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'Between Abject Fear And Inexplicable Optimism': Vt. Poets On The Pandemic

Four black and white images of people's faces.
Gab Emilio Cortese/Courtesy/Emma Rose Horowitz-McCadden/Marion Ettlinger
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From left, poets Didi Jackson, Major Jackson, Kerrin McCadden and Elizabeth Powell discuss with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb what it's like to be a poet during the coronavirus pandemic.

By now, we all know that much of modern life has been postponed or just flat-out canceled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Among those having to adjust to this new reality are members of Vermont's poetry community.

VPR Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb spoke with four Vermont poets. Their conversations are below, and have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Major Jackson: I’m fluctuating between abject fear and inexplicable optimism.

Mitch Wertlieb: That's poet Major Jackson, who lives in South Burlington. And you may have heard a bit of laughter in the background from his wife, Didi Jackson, who is also a poet. The two are quarantining together at a house in Rochester, Vermont, currently. And you might think, you know, the writing life lends itself to self-isolation even in normal times. So how difficult can that be?

But as Didi Jackson says …

Didi Jackson: What is difficult, though, is knowing that we can't just pick up and get to family and friends, particularly if we feel like they need us. I have a lot of family in Florida. My son’s there, I feel like I can't get to him super easy. And Major just had a loss in his family, and there’ll be a funeral that I don't think he's going to be able to go to.

And Major Jackson says inspiration for good poetry can't thrive in a self-isolation vacuum.

Major Jackson: The muse is also fed by being in the world. And whether that is as a relative or friend or a teacher, all of that goes into feeding the work. Otherwise, we would be hermit writers. And that doesn't sound like a lot of fun.

And then there were the financial concerns that have hit the writing community along with nearly every other sector of the economy. Major Jackson published a new book of poetry called The Absurd Man in late February. Didi Jackson's new collection, Moon Jar, has a release date of April 21, but the planned book launch and live reading was canceled, along with so many others. So poets are joining forces now to help each other out.

Elizabeth Powell: Poetry is a way to maintain community. And for me and my compatriots in this project, it's always been this way. Poetry is a way to adore and bond and heal and grow deeper in our human wisdom together.

That's poet Elizabeth Powell, the editor-in-chief for Green Mountains Review. The project she's talking about is the Social Distance Reading Series.

Elizabeth Powell: It's posted on Green Mountains Review online. And we came up with a list of poets that we knew in the state and nationally who had new books coming out. And then we had the poets tape their reading, and also offer suggestions for other books of poems to read in about a 20-minute segment.

New segments are put online every Wednesday and Sunday, and they include interviews with the poets about their work. Kerrin McCadden is part of the group that started this online poetry reading series. Her new collection called Keep This To Yourself is being published this month as well. And yet McCadden has mixed feelings about the self-promotion necessary to launch any new book.

Kerrin McCadden: We're all supposed to be in isolation, right. And there seems to be, for me, the feeling of promoting something… I can't figure out how to explain it.

I mean, I think I know what you're getting at, but I don't want to put words in your mouth either. It almost sounds like you're saying, “Is it inappropriate to be pushing your own work at a time when everybody is dealing with this situation?”

Kerrin McCadden: People are losing people, and we're starting to really see loved ones of friends of ours fall to this. You know, anything that’s self-promoting or self-congratulatory, really, which is what promotion so often is, feels rough.

But McCadden’s new book deals with the death of a family member that happened before the coronavirus took over the news cycle.

Kerrin McCadden: It's about losing my own brother to an overdose, to addiction. It's like a double whammy. That's another really serious issue that's happening right now, that keeps happening regardless of the pandemic.

And there is comfort, she notes, in correspondence she's received from some people who have gotten advanced copies of her book.

Kerrin McCadden: I did have an email from a person who said that he was using the book to give to people who are suffering with addictions. That's helpful and makes it makes me feel good to know that the work can help people during this time who aren't getting help.

Ultimately, it's the words and images these writers create that people who love poetry will turn to. Here's Kerrin McCadden’s recently written poem, “How Not to Remember.”

Kerrin McCadden:

At night, the fishbowl of my living room pretends

that looking in affords a truth—the afghans

and ottomans of comfort, tools of the trade.

This winter, the rhododendron outside

told me the world was too cold, folded its leaves

in to its stems—a crowd of closed umbrellas,

shoulders full of rifles. I kept thinking

of its sadness, of all it could do, its nothing.

I sat the nights away. I didn’t even read a book.

I didn’t watch a thing. I was so full of forgetting.

Major Jackson offers up this excerpt from his poem, “Fish & Wildlife.”

Major Jackson:

This is North Country,

where a cabin’s fireplace wears moose antlers,

where the mesmeric drift of snow snakes Route 30

sending a chalk-white F-150 plummeting into a ditch.

Icicles hover above like liquid spears.

Outside, a grumbling snowplow barrels up

the street like a middle linebacker.

Yep,

someone says to a Patriots loss: Shoulda won that

one. The almost bare streets seem clutched

in ice, wind dusting up crystals[in orange streetlight.]

Old men in Franklin County dream of being touched.

Elizabeth Powell also evokes a sense of Vermont's physical presence in this excerpt from her poem, “Ephemeral Pond.”

Elizabeth Powell:

What if the world was as ephemeral

 As the vernal pond we paused for?

Walking through the sacred mud

Of mud season in Vermont under the glare

Of the still iced Mount Mansfield under

Whose snow and ice covered paths

The sub-nivean layer flourishes under

Like a kingdom in the world of children’s books

I once loved. Where small animals build trails

And hide from this world they know is cruel

And necessary.

And we’ll end with Didi Jackson reading from her poem, “Moon Jar.”

Didi Jackson:

My wedding ring is missing
one small diamond, and

I like it that way: a reminder
of the imperfect in

all of us, like that keyhole
size of grief that remains crystalline.

In Korea, ceramicists for centuries
have made moon jars: testimony

to the virtue of modesty: asymmetrical
warping on the wheel, slumping

in the pine-heated kiln,
impurities when fired — black

dots and pocks on its surface
like freckles on skin.

I have been kept awake
so many nights by the moon:

its pull on the pines and night birds
and who, like a monk, keeps a sharp order of time.

Never a perfect sphere,
the milky moon jar joins two

clay hemispheres into one. 
When the light of the moon

finds me, I am the color
of everything in the winter night. 

Hear more poets read from new work by visiting greenmountainsreview.com with a new poem every Wednesday and Sunday.

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