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).
Instead I decided to respond with Black joy and pleasure. I read poems about sex and longing and desire. There is enough written about Black suffering (and also never enough). But as much as white people hear about Black pain, I think it’s more important that white people investigate and revel in Black delight, Black romance, Black blessings, Black science fiction, Black magic, and beyond, in equal or greater measure. Please don’t confuse this response for complacency. If you are familiar with my work, then you know I’ve been doing “the work” from the jump. I’ve written and grieved the Black body (and my own Black body) through elegy and political imagery ad nauseam. But, “The trouble with elegy / is that it asks the dead / to live…” writes Cameron Awkward-Rich, “it calls them back. / & who am I to say rise?”
The blood and bruises from history or current events will always be present in my poems, implicitly and/or explicitly. But I question the impulse of real-time instant replay and reenacting my pain (that I, too, am still trying to process) through poetry. A weird self-flagellation often happens during a Q&A session with Black writers, during which well-meaning white audience members want us to “hurt” them back by reinjuring ourselves, especially by divulging our innermost chambers of grief and anger about the Black public death du jour. It creates a weird environment of absolution, reifying Black writers as social justice priests doling out woke atonement for white guilt. What happened in May 2020 in Minneapolis was tragic full stop, but it was also nothing novel. It was Black synecdoche: another Black story with a different Black neck. Another Black man crying for his mama under the boot of police brutality. The only thing that was different about this egregious, racist act was that white people had the time and space to stop for eight minutes and forty-six seconds to watch a viral video and the social capital to evaluate themselves and their responses amid a global pandemic.
Toi Derricotte wrote a poem last summer, shared by Poem-a-Day on July 3, 2020, titled “Why I don’t write about George Floyd.” She writes:
Because there is too much to say
Because I have nothing to say
Because I don’t know what to say
Because everything has been said
Because it hurts too much to say
The anaphora of Because is a resonant hammer, which builds as it breaks and is all too familiar to me as a Black writer. I often wrestle with the dueling parallelism of having “nothing to say” and fighting the notion that “everything has been said.” Is there anything new to say about Black pain, or am I just retreading the haunted houses of history that everyone has cycled through? Who am I trying to startle still? Myself? The reader? Yes, of course, there is always more to say and that should be said about Black death, but the brilliant and devasting notion in Derricotte’s poem starts with the framework from the title, which begins with psychic negation: I don’t want to. There is a heavy tiredness in the poem that feels pervasive, specifically to this moment in our collective history and global consciousness. Without saying it explicitly, the speaker in this poem says it all: Nothing. I don’t know. Everything. It hurts too much. That’s all there is to say sometimes in response to constant terror and threat.
Often, as a teacher, I fight for my students to be as specific as possible in their work, but sometimes vagueness about violence—and more specifically grief—is more accurate and precise than personal exactness in poetry.
What does it mean to constantly have to respond creatively to breaking news? And, even if you have to because you need the money, and even if you want to respond with your art, is that always healthy? Sure, some poems strike through our cells like lightning, coalescing and coming out almost fully formed. And when that happens—what a pure gift. But more often than not, they trickle. They drip. There is some grit and tenacity involved in smoothing out the rawness or making it wilder in its rawness. Either way, there is work. We worry over lines like rosary beads. We edit. We call a friend and read the end aloud to see how it lands in their ear. We start over. We recycle a line from that other poem that didn’t work. Adrienne Rich wrote, “Poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.” All I am saying is that sometimes it takes precious time to cultivate and process that knowing not-knowingness inside a piece of writing. All I am really trying to say is that I didn’t want to write another poem that hurt me and then perform that slave play for virtual white audiences to feel better about their ignorance, which to me would feel like a BDSM exchange that I was not complicit to. I don’t know—like I said earlier I’m still processing all of this—I’m still working on being more gracious to white people and to the half-white woman who lives inside me. I’m still letting love work its way through and soften me—I’m trying.
There is another approach. Gabrielle Calvocoressi recently published a poem titled “Jessye Norman Cistern Time to Dress for Fall” in Oxford American. The poem is dedicated to the late, great Randall Kenan, who passed away last year. Calvocoressi writes:
This is where I’m supposed to acknowledge
the pandemic. And how long it’s been
since I’ve ridden the bus. Two friends
have died in the last three weeks and neither
one from COVID. What a stupid sounding
word to cram into a poem.
Here, Calvocoressi breaks the fourth wall in the poem and addresses the pressure to talk about the coronavirus by making it an obligation for what should and shouldn’t be in a poem, an almost anti–ars poetica. What’s fascinating to me is that the speaker addresses it obliquely, matter-of-factly, and then calls out the lexicon of the zeitgeist for its senselessness. I’ve been thinking about these poems by Derricotte and Calvocoressi nonstop in terms of what it means to be a writer in this maddening milieu. To hold space by saying nothing through repetition or by recognizing the absurdity of our circumstances. It seems to me that each writer has to find their own entry point into the “widening gyre,” as Yeats called it in his apropos apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming.”
In the latter half of last year, I seemed to come back online after a much-needed hibernation. I got up off the couch and started a new morning routine I called M.M.M., where I meditated, wrote morning pages à la Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and did some kind of movement each day, mostly walking the 2.7 miles around the greenway near my house every morning. I was trying to feed on beauty in the midst of fear. What was happening around the world was beyond heartbreaking: millions dying and all of us stuck at home reeling and spinning out, especially during the onslaught of the 2020 presidential election.
I tried new ways of surviving: I turned off the news. I started baking pies from scratch. I finished my next collection of poems. Not because I felt like I had to, but because it finally felt good to work on my book again. Writing new poems was difficult, but editing macro-level concerns seemed manageable. I started feeling grateful for being able to teach from home. I wanted to show up to my Zoom classes with good energy. I would start each class with a poem and bright salutations.
In some ways being online has made me a better professor. I can privately chat with students who have social anxiety, who don’t feel comfortable sharing aloud in class. Attending school online has also made some students bolder. Each June and July, I teach a graduate poetry workshop for the Sewanee School of Letters. I was worried about how we would still hold space for an intimate experience. However, the six-week course bonded us in surprising ways. We started each class by sharing a delight. We laughed and wept together. We read and discussed books by Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Siken, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maggie Nelson, and Mary Ruefle. We relied on workshopping poems with care as a way to make it through the thickness of uncertainty during a pandemic summer. My students later said that they were more honest in their work because they felt a sense of safety from being at home with some distance; they were able to access the pain with prosody and excavate the essential truths because videoconferencing offered the metaphorical curtain of the confessional booth.
After declining at the start of the pandemic, I began saying yes to online readings and visualized them going well. I asked for the duende to thunder down and felt vibrant energy being transferred through the digital conduit of glowing Zoom boxes and other video communication platforms. It was affirming and fascinating to cheer on writers with the chat feature. I did a reading in December 2020 for Women Speak, a new monthly reading series curated and geared toward creating a stage for BIPOC women–identifying writers. We all gassed up one another in the chat throughout the event. Patricia Smith, the poetry queen, showed up showering us with praise. A sixteen-year-old poet named Gaia Rajan slayed us all. The chat saw a river of exclamation points at her brilliance. That visual representation of love during a time of terror is a gift I am choosing to hold on to tightly. Even though I miss hearing the auditory mmmms and awwws from a live audience, there was something still palpable and enlivening in this new format. We still find ways to support one another in the darkness.
Kunitz writes, “A curious gladness shook me.”
Kenyon writes, “to know that you were not abandoned, / that happiness saved its most extreme form / for you alone.”
Yes, it gets lonely living by myself in such an isolating time, but the solitude is shaping something beautiful in me that I can’t name just yet. Whatever it is feels grand and expansive even as I grieve the dead daily. I’ve grown closer to my friends through lots of phone calls, FaceTime, and Marco Polos. I’ve grown closer to loving myself, which is the sustenance I want to write through and from and for, forever.
Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry collection I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. The winner of the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University, Clark is the recipient of a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a 2019 Pushcart Prize, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from the New Yorker, Poetry, the Washington Post, the Kenyon Review, BuzzFeed, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.