while in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty—and that,
my love, is what sustained us.
—from “Transit” by Rita Dove
IT IS hard to pinpoint time. The nadir of the pandemic seems to keep descending lower and lower with new outbreaks and mutated strains of the coronavirus across the globe. I’m trying to trace the beginning. Maybe it starts with March for me. I remember barely being able to move off the couch in the spring of last year. My classes were being switched to Zoom. My court date for my divorce was being pushed back, also due to COVID-19. Back then none of us knew how long this pandemic would last or what it meant for our jobs, friendships, or families. I felt ornery from the chatter on social media. I saw a post that referenced Shakespeare writing King Lear during the bubonic plague—the idea that the pandemic was a dark gift to get your great, masterful projects done. I, however, was exhausted and needed the respite.
My lecture and reading dates were being canceled or postponed till a fuzzy, future fall. E-mails were full of question marks. I lamented the money lost, but with each event disappearing from my calendar, I was relieved. I felt an unfamiliar loosening in my chest, a sense of ease. I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to produce anything. I was mainlining the news, scrolling social media like a slot-machine junkie. I needed to be numb for a moment, consumed.
I knew the effects of burnout, or at least being on the brink of it, from before, when my first full-length collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, came out in the fall of 2018. I was starting to teach full-time as a professor and was traveling practically every weekend to a different university. I enjoyed meeting poets and sharing my poems with new readers. I was also battling daily migraines, dehydration, and even stomach ulcers (which I didn’t recognize at the time, until I ended up in the ER). I remember leading a poetry workshop in South Carolina during which I gave a prompt and then ran to the bathroom, gave another prompt and then ran back to the bathroom. Why didn’t anybody stop me? Why didn’t I stop myself and say I was hurting? My body was breaking down and bleeding, shouting for me to stop, but I wasn’t listening. All I knew was that I had to keep going. I thought I couldn’t afford to stop. Or that I didn’t know how to stop. Or, more terrifying, that I was afraid of stasis.
But the pandemic has made us all stand still and face our own brand of bullshit. I was forced to slow down and evaluate my constant need for validation and approval; the fact that I didn’t know how to love myself properly. I started bucking against the notion that my self-worth was tied to my productivity and value in the marketplace. I told myself it was okay to do nothing. Editors were reaching out for hot takes, but I didn’t have anything new to say in the shock of the moment as it was unfolding before us. Then the brutal murder of George Floyd happened. I still haven’t watched the video. Afterward it felt like there was this pressure to solicit Black pain from Black writers. I even got questions during virtual readings from moderators or attendees trying to bloodlet my trauma (I still get the same questions now).
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Girmay Edits BOA Selections
In October 2020, BOA Editions, an indie press located in Rochester, New York, named poet Aracelis Girmay the first editor-at-large of its Blessing the Boats Selections, a line of poetry books written by women of color.
What We Ought to Do: THE SONG OF IMBOLO MBUE
In her second novel, How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue uses the chorus of voices in a small African village fighting for justice in the shadow of an American oil company to sing in celebration of community, connection, and enduring hope.
Pandemic Pen Pals
Nupur Chaudhury, a public health strategist living in New York City, grew up in the nineties sending letters through the mail. She received weekly aerograms from relatives in India; she corresponded with a pen pal in Texas; her father even took her to admire the post office’s new stamps every month. But as she grew older, Chaudhury says, “E-mail became more popular, and I really put that writing part of me to the side”—that is, until she came across the pen pal exchange Penpalooza on Twitter in August 2020.
Neither muscle nor mouth
Neither muscle nor mouth / devoted to one way of speaking. Every language // I borrow from somewhere else,” writes Threa Almontaser in The Wild Fox of Yemen (Graywolf Press, April 2021), winner of the Walt Whitman Award. In her debut Almontaser summons the language of her ancestors and family members, poets both contemporary and historical, experimental rock bands and rappers, and many more, to fashion an idiom that is both rebellious and reverent. Dedicated to the people of Yemen, the book offers a portrait of a country and its history and future. “Yemen has such an ancient and rich history, but with its current collapse, search engines show only the sad photos of starving kids,” says Almontaser. “I wanted to portray not only the war, but the beauty of Arabia Felix, of what it could still return to being.”
PANDEMIC WRITING GROUP
Finding Creativity, Community, and Play
New Ways of Surviving
WRITING THROUGH A GLOBAL PANDEMIC
Revising the Dream
PUBLISHING A DEBUT NOVEL IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD
Writers Confront Climate Crisis
Author and activist Toni Cade Bambara has said the role of the artist is “to make revolution irresistible.” So when Jenny Offill, author of the novels Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, 2014) and Weather (Knopf, 2020), heard about the work of Writers Rebel—the writers’ arm of Extinction Rebellion, an international activist group that works against climate change—she felt compelled to get involved.
A Room of (Almost) My Own
FINDING SPACE, AND PERMISSION, TO WRITE
In her third book, the essay collection girlhood, published by Bloomsbury in March, Melissa Febos transforms scars into meditations on culture and psychology.