As It Happens

'In these uncertain times': Teacher crafts poem out of quarantine emails

A mass of coronavirus-related emails from retailers and organizations inspired Jessica Salfia to write the poem The First Lines of Emails I've Received While Quarantining.

'It's a commentary on how capitalism works — how in an attempt to sound sincere, they’re coming off cliché'

West Virginia writer and English teacher Jessica Salfia wrote a poem using the first lines of emails she's received during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jessica Salfia/Facebook )


Inboxes are being flooded with emails from retailers and organizations, telling us how COVID-19 is affecting their operations — or trying to sell us something.

Jessica Salfia, a high school teacher in West Virginia, said that mass of coronavirus-related emails inspired her to write a poem entitled The First Lines of Emails I've Received While Quarantining.

Salfia told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay that it was "silly" how her poetry had become an overnight internet sensation. Here is part of their conversation. 

The title of your poem likely says it all. But just tell us, what exactly have you done here? 

Well, I'm a creative writing teacher and I teach high school English, mostly to juniors [in the] 11th grade here in the U.S. Like my students, I keep a writer's notebook where I write things for them as examples. 

My students are currently distance learning, as are most kids in the U.S., and I'm sure also in Canada. So I'm constantly in my email inbox answering questions from students, other colleagues and parents. 

And as we have been living through [quarantine], I started noticing how language was changing and trending. I started noticing these trends in marketing emails and … educational institutions too.

I started keeping track of the common language [and] expressions I was seeing. It started to sound lyrical to me. Then one day I opened it, and it looked like a poem. The rest is history, as they say.  

What kinds of companies did those lines come from? 

Some of them are clothing brand companies, educational institutions. Some of them are organizations that I really admire and respect like… New York Times cooking.

But what I also saw is that the poem moves a bit chronologically. I noticed that at the beginning of all of this, about three or four weeks ago, when we first started distance learning, the emails were very intense and sincere. 

And then in week two and week three, capitalism got capitalized. I noticed that that sincerity was translating into people trying to sell us things, and this was an attempt to sound sincere. We started getting these empty marketing schemes for distance learning.

"How are you inspiring greatness today?" was an educational company trying to sell some sort of online tech tool to teachers who are distance learning. 

"As you know, many people are struggling." Why did you choose to use that at the end of every stanza?

I received that one several times, showing up in multiple emails. I started thinking about these subject lines in terms of poetry and … I kept seeing both "in these uncertain times" and "as you know, many people are struggling."

The last time I checked, you are quite a sensation, this poem has been shared some 150,000 times on Twitter. So why do you think your poem is resonating so much? 

I think that any time that we as people are dealing with an extreme situation, people turn to poetry for comfort or to try and make sense of what's happening around them. Poetry is also language at its most distilled and so it's a very quick avenue to try and negotiate or figure out how you're feeling about something.

But also, I have [received] a lot of messages from people who run marketing companies and communication programs, who teach communications and business classes, who have said things like: "Wow, thank you. This has really pointed out to us how we're getting this wrong." 

People recognize that it's a commentary on how capitalism works — how in an attempt to sound sincere, they're coming off cliché.

And also, you know, some people have been really moved by it and moved by how we're trying to talk to each other and trying to communicate with each other.

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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