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Poetry as Survival
By Lindsey Danis
Allen Berry is a poet and teacher living in Huntsville, Alabama. Like so many creatives, Berry is adjusting to working from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While Berry notes that “there is a sense of panic” in his community, with the local Sheriff’s department warning campuses they will arrest students for trespassing, he finds much to celebrate. It’s still spring, and it’s beautiful, as he shared in a recent poem published on Facebook. “The thing that I was most influenced by was the way that people care coming together and taking advantage of the time away,” he said.
Berry is the author of a book of poems (Travel for Agoraphobics) and the chapbooks Distractions and Illusions and Sitting Up with the Dead.
We chat with Berry about the healing powers of nature, teaching poetry, and his writing practice.
How does nature help you find the positives in times like these?
Outdoors is about the only place I'm allowed or able to go, and I go there for as long as I can, as far as I can. The only problem is, everybody else seems to have remembered there's an outside now that there's no place else to go. It's right crowded out there. Too crowded. Too many people stomping around and leaving trash here and there. It's bad for the environment, bad for my headspace... still, there's no other place to go. No remedy for it.
How do you balance teaching and writing?
Hm... poorly. But I take part in a poetry marathon every year where myself and a number of other folks write a poem a day for the entire month of April. That kept me writing and polishing and kept teaching in the balance.
How has COVID-19 affected your career and your personal life?
Well, all my teaching went exclusively online. I loosened the restrictions for my students, and lost touch with more than a few of them. Personal life got a lot more isolated. Fortunately, my friend Dan from grad school set up a weekly Zoom Happy Hour where a group of us from Grad School could get together and shoot the breeze even if we couldn't be together in person. I get together with friends in person when I can, but those get-togethers are few.
What does poetry have to offer readers in times of uncertainty?
I read once that poetry is what happens when nothing else can. Additionally, Galway Kinnel said that “To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.” What poetry does is allow us to realize that we're not alone, that everything that happens has happened before. Loneliness, uncertainty, death, nature, all of these things are themes found in poetry. Writers who have gone through what we have gone through, experienced what we've experienced, dealt with it, poorly or well, hurt, and suffered, and came through in some way or another... and we can as well. Though everyone's suffering is unique... at the same time it isn't. There are commonalities that we all share. Poetry reminds us that we're not alone in this and we can survive.
What are your book recommendations for those who are looking for material to read during mass quarantine?
The selected works of Li Po. His writings on solitude are some of the most beautiful and calming that I have ever read. Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins. The idea behind the title, and a select number of poems, "Consolation" in particular. So many plans were cancelled as a result of this, "Consolation" fits the bill. A personal favorite I Hope It's Not Over and Goodbye. by Everette Maddox. The poem "Moon Fragment" is particularly enjoyable, though there's not a runt in the litter. "Moon Fragment" reflects on solitude, and longing, and loneliness... but with a closing plea for hope and understanding. Any collection of Pablo Neruda. Neruda writes at length on love, true, but Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon discourses on the beauty of common things. In quarantine, it is likely that a lot of folks will be noticing the everyday furniture of their lives, and perhaps appreciating them more than that have previously.
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