The COVID-19 pandemic has altered and halted lives around the world. Whether studying in Montreal or from home, McGill students are experiencing a unique semester that has encouraged, and even forced, adaptation. In response to COVID-19–related challenges, many McGill students have turned to poetry and creative writing as outlets for exploring, understanding, and relating to the strange and often tragic situations in which they are living.
According to a survey conducted by activeminds.org, 20 per cent of college students said that their mental health has significantly worsened during the pandemic, 48 per cent of college students have experienced financial setbacks, and 74 per cent of students have struggled to maintain a daily routine. The situation at McGill is no different, as students have declared that this situation has become a growing mental health crisis. Poetry allows for students to explore troublesome circumstances and emotions from the safety of their rooms, making it the perfect hobby to adopt during stay-at-home orders. Jana Marie Perkins, a member of Poetry Matters, stressed the unique avenues for articulation that poetry offers.
“We’re at a point right now where so many people are searching for ways to describe this wave of unprecedented circumstances we’re experiencing right now,” Perkins said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “Poetry has been able to address that need in a way that, in our lifetimes, it hasn’t often been called to do.”
For some students, the pandemic has changed their everyday relationship with poetry and writing. Alana Dunlop, the president of Mcsway Poetry Collective, expressed how the pandemic fuelled her already-extant poetic passions and turned a recreational artistic activity into a potential future path.
“In the summer when I had absolutely nothing to do and I had to move back home with my parents, I was writing a lot,” Dunlop said. “For a while, I was really just writing for fun. I wasn’t submitting to literary magazines, contests, or anything. But I got back into the idea of making poetry a serious thing in my life that could possibly be a career.”
Along with re-evaluating her possible future as a writer, Dunlop found herself using poetry as a tool to explore her emotions and to process the strange contingencies she was experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was looking back at my past and things that had already happened because nothing was going on in the present,” Dunlop said. “I was sitting at home, doing nothing with my parents [….] I was reflecting on things that happened to me in the past [and] I feel as if that really informed what I’m writing now.”
Others expressed how isolation and quarantines allowed them to observe their writing from new angles.
“It’s interesting to find things to write when you can’t do as much in general and you feel like your life is on pause,” Amanda,* a McGill student poet, said. “You can’t write about life experiences in the same way, so it gives you perspective.”
Dunlop has noticed that poetry has been increasingly popular, as Mcsway events have particularly thrived during the pandemic. Virtual platforms, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, make artistic collaboration readily accessible for anyone with a computer and internet connection. Since the pandemic, Mcsway’s open-mic poetry nights have been incredibly successful, demonstrating the potential of these applications.
“We’ve moved all our events online, so we have online open-mics once a month,” Dunlop said. “We’ve had amazing turnout to every single open mic, more people than what we’ve had in-person. The great thing about Zoom is that it’s not in a small group. You don’t have to book a room and pay for it. A lot of people can come, we’ve seen 40-50 people at every open-mic and there’s always a line-up of people who want to perform, share their poetry, and connect with people through poetry.”
Furthermore, virtual functions enable Mcsway to foster an encouraging, comfortable environment for performers and audience members. Such features would not be available in the usual open-mic setting, which often take place in cramped bars or cafés.
“A lot of people are more comfortable to express themselves when it’s not in front of a bunch of people and you can hear them breathing, moving, and whispering to each other,” Dunlop said. “The great thing about using Zoom is the chat function [….] At all of our events, we make sure that the audience members are blowing up the chat with really nice things about the performance that they’re hearing. Then, the performer can look at it afterwards and feel uplifted in a safe space. You can’t have that same thing in-person.”
While COVID-19 related circumstances have changed how McGill students enact self-expression, it has also created many challenges for those who seek inspiration from sources now made inaccessible. Many writers feel strained because their meaningful experiences, such as travelling or socializing, are less available or entirely impossible. Michael Garbarino, U2 Arts, is a student poet who finds that the lull of this winter has stunted his productivity.
“My activities are super monotonous during COVID. I spent my day in my room or in the kitchen, basically,” Garbarino said. “It makes you more uninspired.”
On the other hand, some writers are flourishing. For example, the U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb,” was written only weeks prior to its performance, during some of America’s most intense weeks of the pandemic. Dunlop’s poetic adventures during the pandemic empowered her to apply for an MFA in creative writing.
“As readers, we may be appreciating this moment and being comforted by the poetry we find,” Perkins said. “For the poets themselves writing in this moment, it’s very difficult. I don’t know how to reconcile that, but as we’ve seen, there are those for whom this period has been productive as well as challenging.”
How the pandemic will ultimately shape the relationship between people and poetry is still unknown. But, poetry’s surge within the McGill community could be indicative of a more widely-encompassing increase in popularity. The pandemic has caused suffering and challenged students, but a poetic revival could become a positive side-outcome from a difficult period. Poetry’s potential for personal and political reflection and commentary give it potency in the wake of a global catastrophe.
“The theme for this year’s Poetry Matters workshop is poetry and re-emergence,” Perkins said. “A lot of what we’re doing is not only examining how poetry can help us to re-emerge, both during and from this moment, but also how poetry might newly help us to frame our understanding of the post-pandemic world once we come out on the other side of things.”
*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.