UNC Charlotte poets are thinking and writing about the impact of challenging times on the human spirit.
We gathered a few reflections – and poems – from Peter Blair, Christopher Davis, Allison Hutchcraft, Tanure Ojaide, Barbara Presnell, and Mark I. West, who are faculty in the departments of Africana Studies, English, and Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies. They are among the many poets to be found among UNC Charlotte faculty, students, alumni and staff. Some of their poems address COVID-19 directly, and all of the poetry considers people’s responses to times of trouble and change.
Question for Tanure Ojaide: How do you think that poetry – writing poetry, reading poetry, seeking the meaning of poetry – can help us through difficult times, such as what we are experiencing now?
Ojaide: Poetry is a spiritual journey for many poets and readers and through it one could have a better understanding of life. It is not the pursuit of material success that ultimately matters since one cannot carry wealth or success to the afterworld but enshrining in humanity the virtues of compassion, love, generosity, sensitivity, and sacrifice in our lives. One realizes that life is transient and helping others rather than only the self brings a lot of fulfillment.
The Covid-19 pandemic is in some ways a leveler of people irrespective of class, race, or ideology and makes everyone realize his or her humanity. In a time such as the pandemic’s, for me, writing poetry affords me the time to deeply reflect on the vagaries of human experiences across geographical space and different cultures. It distracts me from psychological and other types of stresses. One can say, it is therapy to me. I hope those who read poems on the pandemic will see them as such too in addition to their aesthetic value.
Question for Christopher Davis: How do you see COVID-19 and other traumatic times and events transforming people?
Davis: Although I have not yet written a poem about Covid-19, the first poem in my book, Oath, is about a life transformed by difficulty, loss, and then social commitment. The “she” in this poem is my mother, and the experiences of a murdered son and divorce were all events she lived through. My parents were from Oklahoma, and they moved to Los Angeles in the early 50’s. My brother died in 1978, and my mother became the chapter leader of Parents of Murdered Children for Los Angeles. I am glad my poem can speak about life being damaged, then healed.
The Covid-19 crisis, I think, is causing so many of us to feel our ideals breaking, but it is also bringing people together. The virtual reading for my new book did go very well, especially when it became an “open mic” event, with readings by several former creative writing students who had been English majors at UNC Charlotte. Jarrett Moseley has been accepted to the MFA program at University of Miami, and Desiree Brown will receive her MFA from New York University at the end of this semester. Another student who read, Eddie Angebello, received our English Department creative writing award in poetry last year, and is in the MFA program at Columbia University in New York.
Question for Peter Blair: What impact do you think this period of extended isolation and changed interactions may have on people’s creative spirits?
Blair: I miss the creative interaction with my colleagues in the hallways and meeting rooms, and I especially miss the dynamic interplay of conversation and discussion with the students in my first-year writing classes. This absence somehow makes me feel less creative, though it’s hard to pinpoint just exactly how or why. At the same time, I love my walks through the neighborhood (with a mask on!), and I’m taken aback at how nature is always new, and surprises me with its beauty, mystery and creativity.
Question for Barbara Presnell: How important do you think it is that a poem and its meaning be readily accessible? Or, is the act of seeking a poem’s meaning part of its reward?
Presnell: The short answers to the questions are “very” and “yes.” Too much poetry has been written exclusively for other poets, which is why it’s earned such a bad name among students and the general public. Good poetry is inclusive in that it has the ability to speak to everyone on some level, regardless of their experience. And a poem doesn’t “mean” just one thing; in fact, it means something different and new to each reader. Take a poem by the well-studied and much-beloved American poet Robert Frost, for example. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he writes quite literally about watching a stand of trees fill with snow. The poem is rich with imagery, repetition and music, and creates for any reader a chilly but beautiful winter scene. Yet the poem has been analyzed countless times to “mean” something much darker. What does it mean? What did Frost intend it to mean? Can it mean the same thing to a tired harness driver on a cold New England January night as it does to a student in an April classroom in the South?
One who wants to dig deeper might be wise to take John Ciardi’s cue and ask not “what” a poem means but “how” it means and discover for themselves those places in the poem that resonate most clearly.
Question for Allison Hutchcraft: Particularly now, how do you think that social media and the Internet are contributing to poetry and its accessibility?
Hutchcraft: The Internet and social media connect us to voices and art outside the walls of our homes—offering not only creative inspiration, but also good company and a sense of shared resilience. Poets are giving virtual readings of their newly published books, and celebrating each other through online platforms. Publishers are compiling poems that speak to our current moment, helping us feel connected, even while physically apart.
In my Introduction to Poetry Writing course, I have been supplementing readings in our course texts with links to videos, images, and online poems since the shift to remote learning in March. Again and again, I have been amazed not only by the connections my students have made when exploring these new materials, but also the ways in which they have transformed what they have discovered into inspiring poems of their own. When studying ekphrastic poetry (poems that respond to visual art), they made brilliant observations of a range of poems, then wrote their own. The poems that they created, and the vast scope of artworks that they chose to respond to, were incredibly moving, forging connections not only among each other in class, but between poetry and visual art, our present day experience and art across ages
Question for Mark I. West: What would you say to people who think poetry is perhaps out of their reach, particularly these days?
West: I see poetry as a distillation of words, images, and emotions. During this difficult time, we all have a sense of being engulfed with new words, troubling images, and heightened emotions. We might not all be gifted poets, but we can turn to the reading and writing of poetry to help us cope with the chaotic environment that surrounds us.
Poems From The Poets
Air Fleet (Tanure Ojaide)
This morning I take my daily walk
in a ghost town of a million entombed residents.
Overhead the raucous formations of birds
migrating from one region to another
each carrying the other along and aloft.
None will drop from the calibrated flight.
The silence of my ghost town of a million entombed residents
so earie in a land of acknowledged noisy performers.
To my right a lake and a flock of geese of no denomination
swim together immune from the lockdown in Ghost Town.
The wind blows, the wire grass and others dance
as if invigorated by the absence of human vagrants.
On trees carpenter bird and wood pecker beat their percussion
as the music of the orchestra on wings occupies the airspace.
Why do we wait to be cursed before allowing others to be happy?
This morning I take my daily walk
in my ghost town of a million entombed residents
and enjoy the company of other beings relishing their happiness.
EXAMINE HER LIFE (Christopher Davis)
Her mother’s kitchen stank like a barnyard.
Embarrassed by her cud-chewing father,
feeling unloved, she swore she’d be perfect.
Married, she wrapped furniture in plastic.
Exercising under her calendar,
she flip-flopped up and down, a reeled-in trout.
Eventually, once she proved doomed to fail ‒
her husband getting calls from men all night,
her menopause, her diabetes, chips,
cheap wine, divorce, her youngest son stabbed to death ‒
her ideal broke. She breathed. She blinked. She watched
the news, trapped in a wrecked, infested house
she had designed herself for so much more.
A victim’s advocate, she pressured courts
to grant parents of murdered children rights
to ask the killers why, rage, mock, forgive.
Her unselfconsciousness became her grace.
She saw she was, simply, alive, laughing,
accusing, crying, mute, comprehending
love: helping others feel, before dying.
Things That Happen on Leap Day, 2020 (Peter Blair)
I rise at 8 am and waste my day
at 3 grocery stores.
Sawing logs, sawdust snows my shoes.
The trees want to leap up but can’t.
I find a nickel in a crack in the sidewalk.
Purple blossoms sprout
from black tree bark,
same color as a bruise on my shin.
Mickey calls from California reporting
an earthquake, the towels swayed.
The earth doesn’t know its one day
behind our time.
My wife buys a watch.
It says March 1st.
Extra day to rake last Fall’s leaves,
I still don’t do it.
On the lawn my shoes brush flick-weed,
and seeds spray the air,
grazing my calves and knees.
It’s Saturday evening with no sign
Nestled in the corners
of the crescent moon, setting
in the moist night air, earthshine
The virus hasn’t yet come to our shores.
The Unwearing: A Benediction (Barbara Presnell)
Then, at last, when machines shut down,
the crank and clatter of their work
quiet at this long shift’s end,
when the bobbins are empty,
whistles have stopped blowing,
freight has been loaded on its beds
and is gone, when sore backs
and burly afternoons behind
concrete walls have gone,
when all the plants
have closed their doors,
there will be nothing left
but the spinning earth,
its tight weave of water and root,
soft fabric of morning,
each imperfection counted one
by one, nothing left but the world’s
rhythm, the manufacture of its seasons,
nothing but the voices of our ancestors
talking above the roar,
and then we will take off the cloth
and there will be only thread
and then not even thread
or the need for thread
and we will bless each day’s creation,
the sweat and rip that wove it,
the oily grace that gave it to us,
how it feels against our skin.
Oh, Dodo. You Can’t (Allison Hutchcraft)
Oh, Dodo. You can’t
do what others do.
You’re caught up
in a wild
bulb of a beak—
there are sunsets tied
Little wings, token
have they ever had
such fears of flying?
Why, this world
is strange—it tries me.
I miss you.
No one has your charm.
When I fell in love,
the earth was an iron-
I can say this
to you, who expect nothing,
no new news.
Yes, it’s better here
on the ground.
I was angled,
sun-stunned and tossed
when I thought
I saw you
Your island was near
and those oceans.
In my dreaming,
you kept charging,
blue-eyed and blunted.
Walking the Dog in the Age of the Coronavirus (Mark I. West)
The swing on the porch
Sat empty for years,
But now it is occupied.
In the afternoons,
A woman sits there.
She waves at us passersby.
A kid with a sax
Stood on the stoop.
He played a jazzy tune.
He wasn’t that good,
But he didn’t give a damn
He was glad he’d escaped from his room.
We, the walkers of dogs,
We pass in the street.
We observe the six-feet rule.
Our dogs though pull at the leash.
They truly don’t care.
They greet as dogs always do.
Our dogs and ourselves,
We are all social beasts.
It’s so hard to self-isolate.
With a wag or a wave,
We all strive to connect,
As we wait out this viral outbreak.