How writing 'pandemic poetry' is helping me cope
'Poetry has helped me fathom my grief,' says musician and poet Brendan McLeod
Contributed by Brendan McLeod
I don't remember the first poem I ever performed. The adrenaline knocked me for a loop. What I can recall is how vividly I perceived reactions from the audience. Someone lifted an eyebrow and my heart leapt. Someone else looked away, down at the table, and I was crushed. I got one laugh and it felt like I was flying. It was like being in that slow motion scene in The Matrix, but instead of bullets, it was people's emotions firing at me, which I could somehow clock one by one by one in stunning detail.
I was 23 when that happened. I'd been writing all my life, but other than an awesome mystery novella I wrote in Grade 7 called Who Killed Michael Jordan? I never shared any of it. I wrote the way I thought writers were supposed to — late at night, in dim basements, listening to ambient electronica, my dark heart to myself.
Getting onstage turned that approach on its head because, from then on, writing stopped being solitary. I anticipated an audience. Though I was still plugging away in a dim basement by myself, it felt communal.
I toured as a performance poet for three years. Then I started playing a lot with my folk band, the Fugitives, and getting more and more longwinded — writing novels and monologues and theatre shows. By the time the pandemic hit, I hadn't been involved in poetry full-time for a decade.
Finding the way back to poetry
The emotional trajectory of my pandemic will be familiar to many. COVID-19 cancelled my life. I'd been working on my newest play for 18 months. It was postponed. All my residencies and tours were called off — probably for at least a year.
I was originally dejected by these personal setbacks, though the frustration quickly transformed into sadness for friends and loved ones and front-line workers and strangers who were suffering in more intense ways. While this stopped me from feeling sorry for myself, it only increased my general state of confusion and anxiety.
On the sixth day of self-isolation, I wrote a poem. I wrote one again the next day. And the day after that. I started on day six. Today, I'm on day 55.
Poetry has helped me fathom my grief because it's a process of distillation. I sit at the computer, mind swirling from whatever terrifying news articles the day has wrought, and sort out which emotion or question or concern, for me, is at the heart of the anxiety. My first mentor told me each poem must make a discovery. During the pandemic, these discoveries have been footholds back into the world. Revelations that remind me: this is what you value. This is who you are.
These revelations are futile in an echo chamber. It doesn't matter what kind of person I am if I never leave my living room. When I started these poems, I didn't know they'd be published, but I did know my friends would read them because that's who I was writing for. I'd finish them late at night and fire them off in emails to whoever that poem had made me think of. An exchange as simple as: this is what I worked on today. It made me think of you. I miss you. The poems were a demonstration of the effort I was making to hold my loved ones in mind when our bodies weren't allowed this.
Poetry has helped me fathom my grief because it's a process of distillation.- Brendan McLeod
So many scary things have happened in the last two months. One of the scariest moments, to me, was when Dr. Anthony Fauci said, "I don't think we should ever shake hands again." I imagined a world where kids are taught not to touch their friends. Where we'll never again be so casual with neighbours.
That's terrifying, but if I flip it on its head, it's a telling example of how meaningful our physical interactions are. Luckily for me (and the world), I'm not an epidemiologist, tasked with sorting out how to bring those back. As a poet, I just try to keep pace with the world, bear witness to it as events unfold, and share that with the humans I miss so badly.
Each poem is really just that – an expression of a different way to miss people. Which is like trying to make sense of infinity. Because there's no one way to miss humans. There's every way. It's not a list. It's a totality.
To read more of Brendan's pandemic poetry collection, click here.