Since those early lockdown days, people have been writing about their experiences of the pandemic. And now, nearly three years since the lockdowns began, books are still being written and being published on COVID. Like other significant catastrophic events (think wars, 9/11, Brexit), this new genre of writing could continue for some time.
Poetry enjoyed a resurgence in public interest during the pandemic. As a literary form, it is easy to share and can capture emotion in widely relatable and comprehensible ways.
During the lockdown months, reading and sharing of poetry increased. For example, King’s College London ran a “#poemsfromlockdown” initiative that saw contributors record themselves reading a favourite poem and then share it via Twitter.
The website Poetry Generation posted videos of poetry being read by elderly people who were feeling isolated. Many established poets published lockdown poems offering their own perspective on the power of poetry to make sense of the catastrophe. Slowly but surely whole collections inspired by the pandemic began to appear.
On COVID Poetry
Over the last year, I have been researching the language of what I have termed “COVID poetry” (collections of poetry written during or directly influenced by the pandemic) and the ways that readers respond to these poems.
An example of The Poetry Generation’s COVID project.
Although poets’ experiences of the pandemic and lockdowns vary, there are some shared characteristics. Often the collections will draw attention to the pandemic in immediate and explicit ways. For example, George Sandifer-Smith’s Empty Trains (2022) draws attention to reduced commuter travel and Kate Fox’s The Oscillations (2021) has “After” and “Before” sections relating to life post- and pre-lockdown.
Many of the collections reflect public concerns about social distancing – isolation, fear and uncertainty about the future. But many other collections, and the poems within them, cover more personal concerns. Jamie Hale’s Shield (2021), for example, is a powerful set of 21 unpunctuated sonnets about living through the pandemic as an immunocompromised person.
Reading COVID poetry
The poet Claire Shaw argues that during the pandemic:
We discovered we needed poetry more than ever before – its ability to console and connect, to express sorrow, to find beauty, to create meaning.
As part of my own research, I have begun to look at how readers—a few years on from the onset of the pandemic—talk about COVID poetry to make sense of both their own pandemic experiences and those they read about.
Research participants often used COVID poems as a springboard for exploring their memories.
In a recent paper, which reports on participants’ responses to The New Shape of Fear from poet Michele Witthaus’s collection From a Sheltered Place (2020), I found that readers reported being drawn into the world of the poem and aligning its events and experiences with those of their own.
They often used the poem as a springboard for exploring their memories of similar events and aligned themselves with the viewpoint in the poem, showing empathy with the situation being described.
They were able to move away from the specifics of the poem to reflect on, for example, how people might feel about social distancing and mask-wearing at the time of reading, even when it was no longer compulsory to do so.
So what might the future hold? It may be that there is a space for COVID poetry to play an important role in education in order to help people come to terms with their pandemic experiences and encourage empathy.
Poetry is capable of conveying the emotional experience of living through the pandemic in powerful ways that resonate with readers. It’s likely that we will continue to turn to poets to help us understand the strange events of the COVID pandemic for years to come.
Movements like #MeToo have drawn increased attention to the systemic discrimination facing women in a range of professional fields, from Hollywood and journalism to banking and government. Discrimination is also a problem on user-driven websites like Wikipedia.
Wikipedia was founded on Jan. 15, 2001, and today it is the thirteenth most popular website worldwide. In December 2020, the online encyclopedia had over 22 billion page views. The volume of traffic on Wikipedia’s site–coupled with its integration into search results and digital assistants like Alexa and Siri – makes Wikipedia the predominant source of information on the web. YouTube even started including Wikipedia links below videos on highly contested topics. But studies show that Wikipedia underrepresents content on women.
We are a historian and librarian at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and we’re taking steps to empower our students and our global community to address issues of gender bias on Wikipedia.
What’s more, Wikipedia’s policies state that all content must be “attributable to a reliable, published source.” Since women throughout history have been less represented in published literature than men, it can be challenging to find reliable published sources on women.
An obituary in a paper of record is often a criterion for inclusion as a biographical entry in Wikipedia. So it should be no surprise that women are underrepresented as subjects in this vast online encyclopedia. As The New York Times itself noted, its obituaries since 1851 “have been dominated by white men” – an oversight the paper now hopes to address through its “Overlooked” series.
Categorization can also be an issue. In 2013, a New York Times op-ed revealed that some editors had moved women’s entries from gender-neutral categories (e.g., “American novelists”) to gender-focused subcategories (e.g., “American women novelists”).
Gender bias is also an ongoing issue in content development and search algorithms. Google Translate has been shown to overuse masculine pronouns and, for a time, LinkedIn recommended men’s names in search results when users searched for a woman.
What can we do?
The solution to systemic biases that plague the web remains unclear. But libraries, museums, individual editors, and the Wikimedia Foundation itself continue to make efforts to improve gender representation on sites such as Wikipedia. Teachers and professors can also contribute.
Organized edit-a-thons can create a community around editing and developing underrepresented content. Edit-a-thons aim to increase the number of active female editors on Wikipedia, while empowering participants to edit entries on women during the event and into the future.
Our university library at the Rochester Institute of Technology hosts an annual Women on Wikipedia Edit-a-thon in celebration of Women’s History Month. The goal is to improve the content on at least 100 women in one afternoon. For the past six years, students in our school’s American Women’s and Gender History course have worked to create new or substantially edit existing Wikipedia entries about women. One student created an entry on deaf-blind pioneer Geraldine Lawhorn, while another added roughly 1,500 words to jazz artist Blanche Calloway’s entry. This class was supported by the Wikimedia Education Program, which encourages educators and students to contribute to Wikipedia in academic settings.
Wikipedia’s dependence on volunteer editors has resulted in several systemic issues, but it also offers an opportunity for self-correction. Organized efforts help to give voice to women previously ignored by other resources.
After the spot-on workshop, Elizabeth Acevedo graced the ballroom keynote stage. The voluminous curls on this gracious Dominicana can be seen a bodega away (in NYC, we have them on every block or two, right?). I carried de lo mío’s book The Poet X in my bookbag for the last couple of weeks. I am both exhilarated and infuriated that this young adult novel with a core identity of a poetry anthology exists.
The poet in me, who once read at the now defunct Cornelia Street Cafe and still yearns to do so at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, dedicated what little free time I have to this decorated, venerated tome.
Near the apex of her speech, she speaks about her insecurities and how she came to the conclusion that she would write for her very specific audience. The shift from “trying to write for everyone” to “putting the onus on audiences to move to her” is underrated. She’s literally putting the onus on the literary world. Its inhabitants would either embrace her writing and the people who would hold it in the light or leave her alone.
In a room full of white people, many of whom influence the bookshelves for major publishers and partnering districts, this was the ascension of a queen telling the court that the food she decides to serve will be the main course. She wrested this power from the gatekeepers much to their amazement. For Julia, Dulce-Marie Flecha, and I, it’s also the story of our survival in predominantly white spaces.
Then, she prophesied, “It didn’t matter how many stickers were on my book because, no matter how many awards and accolades I got if I didn’t believe that I was a writer.”
That jabs so many of our sides, too. I have the uncanny ability to believe exponentially in other people’s power even&mdashespecially—when I don’t believe in myself. I remember asking Luz (my wife) to write me a piece as part of a series on my blog. She had ideas swimming in her mind, but didn’t think of herself as a writer and kept pointing at me. I said, “Well, OK, but I believe you can bring a much-needed perspective for some educators.” When we published it, the piece was one of the more popular pieces on this site ever. She’s a writer. We both knew it, but eliciting it from others is a far easier venture. Because of the way writing works, much of what we know about the ethos of writing is baked in greatness, and our seeming ineptitude to reach the mystical apex.
Maybe we’re afraid that, once published, the piece won’t become an instant hit or people may disagree with the entire idea of us writing. Maybe we’re afraid that the piece will receive hateful and inauthentic commentary about our work. Sometimes we’re afraid that, if people love our work, we’ll drastically exceed our own expectations.
Insecurities are tricky. As fate would have it, I mingled with some of my favorite writers on the planet as well on the same Saturday. A few years ago, the idea that I could even share space with this set of luminaries tightened my chest. Now, after a best-selling education book, over a thousand blog posts, thousands of followers on any number of platforms, dozens of speaking engagements at some of the largest conferences in America, and a website that until very recently was blocked from some of the largest school districts in the nation, I still have a hard time using “writer” as an identifier. Writing is reserved for people with strong first drafts and national acclaim from influential circles.
Yes, I live in Harlem. I could aspire to the greats. I, a reader, have been exposed to them profoundly. I, like so many of us, refrain from calling myself a “writer” because of great writing. Perhaps.
For years, I’ve also had the fortune of playing editor for a few education writers and speakers, each time reading for voice and approach. Grammar is fine, but I prefer big ideas and stories told differently and thoroughly. I don’t shape others’ words so they look like mine. I give comments in hopes of eliciting more of what’s already there. I offer this as part of my mentorship suite to those willing to take the leap of vulnerability in this education work.
My favorite writing happens when the margins throw pinchos at the hot-air balloon that is the zeitgeist. This piece approaches a conclusion with us watching Acevedo wax poetic about believing in herself as a writer. It continues with me telling my other fellow Dominicana that, despite her best objections, she communicates new ideas that pulls people into a new understanding about her and us, too. She doesn’t have to aspire to Acevedo, Reynolds, Gay, Coates, or any number of contemporary flame throwers.
She got this; she totally does.
Imitation sounds sincere but our biggest competition looks back at us in the mirror. I tell Flecha she’s a writer. My own writing threatens to call me out.
Every December, the days shorten and even the sunlight seems to dim. But that’s all the more reason to respond with the bright light of creativity. That’s why this holiday season, we at the 826 Network are highlighting some of our free writing resources from 826 Digital that support a “Culture of Creativity” — one of our 826 National core tenets. Each of these lessons invites students to try new ideas and experiment with their writing in meaningful ways, whether in the writing classroom or at home over winter break.
826 Digital lessons are designed to reach and engage every student, from aspiring authors to those still finding their path. If you are looking for ways to spark creativity with your students this holiday season, we invite you to start by exploring these resources:
For Character Development:
Meet Your Protagonist! | Lesson | Grades 7-9 Students will learn how to develop well-rounded characters that readers really care about.
Me…a Villain? | Lesson | Grades 1-5 Students will learn how to create a compelling backstory for the character and write short stories from the villain’s point of view.
Setting-O-Matic| Spark | Grades 4-7 Students learn to incorporate setting as a key element of a story, starting with inspiration from collages.
Details, Character, and Setting| Lesson | Grades 7-9 Students will learn to draw details from real life to create unforgettable characters and compelling stories.
Like a campfire, creativity requires attentiveness; a commitment to tending the embers of your inspirations, joys, and curiosities. When students write with 826 Digital, they tap into their creative flame, and fully embrace the power, brilliance, and joy within themselves. And with each new word, their voices transcend the page to bring us stories that paint a portrait of the world as they see it and of the world as they hope it to be.
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