Responding to the pandemic through poetry

Professor Anthony Caleshu, Head of English and Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth, is Principal Investigator for a £110,000 project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to investigate the use of poetry as a mode of discourse during this time of COVID-19. 

Anthony and his team have developed an interactive website where members of the public can submit work to be published as well as to comment upon each other’s work while taking part in discussions and Q&As. 

Since the project started on 1 June, more than 150 new poems have been published and 15,000 public visits recorded, with numerous testaments about how poetry is being used to help people respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to the public response, Caleshu and his Co-Investigator Rory Waterman (of Nottingham Trent University) have commissioned work from 40 poets – 20 from the UK and 20 from around the world – which they’ll edit and publish in the first anthology of new work that reflects upon COVID-19 and the unprecedented lockdown it has precipitated.

Anthony, from the School of Humanities and Performing Arts, says: 

“Poetry has a longstanding history of being a medium to document difficult or problematic times. In June, we launched our website, www.poetryandcovid.com, and the public response has been phenomenal, with people from around the globe submitting their own poems and engaging with others. Each poem submitted helps us to answer the question about what poetry can help us achieve in relation to COVID-19, with most people using poetry to reflect on a range of emotions, including isolation, grief, fear, anger and hopefulness.”

The anthology’s novelty is due in part to it being an instrument for ‘collaborative’ poetry. At the outset, 20 UK poets were asked to choose an international counterpart with whom they wanted to work. The Anthology will be produced by one of the UK’s most notable publishers of contemporary poetry, Shearsman press, in January 2021.

“The uniqueness of the project is its emphasis on collaboration via these poet pairings,” says Anthony. “Poetry is so often thought of as a singular art, but we’re keen to show it as a plaform for communal response. And the involvement of so many award-winning and internationally significant collaborators recognises the importance of connecting people through poetry during what’s proven to be one of the most extreme examples of enforced social distancing and isolation in most of our lifetimes.” 

The project is being backed by a number of major organisations, including The Poetry Society, Age of Creativity and several UNESCO Cities of Literature. It is also looking to establish connections with organisations and researchers working in Health and Wellbeing, which will both enable and document the ability of poetry to contribute to public processing and healing during the pandemic. The project’s target audience includes anyone suffering bereavement, physical or mental health issues, and those for whom reading or writing poetry may prove therapeutic.

The website, developed by Research Assistant to the project (and PhD Creative Writing student), Sam Kemp, will continue to be curated until June 2021, enabling ongoing responses as the pandemic continues to impact daily life.

“This sort of interactive forum is truly innovative,” adds Anthony. “It both provides a platform where the public-at-large can publish their work, as well as a place of ‘curation’ by us as academics where people can go to better understand how poetry might be used as a mode of discourse during this pandemic.”

Study English and creative writing

The English and creative writing department at Plymouth encompasses experts on the Restoration, 18th, 19th and 20th century literature, contemporary poetry and fiction, American literature with research interests lying in literature and the environment and transatlantic literature, amongst others. 

The teaching staff are published writers and poets in their own right and support future aspiring and emerging writers through their teaching, publishing initiatives such as Periplum Poetry.

Find out more about the English and creative writing department