Friday Speak Out!: Poetry in the Pandemic Awakened My Love for Lyricism

Friday, May 20, 2022
by Ann Kathryn Kelly

One of the reasons I took up writing poetry in the pandemic is because I’m not a baker.

The sour dough starter trend that swept a world on lockdown two years ago—a world desperate for distraction from a 24x7 virus news cycle driven by ever-changing theories, rising death tolls, and naked fear—was a trend I knew was not for me. Up to that point in my life, I’d demonstrated expertise only in frozen pizza preparation. Well, my scrambled eggs aren’t bad, either. The secret to a zesty scramble? Pepper jack cheese slices, that I tear into pieces and drop into the egg mixture as it cooks. Yum.

But, baking bread? No thank you.

So, while several friends donned aprons and jumped into the bread trend with both feet—and both hands—I turned back to my writing to distract me from the news. I’d been writing creative nonfiction (CNF) essays for three years when the pandemic arrived, and was maybe 50,000-words into a draft of my memoir manuscript. I enjoy narrative writing as I plumb the depths, look for braiding opportunities, connect how my understanding of the world and my place in it needs to uncover a universality that will draw readers in. I like seeing what emerges from the quiet moments. I know this much about myself, at least in this point of my writing journey. I have no urge to try fiction. (Yet.)

I might have said the same thing about poetry but then the pandemic crept in, a silent mist that blanketed our world overnight. We couldn’t see it, it wasn’t something concrete we could feel, like a blast of heat or a cold front. We couldn’t smell it or taste it or touch it, but it shook us to our core and challenged our sensibilities. The pandemic made many of us reassess what drives us. What brings us joy.

Some looked for answers in sour dough loaves. Others took up knitting or container gardening or podcast listening or language-learning on tape. Many left jobs in droves. I turned to poetry. Though fiction held no appeal for me, poetry felt like something I needed at that point in time. A balm.

I’d never tried it, formally, and signed up for a six-week online class. I pushed aside intimidation in my first week as I dove into a poetry primer on meter and enjambment. I learned the difference between haiku and haibun, wrote my first sonnet and my first villanelle, and discovered a new love: the prose poem. What I enjoy most about prose poetry is that it feels like a first cousin to CNF. It abandons the need for conventional poetry hallmarks like lineation, meter, and enjambment. Prose poems read more like the narratives I was already writing—just in hyper-short form. Usually, one paragraph, and packed with poetic punch.

I came away from my six-week class with three prose poems, two sonnets, a villanelle, and a haibun under my belt. I continued writing and editing new work after the class ended, and submitted a few of my poems to literary journals. I was thrilled when several were published, including both sonnets I’d written in class.

The biggest confidence boost came when one of my prose poems appeared in Welter’s Fall 2021 issue. In their congratulatory acceptance, the poetry editor told me my piece was one of only 20 poems they selected from more than 1,000 submissions!

My greatest discovery? In the year that passed since that online class, I’ve seen how poetry has elevated my narrative writing through sound and imagery. Poetry changed how I write my essays. I also went through my memoir draft and rewrote passages with an eye for poetic possibilities.

I admire how poems must quickly establish a connection between writer and reader because of the form’s economy of words. I may have the luxury of writing 3,000 or 4,000 words to explore my points in a CNF essay, but with poetry it’s the challenge of capturing experiences and feelings in full arc through spare but layered language that I love and want to continue practicing.

Poetry awakened in me a love for lyricism, along with a set of reminders—more sound, stronger and more unique visuals, fewer words!—that I’m using to strengthen my narrative writing.

My venture into poetry was a wonderful development that emerged from seeking new creative outlets in a strange time of quiet, worldwide. It may not taste as good as a warm loaf right out of the oven, but it feeds the soul, nonetheless.

Tell me, what are your favorite writing “tools” that challenge or elevate your work? Did you embrace something in the pandemic that fed your creative pursuits?

* * *

Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary journals.

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Hmm. What do you know? I actually knew what enjambment was, I just didn't know it had a name.

I still think stepping off into poetry was so brave! I'm a poetic dunce who would much rather tackle baking bread. My pandemic pursuits involved working on fiction.

Reading picture books impacts my writing. Like poetry, picture books are meant to be read aloud. They are lyrical with rhythm and word play.

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

SueBE! I need to get back to the BK Boards and check in with all of you! Been a crazy couple of months ... What a great practice, to read picture books ... especially out loud. Do you do that, or only in your head? Dr. Seuss is my personal fave, as he seems to be for many people.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Ann! Prose poetry is the perfect combination of both CNF and poetry worlds, and your piece in Welter is gorgeous. I started paying attention to the lyricism in my CNF after taking both Chelsey Clammer and Naomi Kimbell's WOW workshops a few years ago. Reading Lia Pupura's work opened me up to the possibilities of focusing on sound. I incorporate mini prose poems in my writing, but I haven't gone full prose poem yet!

During the pandemic, I embraced adding research to my work, and telling. I hadn't done much of either in the past, but the work I'm most interested in now is confessional essays with research. I think it'll help my work find a larger audience, since my writing is so weird. ;) I also wrote a fictional story about street racing during the pandemic. I haven't finished it yet, but it was fun to explore something completely made up.

My partner started cooking during the pandemic and his skills surpassed mine. For the first time in twenty five years, I didn't have to cook! He's a head chef at a camp in the woods now. The one good thing about the pandemic--it definitely opened up creative avenues for people.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Hi Ann,
I don't read them aloud as often as I should. I try. But I get into the book and forget to read aloud. Or I get busy looking at the pictures and forget to read. It can take me several tries to manage it but I keep on trying!

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

Ang: So cool that you work in mini prose poems into some of your work. I feel like I've seen a bit of that with you already. Your excerpt on Red Rock Canyon in one of Naomi's classes comes to mind. That first paragraph was a winner -- very prose poem-y! :)

SueBE: I've been trying to read more of my work, whatever it is, out loud. It's helped, for sure!

Andrea said...

I can't say that I tried anything new because of the pandemic but I did come to a realization. When I was in college (for the third time) my instructors all commented that they loved my voice in my essays. Made me feel so great, as you can imagine. But then I went on to write magazine articles for mainly pet magazines, I became more of a journalist than a creative writer.

During the pandemic I've been working on polishing my NF book and came to realize that it didn't have my voice. I was writing with more of a journalistic manner.

I've always written poetry and can feel myself in the poems. With my last one I saw that my voice was still there. So I know now that I need to write a poem before working on my NF in order to release my true voice.

I'm glad you found poetry. It's such a freeing genre.

Ann Kathryn Kelly said...

Hi Andrea, I agree with your point of feeling yourself in poetry, perhaps more so than with narrative writing. Same for me! I'm not sure if the brevity of many poetry forms (compared to longform narrative writing) contributes to this feeling, or if it's because there's often more sound in poetry ... but one's sense of self is definitely very strong in poems. And that's a helpful tip you share: write a poem before diving into a longer piece. It's kinda like warming up one's singing voice. :) Thanks for weighing in!

Renee Roberson said...

Ann--I"m so glad you were able to push through the initial intimidation and discover your gift of writing poetry during what was such a difficult time for us all. I have no doubt it will only further enhance your creative non-fiction work. "Bands of Honey" is gorgeous and I can't wait to dive back in and read more of your prose poetry.

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