Pandemic Poetry

COVID-19 affects National Poetry Month

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Media by Jackson Estwanick

Ray Holmes, language arts teacher, stands before his 11th grade language arts class. Holmes was interviewed by the Messenger in January about his upcoming poetry chapbook “Lookaftering,” which is set to be released in late May. Holmes said that COVID-19 has not affected the release of his book, but has affected the work of many poets he knows.

While the 54th annual National Poetry Month is taking place this month during a worldwide pandemic, many poets are continuing to express themselves through their work while tensions are high.  

Sarah Abbas, junior, was named the 2020 St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate in February. She was supposed to go on a performance tour of schools in Missouri and Illinois this month, but is now video conferencing with poets around the St. Louis area due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Abbas has been holding workshops on Zoom where participants share old and new poems and receive feedback.

“I’ve been trying to get the youth poet community in Missouri to come together more,” Abbas said. “I feel like it’s very fractured right now.”

Abbas had plans to hold free open mics where youth and adult poets could intermingle but with many people practicing social distancing, she is now focused on bringing people together in whatever ways she can. 

“A lot of people go to the poetry community when they can’t find comfort in their own homes,” Abbas said. “That was something I found in the poetry community, and now I’m trying to bring it virtually, which is really hard to do.”

Despite how her plans have had to be reworked, Abbas said her goal is to provide a place where people felt accepted and like others were “there for them.”

“It is my job to make sure that we are staying connected and that we are doing as much as we can to help our community in this time,” Abbas said.

A work-in-progress poem titled “Lean on me” by MHS class of 2019 graduate Ahmed Barrow. The poem describes a scenario in which the fictional character Superman is in need of saving instead of Superman saving others.

Many members of the poetry community have been disconnected from important parts of their lives. Ahmed Barrow, freshman at Culver-Stockton College, graduated from MHS in 2019. He was a member of both MHS’ slam poetry team and poetry club and has continued to write poetry in college.

Barrow did not return to college after Culver-Stockton extended their spring break in March due to COVID-19 concerns. While at home in St. Louis, he has used the time to reflect on himself and write.

“I’m supposed to be at school right now doing everything under the sun with track and all these other activities I do,” Barrow said. “I’m more alone now. I’m noticing that I don’t like to be alone. I’m noticing I miss other people. I miss making people laugh. I miss uplifting people, even though I still kind of contact some people. I miss all those great things.”

Barrow participates in many activities that are not safe to do during a pandemic. He said that because of this, he has been trying to consume more written and spoken word poetry. 

“I’m not happy we’re in this situation but I’m glad that, on the bright side of things, this situation has given me more time to do things like poetry,” Barrow said. 

Ray Holmes, language arts teacher, is also using his time at home to write more poetry. He said he has been exploring new ideas and sketching out ideas that have come from journaling.

“I find myself tracking my awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic as I learned more and more of it,” Holmes said. “How it came from the periphery of my attention to the center stage now.”

Holmes is set to release his first poetry chapbook “Lookaftering” in late May. He said that while many writers he knows have been affected by COVID-19, the promotion and release of his book have not been affected.

“As far as I’ve heard, everything is going ahead smoothly, which is unusual considering everything else is changing and held up,” Holmes said.

He worries that if social distancing due to COVID-19 lasts after the release of his book, he will have to find alternatives to promoting his book in person such as posting videos or livestreaming readings of his book.

Holmes said in the long run, this National Poetry Month will be looked back on as a positive time for both creators and consumers of poetry.

“I feel like people having this time on their hands and being able to focus on what’s immediate and what’s important in their lives, I think that will make for some great writing,” Holmes said.