writing myself back into the world.”
Best Barbarian (Norton, Mar.), the second collection from Whiting Award winner Roger Reeves, mines the personal, the political, and the literary.
“Many of these poems deal with my father’s death, and on the thematic level, my thinking about it changed during the pandemic. I kept reading Gilgamesh and thinking of the moment where Enkidu is in the afterlife and Gilgamesh wants to touch him, but Enkidu won’t allow it because the rats eat his clothes. I thought of that moment in relation to the mass graves that were being dug in New York, and how ancient literature was talking to this moment of not being able to contend or deal with the dead. That shaped the way that I was thinking about death and dying and grief.
“Another change was that I normally type poems, but I began handwriting every draft. The only way I was able to write was to go back to handwriting. I could be messier. I could be a bit more uncontrolled and abandon something mid-draft. I could start again. There was more flexibility, and I needed that. It wasn’t about production during the pandemic, but about making something. I needed to put the thinking and the world as it was happening into the poem.”
NBA finalist Solmaz Sharif, in Customs (Graywolf, Mar.), critiques the American experience.
“My writing has always investigated the differential distributions of risk, of safety, of well-being in and as the result of the United States. I’m thinking now of when Madonna, in her bathtub, went on about Covid as the great equalizer—the immediate and obvious lie of that. I had a hard time writing in the middle of that lie, knowing there is no such thing for long. Not even climate catastrophe. It felt akin to the brief lie of the Trump threat—‘Fascism is at all our doors.’ Which is not to say the threats here are not real and do not affect all—they do—but to say the brief panics of the rich, the white, the able-bodied, etc., belie their more numerous escapes.
“So, I didn’t write directly about the pandemic. And, so, I had less I could write about directly. The writing grew more nonmaterial. The landscape of the book resisted the confines of home. At some point, in the middle of editing a difficult poem, I dreamt an old therapist said, ‘Well, if you want to write more richly, you will have to live a richer life.’ And trying to find that new calibration became the closing movement of the book, ‘An Otherwise,’ which pre-pandemic was planned to be a filibuster.”
Vinegar Hill (Beacon, Apr.) is the first poetry collection by Booker-shortlisted novelist Colm Tóibín.
“The bulk of the book was written during the pandemic. I had been writing poems until I was about 20, then stopped. But after my novel The Master , little abstract poems started to come, one or two a year. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had something like 25 poems, maybe 12 of which were salvageable.
“When I got sick with cancer [in 2018], I wrote two new poems. But as soon as the pandemic began, I was in L.A. in my boyfriend’s house, and I started to write poems in the evenings out of the blue. This was new in that, really, the poems came every day, and I would just work at getting them down, and then the lovely business of going back every half hour to see if there was anything more that was wrong with it. It wasn’t just the silence, but the fact that there was no getting on a flight, no dinner coming up, no reading that I had to do—all those things that take up a lot of imaginative energy were just not there. I wasn’t unhappy; the days were lovely. And the strange things that I remember, little things, began coming back.”
Read more from our Poetry 2022 Feature:
Virtual Reality: PW Talks with Mary Jo Salter
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.