Friday 30 July 2021

Poems from a pandemic: Starting notes on a new (sub)genre?


My trusty webcam: indispensable for Zoom poetry workshops!

Earlier this year, I invited four poets and teachers – Inez Tan and Ann Ang, and Jennifer Wong and Esther Vincent Xueming – to each tell us about an Asian poem they love teaching. As is so often the case with such conversations, I was led to reflect too on some of the poems I’ve enjoyed discussing with students, in recent workshops for younger poets, migrant writers, or communities like ‘Writing the City’, curated by Jon Gresham. In particular, I’ve been thinking about poems that speak to what has surely been the biggest elephant in the (class)room for the past many months: COVID-19.

Since I wrote about why the arts remain essential in a crisis more than a year ago, ruminating on what it means to teach poetry in a pandemic, COVID-19 has reared its head in every classroom I’ve stepped (virtually) into. While some students have brought it up directly (usually with some form of: how do I write about this incomprehensible thing that’s happening right now?), others have based their responses or writing exercises on its many side-effects, from the creative rut of perpetual languishing to the weird social effects produced by safe distancing. Increasingly, I’ve also developed my workshops around ‘pandemic poems’. Not only because they’re so immediately relatable, but also because they capture how our creative conversations (and wider discourses) are responding to what is now, clearly, the most world-changing event of our time.

Before I jump in with some observations, a caveat. As a Singapore-based writer, the vast majority of poems I’ve used in workshops are by poets in Singapore – not for particularly patriotic reasons, but simply because they’ve provided more fertile ground for discussions with my students. That said, I’ve come across some brilliant repositories of COVID-19 poems that draw from much wider geographies, including ‘Write Where We Are Now’ (curated by Carol Ann Duffy at the Manchester Metropolitan University), and the recently-launched ‘Atelier of Healing’ (an online anthology of poems more broadly about trauma and recovery, edited by Desmond Kon and Eric Valles). I hope you find them as powerful and moving as I have.


‘Pandemic Pastoral’: The poetics of lockdown

The poems I’ve been working with fall broadly into three categories, the first of which invokes and reinvents pastoral tropes in the face of movement restrictions. Given the largely urban, locked-down surroundings of these poems, their gestures toward the pastoral carry both irony and longing. Aaron Maniam’s ‘Things To Do In A Pandemic’, for instance, pays homage to a precious, rediscovered world outside (“Walk alone. Hear the lallang sing, the cow / grass muttering, the silence of air newly clean”) while finding a new sense of flourishing in the inner world (where one is, after all, forced to spend the most of one’s time). Nathaniel Chew’s ‘radical days’, conversely, seeks new ways to continue sharing sustenance with others – in this case, the poet’s own carefully-tended plants – that in turn become a metaphor for a communal life waiting patiently to “branch beyond these walls”. Chew’s soft-spoken sonnet draws beautifully on its structure as well: by “lean[ing] into” the form’s strictures, it takes the edge off, and transcends, the constraining rules of meter and rhyme.

‘Words for the Absurd’: Truth stranger than fiction  

A second category of pandemic poems focuses on the distortions of everyday language that, in a time like this, all but accurately reflect the distortions of everyday life we’re all experiencing. One that works particularly well in the Singaporean classroom (if only because of the painful verisimilitude) is Gabriel Sim’s ‘What is HBL if not Misdemeanour Persevering’, written during this year’s Singapore Poetry Writing Month (‘SingPoWriMo’). Beyond the titular references to home-based learning (‘HBL’) and an over-quoted line from WandaVision, my students are quick to point out that (a) the poem derives its absurdity from exaggerating and lifting a teacher’s voice out of context; yet (b) by inviting them to step into their teachers’ shoes – often for the first time – any laughter it evokes is weighted with empathy. A similar example is Clare Proctor’s ‘A Practical Guide to Social Distancing’, which, framed in the bureaucratic language of government advisories, is a mordantly funny commentary on the strain placed on human intimacy: by distance, and also by fear and uncertainty. But are these poems absurd, or are they simply the dreaded ‘new normal’? Their linguistic experiments turn the spotlight on our own unrecognisable lives.

‘Scar City’: Recovering the margins, healing a community

Finally, the third category of poems takes stock of the effects of COVID-19 across the city: how the pandemic has illuminated a society’s rifts, through the starkly different experiences of its members. Both Amanda Chong’s ‘Lamentations’ and Jennifer Anne Champion’s ‘Going Round in Circuits’, written shortly into Singapore’s first lockdown, present sensitive composite portraits of a city in crisis; the latter, in particular, captures the ambivalence and frustration of knowing that “none of it’s over until it’s all over”. By “none of it”, though, the poet refers not only to the immediate effects of COVID-19, but also the “recurring pandemic” of a city’s many inequities – the domestic helper forced to do overtime, the migrant worker “isolated from the country he built”. When teaching this poem, I often ask my students to count the number of times “over” appears, and to list what it connotes each time: shades of meaning that layer onto each other throughout this tender ghazal.

These two poems, however, represent only one perspective of society’s margins: one that views them from a ‘centre’ somewhere else. To re-situate the ‘margins’ as central to the poet’s frame of reference, I introduce my students to Zakir Hossain Khokan’s ‘First Draft’, a profoundly affecting anthem that speaks on behalf of the poet and his fellow migrant workers (“They are afraid of dying. / They know that in this time of gloom, they are just numbers.”), or to MD Sharif’s ‘The World in Four Walls’, published in his new COVID-19 memoir Stranger to My World. “The girth of the earth / is within these four walls”, Sharif’s poem begins, “This is my world now”. We are drawn at once into the cramped space of the dormitory where thousands of workers have been made to spend the better part of the past year – and indeed, forced to acknowledge that it is our world, too.


The pandemic rages on, but already, the poems that have come out of it are starting to define new directions in language and concern. The question of whether they constitute a new genre might best be left to those with the benefit of hindsight, but what is certain is that they are already beginning to reflect in a real and distinctive way how COVID-19 has transformed – and continues to re-shape – our lives and communities. And why should they not? As Ilya Kaminsky reminds us, “poetry is not about an event. It is the event”. These poems are, precisely, part of the new social fabrics and personal reckonings taking place around us, as we write and speak. To be alive to them is to read and listen.

Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry, and has been shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. He is also an editor and researcher with interests in Southeast Asian history and migration/citizenship issues. He serves as Poetry Editor of the Asian Books Blog.