By: Jessica Michael Bowman
While I’ve been sheltering in place throughout the month of April, I’ve also been sheltering in poems. Not in the way that I might muse to myself about finally getting around to my TBR stack, leisurely thumbing through pages and filling gaps of time in between one moment and the next. It’s more like I’ve been clinging to them, the way one might cling to a life raft while pitched in choppy waters, or the railing when turning the corner of a dimly lit staircase.
Like a refuge, I keep searching for poetry in the moments when all of the uncertainty and fear mount a unified attack – creeping up slowly, and then overtaking me all at once.
I can’t offer you any groundbreaking tips for “remote teaching,” and I don’t have any sage advice for maintaining your “work /life balance” in the midst of a pandemic (cringe). What I can share with you is poetry. All of the hope and comfort it has brought me, and how it has kept me connected to my sense of self, my home, and others when I am more distant from them than I’ve ever been.
In “How to Read a Poem,” Edward Hirsch refers to the reading of poetry as reading for “soul culture – the culture of the soul.” I’ve decided that’s why I read poetry, too. He goes on to say “Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of intimate immensity.” Maybe that’s why, in the midst of social distancing, I can feel so connected to the poets who have shared their inner worlds with me, and those I share their poetry with as well.
Those like a cohort of colleagues. We’ve voluntarily continued our PLC work, but not by solely focusing on sharing teaching strategies, discussing learning plan policies, and embarking on new virtual learning technology.
We have been engaging in the work of soul-culture, exploring poetry together.
Inspired by the Academy of American Poets’ #shelterinpoems, we have read poems aloud to each other; crying in solidarity, laughing in shared joy, and marveling at the beauty of spring. We have read them to ourselves in the late hours of the night, when insomnia and anxiety keep us company. We have repeated and rehearsed them in the shower. We have emailed them between Zoom lessons and taped them onto our refrigerators.
I’ve shared and clung to poems like Ada Limón’s “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” Maggie Smith’s “Threshold,” Clint Smith’s “FaceTime,” and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Your World.” Poems that have encouraged us, equipped us, and comforted us.
Then, after we began to read them for soul-culture, we decided we would share a bit more of our inner worlds with each other by writing for it.
Inspired by NPR Morning Edition’s crowdsourced “Where I’m From” poem (based on George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From“) we attempted to capture a snapshot of the people and places who have shaped who we are today. In the same spirit, each teacher would write a poem, and then submit a stanza for our final crowdsourced piece. (The entire experience, writing and sharing, was completely voluntary. We that knew for some of us, it would be hard to revisit the people and places that we are now under orders to avoid.)
Having now been sheltering in place miles away from my parents, siblings, and maternal grandparents since West Virginia school buildings were officially closed, I avoided pen and paper for days. When I finally picked them up, it was too much for me to write about my mom and dad, my brother and sister, and how much I want to see them in flesh and not screen.
Instead, what flowed from them was all of the grief that had nestled into my heart after my paternal grandparents’ passing in recent years. Line by line, I retraced the steps of my childhood at their West Virginia home and farm. I shared another silent cup of coffee with my granddaddy. I touched the velvety flowers of my grandma’s lilac bush (still standing back home, but currently out of my grasp).
It was cathartic. I felt the heartstrings connecting home to the parts of my identity so strongly tied to it, tauter than before. The mountains and the memories felt closer than they have in weeks. More surprisingly, I began to feel connected to this group of humans in ways I never had before, despite months, and in some cases years, of co-planning and co-teaching together.
As we shared our “Where I’m From” poems, we bonded over grandmothers who felt it was their God-given duty in this life to see us fed every waking hour, and we ached with each other over loss and the death of loved ones. Within the lines we found the likeness of a memory, the impression of a familiar place. Two teachers, having both grown up in Pittsburgh, beamed with their shared pride of their hometown. Others, having grown up among the West Virginia hills, echoed one another’s childhoods with their odes to mud pies, dirt roads, and lightning bug summer nights.
We cried for the family members we long to hug, and explained in every detail the importance of the sights, smells, and sounds we had included and why it was so vital they make it into each stanza.
This is me, we were saying. This is who I am, made up of where I’m from.
My “Where I’m From” poem, based on memories of growing up at my grandparents’ WV home and farm.
Beautiful “Where I’m From” poems shared with permission from the West Virginia educators who wrote them.
Through poetry, we explored our identities, our sense of place, and our connectedness. In a time of isolation, we built community. We shared what we treasure with one another, and how what we treasure has shaped us into who we are. And while we may not know where or when we’re going next, we know where we are from.
I know poetry, alone, won’t end the systemic inequity in education, made only more glaringly obvious in the light of the coronavirus. But maybe it will stir someone from complicit inaction to action, call us to examine “how things were” and instead embrace what is better. Poetry might not end our suffering, but maybe it can ease it. It has been written during some of the most intimate and unspeakable moments of human suffering this world has known. And it has, in the absence of light, kindled hope. In the midst of pain, connected us.
My hope is that it will also add to the culture of your soul, as it has to mine. A little bit of hope and comfort tucked into the words, folded into the spaces between them, that will stick with you long after the last line.
WVCTE wants to know… How are you sheltering in poems? What poems are you reading right now?
Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach, teacher, and unabashed bibliophile. Aside from teaching and writing for WVCTE, she spends her time with family and music. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.