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Hello from my iso to yours. Since my hair is now fully buzzcut, I’ve run out of piercing jewellery, my screen time is up 21% on last week (when it was up 35% from the week before) and Worrying Doesn’t Fix Anything, I’ve been casting around for other in-bubble outlets. And I didn’t have to look far before I chanced on ... poems.
Don’t stop reading. Don’t stop! Don’t. The thing is, though that teacher ruined poems for you by making you study them, poems are an excellent source of social cohesion and symbolic coping. They are way more democratic, and interesting, and revealing than we often think. If you don’t believe me, you can ask the science peeps at Nottingham Uni who did a study on pandemic poems written during the Zika outbreak. Also, right now there is a guy at the Smithsonian making a kind of sound blanket of people’s Covid-19 haiku from all over the world. And in Dunedin we are also doing a Poem Thing. The Possibilities Project.
Driven by the Dunedin Unesco City of Literature, the Possibilities Project wants you (yes, you, you actually, actually you, yes) to think about what you prefer in your life and in the world, and write a poem about it, as a big old record of who we are and what we’re thinking at this time. It’s called Possibilities after a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. (Who, according to Polish friends, is one of the poets that teachers ruined for their students in communist Poland by making them study them.) It’s a list poem, most lines starting ‘‘I prefer’’. Which is already much more fun than writing most of the lists I write, which start with ‘‘(1.) Write a list’’ and invariably do not include things I’d prefer to be doing. Szymborska’s list of preferences cites cats, movies, the earth in civvies, a preference for Grimms’ fairy tales over newspapers’ front pages, the time of insects to the time of stars and the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems.
When I was in Krakow (where Szymborska lived out her years and where the trumpeter, by the way, is still playing his unfinished melody from the top of the basilica every hour, even though the city is closed and the streets being patrolled by the police) I discovered Szymborska’s poem and started writing my own in response, in which I worked out, among other things, that I prefer Connect Four to Cards Against Humanity. I brought it back and workshopped poems on the same theme with an exceptional group of writers at the Queenstown Writers Festival. I shared my own at a Zoom poetry night and not 24 hours later, another exceptional writer friend, Annabel Wilson, got in touch with her own version (she prefers 72% cocoa), around the same time as the lovely Nicky Page from Dunedin Unesco City of Literature was deciding this is a project that might possibly have legs.
One upside of writing your preferences so briefly in a poem is the whole know thyself thing that wellbeing advocates, erm, advocate. Thyself and thyself’s preferred place in a preferred world. In my world, that means crystallising the longform monologue that my kids and my students know so well and nobody has to get tired eyes from rolling them as I hold forth about using our skills and privilege for good and the responsibility and the joy and the creative possibilities and where you put your energy and how you language things and, and, and ... into that board game line. Kindness, community, connection. That’s probably my holy trinity. And that’s probably why I’m so excited about the possibilities of this Possibilities Project, seeing what the things are that we value and how they connect us and how we tell them and how that stands as a record of us being us in this time and this place.
If you want to get involved in the project, have a look at the information and the already-created poems on the Cities of Literature website. Also, get in touch with them, because we’re really keen to poet virtually with school students, with first-time writers, with ruinous teachers, with Proper Poets, with people in further-flung geographies, with people who hated poems at school and with everyone else in between.