The Current

Forget the vaccine selfie: This project asks people to write poems to their COVID-19 shot

A global literary project is asking people all over the world to reflect on what getting vaccinated against COVID-19 means to them — and then to put those feelings in a poem.

Global Vaccine Poem project invites everyone to be a published poet: David Hassler

A health-care worker fills out a vaccination record card in in Pennslyvania in December. A new project is hoping to get people writing more than official records and social posts about their shots, and turn to poetry to express their feelings. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

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Originally published on May 10, 2021

While vaccine rollouts around the world have prompted a slew of selfies and outpourings of relief and gratitude on social media, one group is asking people to reflect on getting their shots in the form of a poem.

"We turn to poetry at times for a birth, a death, for marriage, for first moments in our lives that are big moments of intense emotion, and this is certainly one of them," said David Hassler, co-leader of the Global Vaccine Poem and director of the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University, Ohio.

Hassler's project wants people to distil their feelings about the shot into a couple of lines of verse.

"It's not dissimilar from those public occasions in which we turn to poetry, only in this case, we're asking you to write that poem," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"It's meant to be a way to connect us and to make meaning of what has been truly traumatic on a global level — to both make meaning with language, but also to create a sense of belonging and connection."

To participate, people are invited to read a model poem on the website written by Naomi Shihab Nye, the young people's poet laureate at the U.S.-based Poetry Foundation.

Listen to part of Naomi Shihab Nye’s COVID-19 vaccine poem, about wanting the world back.

Budding poets then choose one of four prompts to use as their first line, turning that into a stanza with a few more lines of their own.

Hassler said the first prompt, "Dear vaccine…," is about sharing what the shot means to you, and the impact it will have on your life. The second prompt is "We liked…" and lets people write about life before the pandemic; while the third prompt "It's the…" is intended to conjure images of the physical act of getting the shot.

The final prompt, "Vaccine, please…" is about your hopes and wishes for coming out of the pandemic.

"It's meant to be very accessible and to bring people who might not normally think of themselves ever as a poet, or somebody who writes poetry, or even reads poetry to participate," he said.

So far, the project has received more than 1,400 responses from all over the world, which are displayed in a gallery-style wall on the website.

David Hassler, one of the leaders of the Global Vaccine Poem, says the project has already received 'a wonderful range and diversity of responses and of voices.' (Submitted by David Hassler)

Hassler said it's been exciting to see the different angles and nuances that people bring to their poems. Some focus on the tactile feeling of getting the shot, while others are releasing "deep, pent-up emotion," he said.

"Poetry is a big room and it can contain complex and even contradictory emotions."

'I felt like dancing'

Laura Wood contributed a poem even though she says she's always found the idea of writing one "a little intimidating."

"I think maybe it was the way it was taught in school ... it was always a project that you needed to do," said Wood, from Owen Sound, Ont.

She has always enjoyed writing letters though, so the prompt "Dear vaccine…" was the perfect start.

"When you start writing, it does sort of turn into poetry, as opposed to sitting down and saying, 'Today, I'm going to write a poem.'" 

Listen to Canadian Laura Wood’s poem about the COVID-19 vaccine she received.

Wood's poem reads:

She wrote it in the days after she and her husband booked their shots. 

"I went for a walk and I just felt like I was on cloud nine and I felt like dancing — and that's where that poem came from," she said.

Her feelings grew more complicated after she got the shot a few weeks later, as she thought about other people in the world who don't have the same ease of access.

Owen Sound resident Laura Wood has always found the idea of writing a poem intimidating. (Submitted by Laura Wood)

Ultimately, the poem became about how the vaccine will eventually allow her to spend more time with her daughter and grandson, who live in Toronto, without fear of spreading the virus.

Hassler said he loved Wood's image of the dance floor, as it conjured memories of his own childhood.

"I thought of shuffling my feet on the edge of my 7th Grade sock hop, waiting for Mrs. Wilson to come and teach me for the first time ever how to do that, before I had the nerve to ask Annette Henry to dance with me," he said.

Like Wood, Hassler thinks many people might be "recovering" from how they were taught poetry when they were younger. 

"As Li-Young Lee, a Chinese-American poet says, it's simply the inner voice of one person speaking to the inner voice of another," he said.

LISTEN | Poems written by listeners of The Current

Matt Galloway shares some of the verses written by listeners for the Global Vaccine Poem.

He thinks anyone who would like to participate should use the prompts to start writing, and they may be surprised with what they come up with.

"We all become published poets, once we've participated," he said.

You can take part in the Global Vaccine Poem on their website. If you do, let us know about your poem in the comments below, or email, or tweet us @TheCurrentCBC

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann.

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