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Using poetry to understand grief during a very difficult year


As the year comes to an end, we don't want to lose sight of the fact that it's been a difficult one for a lot of people. With the pandemic raging due to the omicron variant, slow economic recovery and increased isolation, a lot of people might be feeling grief, frustration or even cautious optimism. This got us thinking about poetry and how it can be used to understand or work through complex emotions.

So to help us out, we called poet Danez Smith. They co-host the "VS" podcast and published a celebrated collection of poems last year called "Homie." When we spoke, Smith told me they briefly stopped writing poetry at the start of the pandemic, but explained what it's been like to return to it this year.

DANEZ SMITH: So much of my poetry, I think, is about interacting with other people, whether it be witnessing other people living their lives or mishearing things or eavesdropping on folks or just living my life amongst my people, my family, my lovers and then going back to the page to report that. This year we're where we become so touch starved and so longing for community even as we're losing community rapidly sometimes, I've lost several family members to COVID. It was hard for me to understand what poetry was without the abundance of people in my life. But it was really hard for me to claw my way back into language and figure out, OK, what is my poetry now that my life is less people than it's ever been?

NADWORNY: Yeah. And so what was that return like?

SMITH: It was a struggle. But, you know, I took on a challenge for myself. I said, OK, I'm going to write a poem every day this year. I don't know why I said that, but I've tried to keep up with it. It's made me keener in how I'm looking. Like, OK, if I know that my poetry does its best when I'm interacting with people, then how can I use my time around people when I'm teaching, when I'm running around doing errands and stuff like that, when I'm just sitting on my stoop? How can I focus my sight so that I'm seeing who you are now and who we are together and maybe to deal with some of the, you know, deep, dark darknesses that we all have in ourselves that we've had to confront in these times of intense loneliness.

So, you know, trying to find new ways to pull what the human condition is, which I think is what poetry does. It's supposed to be like, you know, this little summed-up, focused, brief experience of humanity and what was and also what's possible. And I think it's been harder, but - to listen to what that voice is and what life is saying, and so it's made me become a sharper listener.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Wow. Well, as you mentioned, a lot has happened this year with the pandemic and the economy and grief. And, you know, we're talking about reflecting on emotions and how we feel. I understand you have a poem that kind of speaks to all this?

SMITH: When y'all hit me up, I started thinking like, OK, what are my - what are the poems about grief that have struck me? And one that came to mind was this poem "After The Fire" by Ada Limon, who's a marvelous poet. If folks listening don't know who Ada Limon is, run to Google. And this short little poem, I think, does a lot to make room for grief in our lives, even though grief is often accompanied by other feelings - right? - by rage, by loneliness, by confusion, by sometimes even happiness. I think Ada really gets to something essential about the nature of grief in this poem.

"After The Fire" by Ada Limon. (Reading) You ever think you could cry so hard that there'd be nothing left in you, like how the wind shakes a tree in a storm until every part of it runs through with wind? I live in the low parts now, most days a little hazy with fever and waiting for the water to stop shivering out of the body. Funny thing about grief, its hold is so bright and determined, like a flame, like something almost worth living for.

NADWORNY: Wow. Can you tell us a little bit about what resonates with you in this?

SMITH: Well, one, I think she starts off with just that all-encompassing sort of omnipotent power that grief has, like, you know, yeah, I have felt that feeling like I could cry and there'd be nothing left of me. I think when you're in the midst of the darkest and deepest throes of grief, it feels like it's been your whole life and like there's no escape. But she gets to something essential about grief, I think, at the end, how it's so bright and determined like a flame. It's almost like something worth living for.

I think she's talking about how grief is unavoidable and uninterruptable, how, you know, whether it be the grief of losing the love, the grief of losing a parent or a child, these are sort of the disasters that we sign up for with the living. And that thing of almost like it's something worth living for, we don't live for grief, but we understand - I think through Ada's poem, it helps me understand that we don't live for grief, but we have to live beside it and we have to make our way through it. And that to love and to be and to move as a human means that grief will meet you at some point, and you will make it through, and it will feel that dark. But it's almost like life requires it.

NADWORNY: Yeah. I wonder, you know, it has been a tough year. You mentioned you yourself have lost folks to COVID. And I wonder, how have you been processing grief and other feelings during the pandemic? I mean, has it been poetry? What's helped?

SMITH: What's helped has been loving on the folks that I still have. Letting yourself go through the cycle of grief. I think you have to let yourself kind of just be unleashed to its ravages at some point and not feel like it's something to avoid but just to really feel that depth. And I think the thing about COVID is it's this, you know, it's this new thing, it's this virus, but it's also a grief that feels like - well, I think we have to like think about the role of the state within it, right? (Laughter).

NADWORNY: It's bigger than us. Yeah.

SMITH: Right. You know, and so I think there is a righteous political anger that sometimes lives alongside that grief of like, why have so many people had to die from COVID? Why are we - you know, why is omicron ravaging us the way that it is? Why have we you started acting like we weren't still in the middle of a pandemic? And that's why most of the country has it right now. I think there's a reason to get angry right now about COVID. And so I think to channel that grief into purpose or into helping your community has been the ways I've been trying to channel my grief into something positive.

NADWORNY: I wonder, when you're writing a poem to kind of process many of these complex emotions, where do you start? Because, poetry you know, there's all kinds of poetry.

SMITH: You know, there is. I think - I always encourage my students and myself to start with what you do know and move towards what you don't. I think the poem, while also being a great way to just capture your feelings - I don't know about other poets, but it's been a great way for me to discover my feelings. There's many revelations I've had mid-poem just because the act of writing and the power of language takes me there. And so I'll start with what feels truest, with what I feel like I have the most hold on knowing how to say. And then from there, move deeper into maybe what I don't know, right?

If I'm starting at I miss my grandfather, then further down on the page, maybe there's something about our relationship that I have figured out or that I didn't know I was thinking about before that happens in the middle. So I think that's a good note for anybody. If you're just trying to write a poem to remember a loved one, to deal with your own grief, not trying to be the most famous poet in the world, but using poetry as a restorative act, which I think it is, start from where you know. And go into that wilderness knowing that poetry won't let you get too far without holding your hand.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, I was going to ask what tips you had for people who might feel the urge to make poetry over the holiday break. Any other ideas?

SMITH: One of the things I used to do when I was a budding poet and still do to this day is, if I see a line that really feels like it shakes me up, steal it. Take that line from that poet that made some type of sense of your soul and start from there. Use their words as a launching point to figure out what you have to say as well.

NADWORNY: That's Danez Smith. Their latest collection of poems, "Homie," is out now today. Danez, Thank you so much. This was such a treat.

SMITH: Thank you so much. Happy Holidays to you and to everybody listening. And, you know, let's all be kind to each other. We're all grieving out there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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