The written word and the pandemic: Online project solicits writers’ responses to COVID-19

  • Poet and children’s writer Lesléa Newman has helped create an online forum for regional writers to reflect on their experiences during the pandemic. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2020

Like anyone, writers are searching for connection in the era of COVID-19. So to help fight the isolation so many are experiencing, the Straw Dog Writers Guild (SDWG) has created an online forum to let writers get to the heart of the matter: penning their personal responses to life during the pandemic.

“Pandemic Poetry and Prose: Writing in the Time of Corona,” which began in mid May, is not a contest, but it does have a three-judge panel that reviews submissions and selects one piece each day, posting it on the SDWG website and the group’s Facebook page. Entries need to be pretty tight: Prose pieces are limited to 500 words and poetry to three pages, and writers can submit no more than three pieces overall.

Poet and children’s writer Lesléa Newman, one of the three editors of the platform, says the response so far has been “overwhelming”; as of the first week of June, over 93 writers had submitted about 150 pieces in total to the project. Several notable local names have cropped up in the effort, Newman notes, including children’s writer and poet Jane Yolen, former Northampton poet laureate Janet Aalfs, poet and writer Corinne Demas, and others.

The project is open to all members of the SDWG and to residents of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire counties. Submissions must relate to life during the pandemic, though specifically mentioning terms such as “pandemic” or “COVID-19” is not required. As the group’s guidelines put it, “What we care most about is writing that reflects this unique time.”

Newman, herself a former Northampton poet laureate, proposed the idea for the project to SDWG after publishing a poem about the pandemic in “New Verse News,” an online journal that publishes poetry responding to current events.

In an email, she said she’s been impressed with both the quality of the writing and the variety of themes that have emerged in the work that’s been submitted to SDWG.

“Some pieces have made me laugh out loud,” she said. “Some pieces have moved me to tears…. Many people are writing about the effects of social isolation. There has also been a lot of writing about grief. And many writers have expressed their concerns for our planet. Each piece is very heartfelt.”

As one example, Sarah Ritter, a SDWG member who lives in Connecticut, reflects in her poem “Social Contact” on common interactions that might have seemed routine before the pandemic but now take on renewed meaning.

“Sentimental gestures / Kisses hello and goodbye / Face to face conversations / Looking into each other’s eyes // It is all the small things / We all are beginning to miss / Previously taken for granted / But in their absence, we notice.”

And Alice Knox Eaton, who teaches literature and writing at Springfield College, notes in her prose piece “Semantics” that though she’s been fortunate the pandemic has not brought her grief — as her mother’s death 15 years ago did — it’s produced something else: “Disorientation, foggy headedness, lethargy, mixed with gratitude that I have a steady paycheck, mixed with guilt that I kind of like having to stay at home.

“I know grief may be coming, for me,” Eaton writes. “People are dying. But I won’t claim grief while others have so much to grieve.”

Newman says “Pandemic Poetry and Prose” will continue as long as needed. To find out more about the project, visit strawdogwriters.org/pandemicproject.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.