On the road to earning my master’s degree in poetry I’ve had plenty of good company. I am always encouraged to find hope, inspiration, and catharsis along the way. But recently I’ve gotten to know a most unwelcome traveling companion: doubt.
As the coronavirus pandemic has grown in scope and as the weeks have given way to months of sheltering-in-place, I’ve often wondered if there is any point to writing at all. Furthermore, I’ve spent many hours fretting about what school will look like when I graduate this fall with an MFA from the University of San Francisco.
At times like these poetry can seem so fleeting and unimportant.
Fortunately I have a coping mechanism. My personal salve comes in the form of a quotation by G.K. Chesterton: “At certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.” That quote that has bolstered my belief in the necessity and vitality of poetry — even in this era, when most things seem terrifyingly impermanent.
When word first came down in a March 14 email from USF President Paul J. Fitzgerald S.J. that all classes would move online as part of the university’s social distancing measures, I didn’t realize that it might be months before I saw my friends and classmates again. Prior to the schoolwide suspension of in-person classes, one of my poetry workshops had already been cancelled because my professor was sick. Still, I thought we’d all come back the next week; it just seemed like a bump in the road, everyone gets sick and sometimes things happen and we have to readjust. Nothing to worry about. Right?
Before the university’s announcement, and before I was laid off — via text message the day before my next shift — I had begun worrying about my job security. I had been working at a high-end boutique for home decor in Presidio Heights. The store is small, with one person working at a time (two if we were busy). I initially presumed that I would keep my position for the duration of the quarantine. Our clientele skews wealthy, and all have the means to place online orders. Prior to the pandemic, I spent much of my time packing and shipping items. I saw no reason why I shouldn’t continue. Getting laid off came as an unexpected and unwelcome surprise.
In early March, I began receiving regular emails from school about COVID-19, and the University’s response to it. But it wasn’t until that March 14 email that I had any sense that the virus was more than something happening elsewhere. Previously, the coronavirus has existed in my mind as an abstraction. Suddenly it was very real, creeping in at the edges of my life, and showing no signs that it planned to leave anytime soon.
I remember scrolling through my digital calendar and renaming all of my remaining workshops: “Poetry Workshop, Zoom (Virtual) Classroom.” It seemed so strange to me. I did the same thing for my Nonfiction Seminar class, which meets on Thursday nights. Sadness began to bubble up inside my chest, spilling over into my limbs. As the feeling washed over me, it left a sluggish lethargy in its wake.
The disappointment of my new digital-only world hit me in stages. Poetry is an art that informs the body, actively engaging both the poet and the audience. Teaching myself how to use Zoom — figuring out how to activate both the microphone and video functions — proved to be more frustrating than I had anticipated. Upon entering my first “classroom,” I discovered a feeling of detachment. Sure, I could “see” my classmates and professors, but it is a far cry from being in the same space and breathing the same air. My dismay was further compounded when I realized I wouldn’t be able to attend any of the live poetry readings I love so much.
As upsetting as it has been to watch this virus take away my job, and my ability to socialize, learn, and share the beauty of poetry in-person, I am determined not to let it break my spirit. I’ve found myself turning to the words of another author for strength and motivation. In her 2015 essay “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” the late Toni Morrison reminds us that times like these are “precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
In the midst of this pandemic I have been seeing a significant uptick in poetry readership. From calls on social media for poets to share their work to conference call open mics, it is heartening to be a part of an art form that has stood the test of time. Even though the tradition of sharing poetry face-to-face is on pause for now, I know that I will be okay. Poetry will be okay.
Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read an essay from a former bartender, San Francisco musician Chuck Prophet, and a man sheltering-in-place with his new girlfriend.