How Do Poets Write Through Times of Crisis? Two approaches to writing poetry during uncertain times

When Heather O’Neill writes that “artists are notorious for creating their art under the most perilous and inopportune circumstances,” I want so desperately to believe it. In an essay for Maclean’s, she states: “They create in poverty, under repressive regimes, in prison, in the margins, after long late night shifts at a diner.” History proves this to be true. There are countless examples through time of artists responding to hardship with their artwork.Photo credit Matthew Narea


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 But history also proves the opposite to be true as well. For every artist that creates under these conditions, there are others that are stifled. With the ever-evolving situation of COVID-19, the gig economy that sustains many artists today has run dry. There are far fewer paid readings and workshop opportunities in an already competitive market. Many artists are now in survival mode, and may have less time to devote to creative work.More urgent priorities and lack of time aren’t the only circumstances that might prevent artists from creating new work. The way our society presently functions is deeply rooted in capitalism, and productivity is flaunted across social media. Our feeds are suddenly flooded with folks learning to bake bread or writing a novel. Influencers across platforms post quasi-inspirational messages about seizing this time to better yourself. There is something particularly unsettling to me about the idea of being hyperproductive at a time when the most vulnerable are at a higher risk.As Maija Kappler writes in her article for HuffPost, “For some people, just getting through the day in sweatpants, with dirty hair and lapsed responsibilities, is enough to deal with. For some people, not having a total breakdown is the biggest accomplishment possible.” Similarly, Evan Cabnet, an artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater in New York, tweeted, “Every single day, I speak with a different playwright (or screenwriter, or novelist) who confesses they haven’t been able to concentrate and they aren’t getting anything done.”April is National Poetry Month. For many of us across North America, it also marks one month of physical distancing. There’s no one way to react to an emergent crisis. And while I am a jittery, bundled mess, I do think about those who write not because now is the time to be productive, but because they feel compelled to. I am thinking about those poets who are driven to their pens to process their own experiences, who write to bring our gaze as readers towards that which is overlooked.Writing in response has an established history intertwined with activism. Poetry has long been integrated in protests, and can rally a crowd, provide morale, and expose and question ongoing injustices. A key feature of many of these works is that they are timely and because of this, it’s crucial to get them out as quickly as possible. 

“When I consider reasons why one might be compelled to write during this pandemic, I return to this idea of protest and uprising—that we might write in response to the systems which allowed the pandemic to occur and the inequalities that are being exacerbated in its wake.”

Anyone who has submitted work to a literary journal knows how long it can take to process. While poets may be producing work actively in response to events, the editorial process means that this work may be published up to a year later, if accepted at all. Protests, rallies, and other community stages have historically provided a quicker way for sharing this timely work immediately. When I consider reasons why one might be compelled to write during this pandemic, I return to this idea of protest and uprising—that we might write in response to the systems which allowed the pandemic to occur and the inequalities that are being exacerbated in its wake.Protest is where writer, editor, and organizer Kathryn Mockler’s latest project found its roots. On a warm day last September, poets, musicians, spoken word artists and more gathered at Simcoe Park in Toronto. She had organized this showcase for Extinction Rebellion as part of a climate crisis protest. As a way of archiving the performances, she recorded each of them and created a website where they are hosted today. This formed the backbone for Watch Your Head, an online anthology devoted to climate justice and the climate crisis.In the months leading up to the event, Kathryn Mockler was dismayed by the lack of attention surrounding the climate crisis by both the media and the government. “When this idea had been conceived there just wasn’t enough action or serious attention paid to this issue,” she states. “Justin Trudeau declaring a climate emergency and then purchasing a pipeline is just one example of how politicians haven’t taken the scientific warnings seriously.”By organizing a reading at a protest, she was intentionally creating space to raise awareness around this issue. What results is work that confronts the audience with urgency. In these poems, Sâkihitowin Awâsis highlights the Indigenous re-occupation of Wet’suwet’en land: “Unist’ot’en bimaadiziwin/ resistance is a way of living”; Rasiqra Revulva describes a world where in five months, “both flesh and love were gone”; and Catherine Graham doesn’t ask, but states plainly: “what species isn’t at risk.” While many poetry events in Toronto are attended by specific poetry communities, usually those interested in poetry or poets themselves, Kathryn Mockler said that this event was mostly attended by activists, not poets. It garnered attention from those passing by and had a small audience that congregated. 

“First, we will tell them of our dominion

We will tell them of the web peeling back

in the heavens, the sun’s maw radiating”

     — We Will Tell Them of Our Dominion, Terese Mason Pierre 

         (Watch Your Head, 2019)

 While the initial launch of the project was intense, Kathryn Mockler says that they’re approaching their social media audience with care and sensitivity during the pandemic: “We want to connect and inspire, not alienate.”Watch Your Head is filled with work that emerged because it had to. Every aspect of the project from the reading to the online anthology to the upcoming print anthology are all motivated by activism and climate crisis protest. It’s an example of the kind of work that could emerge during the COVID-19 pandemic.No event exists as a standalone entity. This is true for the pandemic which exacerbates ongoing issues. In his 2012 NY Times, Jim Robbins explored the intersection of nature and emergent diseases: “a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics—AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades—don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.”The physical distancing measures as a result of the pandemic also exacerbated the ongoing violence towards Indigenous communities. The government of British Columbia has implemented physical distancing that instructs people to avoid crowds of 50 or more, which includes the Unist’ot’en Camp. However, construction on the Coastal GasLink Pipeline continues. In an open letter, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs called for the construction to stop to protect their communities from the spread of COVID-19: “the risks posed by continued work on the Coastal GasLink project are ones that were not consented to, and ones that leaders and officials raised warnings about in advance of the project’s approval.”For poets compelled to write during this time, there is no shortage of topics to tackle. Much like the work in Watch Your Head, poetry can be used to confront what may be missed or suppressed.The speed of social media can inadvertently make poets feel as though they need to respond immediately. Every day, we are bombarded with new information, whether it’s the latest series to binge on Netflix or international news. And as mentioned before, there is a new trend of influencers across these platforms preaching productivity.While those active on social media receive this information quickly, poet and educator Britta B doesn’t think we should force ourselves to write in response if it doesn’t feel natural. “I can’t necessarily write about a topic as it’s happening,” says Britta B. “I need to have some distance and time from it, like looking back on it because it gives me a little bit more clarity.” However, she doesn’t discount the benefits of writing during any crisis. Although she can write what she’s personally going through to cope during the pandemic, she doesn’t feel comfortable with sharing that private and emotional work. Instead, she says that she sometimes takes up to a year to produce a piece in response to an event to reflect. Britta B believes that slam poetry is an ideal stage for works that respond to current events. This can be a double-edged sword though, and she notes that this can become challenging for new artists or young artists in this community, who feel that they have to write to get a reaction. She doesn’t want artists to stop thinking about art taking time: “It’s just as good or even more satisfying when something you planted seeds for the year before blooms.”She doesn’t seek to have the best poem by scores or any other measure, but instead asks of her own practice, “What is a timely response to a timeless piece of work? What if your work could withstand the test of time? I think that’s more to me that has more valuable, more value and more weight.”

“Whether poets create pieces now or make it retrospectively a year later, it still holds the potential to gather an audience, and to work through a shared experience together.”

Regardless of whether she is presenting in the spoken word or page poetry scenes, she notes that she loves interaction. Britta B also reinforces that response isn’t always something that is easily seen or heard. “People like myself are processing things without immediately reacting to them,” she says, “but it’s still impactful.” Much like way protest brings groups of people together, Britta B sees these spaces as opportunities to gather for community interaction and community care. Whether poets create pieces now or make it retrospectively a year later, it still holds the potential to gather an audience, and to work through a shared experience together.“Poetry and art are, I would argue, essential for activism,” states Kathryn Mockler. “Art provides a place to grieve, heal, come together, reenvision, challenge, resist, and act.”She also notes that Watch Your Head is not a literary venture, “but a form of activism where writers and artists are coming together to speak out and draw attention to the climate emergency and the necessity of pressuring governments to act.” To date, the project continues to be completely volunteer driven by both editors and contributors, and Coach House will be donating proceeds from the print anthology to Coast Protectors and Fridays for Future Canada.Britta B echoes these sentiments, stating that poetry is an effective tool to share a message. “It’s what archives, it’s what records,” she states. “It holds the memory.”She also recognizes its impact on young people and how it can shape their awareness of themselves and others. “I think that that is a method of activism,” she says. She points to poetry as a catalyst for drawing closer to each other “in terms of connection and empathy and having compassion for all life.”Poetry won’t save us from a pandemic. But when I think of art that is created, as Heather O’Neill puts it, “under the most perilous and inopportune circumstances,” it is woven with urgency. It’s work that’s desperately brilliant, work that yearns to connect us to one another. Poems that may act as a balm in tempestuous times, that can bring comfort for a few fleeting moments.But most of all, I think of this poetry as that which keeps us accountable. Verse as memory-keeper, these lines as a living archive. 

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Natasha Ramoutar is an Indo-Guyanese writer by way of Scarborough (Ganatsekwyagon) at the east side of Toronto. Her work has been included in projects by Diaspora Dialogues, Scarborough Arts, and Nuit Blanche Toronto and has been published in The Unpublished City II, PRISM Magazine, Room Magazine, THIS Magazine and more. She is the Fiction Editor of FEEL WAYS, an anthology of Scarborough writing, and the Social Media Assistant at the Festival of Literary Diversity. Her first book of poetry Bittersweet will be published in 2020 by Mawenzi House.