Every year, The Poetry Society welcomes two American interns to our office in London. Yanisa Campusano was just settling in to the Betterton Street life when the lockdown hit. In the midst of global crisis, Yanisa carried on her internship digitally and, fascinated by how poetry has flourished during this pandemic, has written us this brilliant feature from her home in the States.
While cinemas, theatres, arts venues and community centers have been forced to put their work on hold during the pandemic, poetry has been seeing a boom. But why are so many people turning to poetry right now?
For many, reading and writing poetry has always had mental health benefits. In the creative act of writing down how you’re feeling, you can release and organize your swarming thoughts so they aren’t so scary. By focusing on the craft of a poem, you can also begin to process the emotions in the poem, and eventually your feelings won’t hold so much sway over you. This is especially important right now, when so many people are dealing with grief, fear and isolation. In addition, many people now have more time to dedicate to the creative arts than ever before. One writer in the Guardian reports, “As more budding writers self-isolate due to the coronavirus and finally knuckle down on their manuscripts, the publishing industry has already seen a surge in submissions.” Those who wouldn’t normally have time to write are now able to take a bit more time for themselves.
Equally, reading a poem can be a mindful pause in your day. Focusing on poetry can allow our brains to divert from the horrible things we are constantly hearing about. Seeing your own experience represented on the page can be incredibly soothing – it reminds you that you’re not alone in how you feel. Poetry organizations across the world recognize this, and are responding with more innovative ways to read, write and share poems. The American Academy of Poets has launched “Shelter in Poems”, a hashtag for people to share poems that have helped them find courage and solace in difficult times. The Poetry Society of America also created a similar initiative called Reading in the Dark, which asks poets to choose poems that they return to in difficult times that offer a hint of daylight.
People are also inspired more than ever to document their current situation and what’s going on around them, because they feel that we are truly living through a pivotal point in history. This is not a new phenomenon – poets came into their own during World War One (and Two), for instance. Even in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was apparently so much poetry written that one fire chief had to plead: “Thank you for the food and blankets, but please — no more poetry.” (Read more about that here.) It’s no surprise that during this pandemic, poetry is seeing a boom. There’s also the added incentive of publication for those writing about recent events, as some magazines and competitions are specifically encouraging submissions in response to lockdown – the Frost Meadow Review and Tulepo Press to name just a few.
Unlike for many other art forms, the transition of poetry workshops, events, readings and festivals to digital was relatively smooth. After all, it would be difficult to see a play being performed by different actors from their homes during a pandemic, but a poetry reading can work quite well from home. This has meant that poetry-lovers have been able to connect with others and attend events online. Lots of organizations are also offering new online content: for example, Poet’s House is offering one-day or six-week long workshops through online video conferences. The Poetry Society of New York allows people to book a live video call over Zoom with an artist of their choice. And Young Poets Network has been running online workshops for the first time ever.
Going digital has made poetry more accessible during lockdown. It has opened up events to those normally restricted by distance, health conditions, care responsibilities and other challenges – and many online events have the added benefit of being free, or cheaper than a normal poetry event. This means that more people than ever can (and will) engage with poetry.
However, it’s important to remember that going digital excludes some people too, such as those without access to a computer or internet. This is known as ‘digital exclusion’ and many charities are calling for free internet access for all, at least during the pandemic. Many online events are also less accessible for certain disabilities – it’s hard to sign-interpret an Instagram live stream. However, technologies are catching up: YouTube offers automatically generated captions when uploading a video, for example, and with over 28 million American adults who are d/Deaf, captioning videos to ensure that there is accessibility to all types of audiences is crucial. In spite of these exceptions, more people are able to attend digital poetry events, and many are calling for online events to continue even after lockdown ends.
So – why are people turning to poetry now? Because poems are necessary. They can support mental wellbeing; they can help to document what people are feeling during this time of isolation; and they can connect people, no matter where they are in the world.
Yanisa Campusano is an English major at Marist College in the United States, and recently completed an internship with The Poetry Society (mostly from afar). She enjoys reading fiction and fantasy book genres. In her spare time, she likes to spend time with family, try new recipes, and read books. Her favourite poets are Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson.