I hadn’t planned to do NaPoWriMo this year. “The Significance of a Dress” had two launches planned at the beginning of March, one of which had to be rearranged at very short notice to a reduced audience. There were further readings planned later in March and events in May; all delayed or cancelled. Poetry books mostly sell at readings. Chain bookstores don’t support poets. Promotional activity had to move online at a time when Amazon deemed books non-essential and Hive temporarily shut then reopened in a limited capacity, so getting word out that independent publishers and book shops were will still open and delivering became more crucial than ever. My employer is a supply chain to local government, schools, academies, charities, the police and NHS and became a food hub for Leicestershire, making up food parcels for distribution to vulnerable people during lock down so I was still working, albeit from home. NaPoWriMo therefore became a way of carving out a period of creativity each day, a time to play when work seemed to be dominant.
Unlike previous years when music and reading were key sources of inspiration, this year ekphrastic poems came to the fore. Ekphrastic poems take a piece of art (not necessarily visual art) and provide a descriptive narrative either of the scene depicted or giving voice to the subject. Not being a particularly visual person – I even think in words rather than images – I guess this inspiration came from a place of wanting to find different sources of inspiration.
It wasn’t the sole source. Some poems were inspired by overheard phrases, some by submission call-outs where a magazine or competition asked for pieces on a theme. Of course, writing to that theme doesn’t mean your poem can’t be submitted elsewhere, although it does have to work outside of the context of being a piece of work on a set theme. Similarly, I think ekphrastic poems have to work as pieces that can stand alone apart from the artwork that inspired them. Naturally, people familiar with artwork may see references and layers that those who don’t know the artwork may miss, but it’s not always possible for magazines or publishers to reproduce the artwork as well.
Are there any pandemic-inspired poems? Naturally, around eight of them. All but one will work outside the context of Covid-19 so if I decide to submit them for publication they won’t need a pandemic-specific context. While it’s right that writers (and artists) bear witness, I don’t think it’s right that writers pressure themselves or have external pressure urging them to write directly about the pandemic. Some writers will respond fairly immediately, others need time for ideas to take shape and form not because they are slow or poor writers but because their writing process is different and transforming an idea to a fully-formed poem takes a different route. The best work rarely comes from a place of being caught up in the experience. Those who have been furloughed, had sufficient savings to remove financial worries, weren’t also trying to home-school children and had a garden to relax/exercise in, will have a very different experience to someone trying to home-school and do a full-time job from home, who will have had a difference experience to a key-worker unable to work from home, whose experience will differ from someone with underlying conditions who has had to self-isolate without access to a garden.
I’ve listed the titles of my draft poems at NaPoWriMo as usual. I will update if any are subsequently accepted for publication.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection.