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Finding Poetry Amidst the Pandemic

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Computer screens are not always conducive to poetry. But since the beginning of the pandemic, most workshops and art classes have moved to online platforms, increasing access for many. Poetry Is Life, a new poetry workbook published this month by Baltimore’s Yellow Arrow Publishing, morphs a successful workshop into a handy, portable, and non-electronic format. Featuring poetry and artwork from eight poets—Linda Gail Francis, Patrick W. Gibson, Jessica Gregg, Sara Palmer, Julia W. Prentice, Patti Ross, Nikita Rimal Sharma, and Jodie Townshend-Zellner—Poetry Is Life provides a twelve-month cycle of readings and response prompts to help poets of every experience level hone their craft. 

Yellow Arrow, founded in 2016 by Gwen Van Velsor, is a Baltimore-based literary nonprofit with a mission to publish and provide support for writers who identify as women. 

Ann Quinn, a Catonsville-based poet who has been twice nominated for Pushcart Prizes, was already slated to lead a poetry workshop for Yellow Arrow in March 2020, as the pandemic loomed. “The class was already underway when the pandemic hit,” said Quinn. “I didn’t want to just let it go.”

Like many, Quinn took the class to Zoom, which permitted a greater reach, with poets from Canada and California participating alongside the Baltimore-based authors. Each session, the poets read and respond to the work of poets such as William Blake, Terrence Hayes, Elizabeth Bishop, and Tracy K. Smith. The workshop was well-received and friendship bonds began to grow within the group, which continues to meet every month. 

“Sharing ideas brings forth new ideas, right? It’s really valuable to talk about the poems with each other and see things that we didn’t see in our own reading,” Quinn said.

A few days before each class, Quinn sent a selection of writing from each month’s poet. Each meeting comprised three or four discussion/written response cycles—a few minutes of discussion about one of the poems, then a 15-minute free write. This format provided a foundation for poets to create work that pressed boundaries. 

“I had a prompt based on a poem by Elizabeth Spires, who teaches at Goucher College. We used her poem with a very specific prompt, which involves taking a quote and using it to play with the syntax in your poem,” said Quinn. “One of the poets used a quote from a school superintendent in Michigan after the school shooting in Oxford, Michigan [in November 2021]. This one is actually in the book. It was just so chilling. My prompt was to take a quote that you like, and he used a quote that he did not like at all, and it’s very powerful as a poem—poetry that can send chills up your back.”

Since its founding, Yellow Arrow has offered numerous workshops and published dozens of chapbooks and anthologies. When Yellow Arrow hired Annie Marhefka as a new Executive Director in 2021, one of the goals was to publish more. Quinn proposed a chapbook from the poetry developed in her class, and that idea quickly began to expand. 

“I’ve had this long desire to do a ‘how to write poetry’ book,” said Quinn. “I first pitched the idea of a chapbook to Kapua [Iao, editor in chief at Yellow Arrow], and she thought it was great. Then I got brave and said, ‘What if, in addition to the poems, we had some of the process of how we got to these poems? And everyone was open to that.”

Approval secured, Quinn translated months of detailed lesson plans into procedures for Poetry Is Life. The end result is a collection that can be enjoyed equally as a poetry anthology as well as a self-directed workshop for poets looking to expand their skills on their own. 

One of the poets anthologized in Poetry Is Life, Patti Ross, was especially pleased to expand upon and publish her work as a result of class participation. 

“Gwendolyn Brooks has a famous quote, ‘Poetry is life distilled.’ That quote captures what poetry is to me,” Ross said. “It is distilled, and to distill is to pull out the essential. That’s what this class and Ann’s guidance did for me.”

 

 

*****

Poetry Is Life, featuring cover art by Claudia Cameron, will be available in paperback and PDF editions starting Feb. 1. Yellow Arrow is planning a virtual publication party February 6, via Yellow Arrow’s Facebook Live stream and featuring a reading by participating poets. 

 

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