I was fortunate to be teaching two classes online just as we as a nation started seeing the impact and the terrible potential of Covid-19 — one class called “Writing Winter Poems with Mary Oliver” and the other called “Hygge Poems: Writing the Cold Away with the Cozy Danish Concept,” each of which circled around community and ways which creativity and nature sustain us, especially in difficult times. These courses and my wonderful students’ discussions shored me up for this prolonged exile from some mundane daily pleasures.
Right now, knowing how to stay in touch with these sources of comfort is an essential life skill, doubly important to sustaining a writing practice. Our once-sacred writing time might be thrown into chaos working around the schedules and needs of others suddenly sharing our space and our attention.
Before the stay at home order, my husband and I had made a trip to Vermont, where my best friend lives. This was the end of February/early March, and I hadn't really taken the news seriously before the trip, what little of it I'd read in the days before we left. My days had been full of planning for the trip and packing and getting the classes squared away so we could enjoy our time there.
When we arrived home and then were ordered to stay there, I found my writing routine fragmented from the changes and our new household schedule. Even if I could find a quiet moment, what then? I'd sit at my desk and spend my time reading/obsessing about the news, recovering from a variety of distractions, and making lists, never quite getting to my own creative work.
It took a deep dive back into planning the final stretch of the Mary Oliver class (which was ending just as we arrived home) to make me realize that the answer to connecting with my muse, and soothing my fearful and upset spirit was right in front of me. Mary Oliver's poems are packed to the brim with beauty, but they also often include nature's austerity, and its seeming cruelty. She says "The Murderer's House," "This is our failure,/that in all the world/[O]nly the stricken have learned how to grieve." (New & Selected, vol.1, Beacon Press, 1992). We're certainly learning to grieve right now. What else is a virus but part of this natural order, something which has moved through ecosystems and found an unfortunate new system to call home? Each time I encountered this logic in my journals, I could turn to the hygge readings, finding words like those of Eleanor Lerman in her beautiful poem "Starfish," "There is movement beneath the water, but it/may be nothing. There may be nothing going on. […] This is life's way of letting you know that/you are lucky."
(Our Post Soviet History Unfolds. Saraband, 2005.) I'd begin again to pay attention to the "nothing going on" in my life which told me how lucky I was. The sole purpose of the class was finding warmth and community spirit and writing poems which celebrated those resources we already had.
In Hygge Poems and Writing Winter Poems with Mary Oliver, every poem I chose, every music video or comic I added to the week's materials, felt like another moment of nourishment for my muse. I wasn't only helping students to provision their own writing practices, I was learning as I went what would help me frame each day and focus on my writing when I could, and look for soul-bolstering balms in the world at hand when I couldn't.
When these classes closed, I realized I didn't want to stop sharing these ideas, so I approached the Loft about offering a one day pay-what-you-like/pay-what-you're-able webinar to invite people to join me in reading and writing poems which truly do shelter in poetry. They welcomed this idea, and got to work straightaway to make it possible.
As many of us are confined in our houses, how fortunate we are that we can retreat into poetry to find comfort. In this webinar class, we'll read and write poems about solace found in nature, the space around us, and the people we love. We'll find strength in poetry by Joy Harjo, Penelope Shuttle and Barbara Crooker and more. By the end of this webinar class, you’ll have a few fresh drafts, along with new writing strategies and a resource list to use even once our hunkering down comes to a close.
I hope others will consider joining me as we devote this time to reconnecting with our muse, and drawing strength from our common wellspring of serenity and – dare I say it? – joy, even in troubled times.
For more information or to sign up for the webinar, please see the link below:
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Sarah Ann Winn's first book, Alma Almanac (Barrow Street, 2017) was selected by Elaine Equi as winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize. She's the author of five chapbooks, the most recent of which is Ever After the End Matter (Porkbelly Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in many publications, online and in print, including Five Points, Kenyon Review Online, Massachusetts Review, Smartish Pace and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. She serves as Reviews Editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and she currently teaches poetry workshops in Northern Virginia and the DC Metro area, and online at the Writers Center and at the Loft Literary Center.