How Writing Poetry Helped Me Fight the Paranoia That Came with the Pandemic


How Writing Poetry Helped Me Fight the Paranoia That Came with the Pandemic

Illustration: Arati Gujar

COVID-19 has taken over our lives and there are times I want to stop talking about it. But I can’t. Considering the dystopian nightmare that has unfolded over the past 14 months, it has been the solitary subtext to the lives that we have been living. During this period of utter mayhem, what has remained constant is hopelessness and grief. I often start conversations with the express purpose of talking about something other than the pandemic. Within two short sentences, I seem to have U-turned to this pandemonium breaking out in the country. How can you run away from something so omnipresent?

Artists from around the world seem to have embraced this calamity as inspiration for their art. Which, for me, meant turning towards writing. I have been writing poetry since I was 10 years old. It initially began as a means to compete with my best friend who had recently made her foray into this artform. So gravely displeased was I that she could write a poem and I hadn’t yet, that I refused to give up until I had a verse down. (Writers are an extremely envious species – they always want what others have).

Over the past decade and a half, poetry has become a habit. It has become an inextricable part of me. When I string two sentences together, I cannot help but hunt for metaphors. I am constantly but subconsciously alliterating my sentences because I like how the words feel in my mouth. For so many years now, poetry has been the only thing that I find reprieve in, a respite from the humdrum. But when the pandemic started, I swore to myself that I would shield poetry from it. While every minute I breathed I was susceptible to the disease, I would not let my artform fall prey to it.

I am constantly but subconsciously alliterating my sentences because I like how the words feel in my mouth.

Since poetry was my only refuge, it became harder and harder to not let my surroundings seep into my work. I resisted writing about it. What emanated from this exercise were half-baked metaphors and laboured conceits that made sense in my mind alone. I was skirting around the subject which did little good to my imagination. Why was I trying so hard when historically speaking, poetry has encapsulated the disquiet that many were suffering through during their times.

English poet Wilfred Owen distilled the brutality and redundancy of World War I in “Dulce et Decorum est”  More recently, writer and slam poet Sabrina Benaim in her spoken word piece “Explaining My Depression To My Mother” elaborated on how depression has been the sole conduit of her life. And so, my resistance snapped. Here I was baptised in a sea of mania and paranoia; why was I trying to shelter poetry from it? Wasn’t it always poetry that protected me from it?

Every year, the month of April is celebrated as Global/National Poetry Writing Month (Glo/NaPoWriMo). Started in 2003 by American poet, Maureen Thorson, it has now become a global phenomenon. Artists from around the world are encouraged to write poetry every single day of this month. Every morning, Thorson offers a prompt, something to trigger one’s imagination, to give birth to poetry.

While it is not mandatory to adhere to these prompts, they have fashioned the thinking and creativity of many who have participated. Twice before, I have engaged in it and both times, I have come up gasping for air. Something about writing every single day made the artform feel mechanical. Naturally, that feeling dripped into my work. In 2021, as I undertook this challenge once again, I was prepared for how this could drain me. What I failed to consider was that reality is a product of poetry and not the other way around.

Here I was baptised in a sea of mania and paranoia; why was I trying to shelter poetry from it?

As I indulged in this process, I found new structure not just in my writing but also in my life – something that was sorely lacking thanks to the pandemic. Before this, I felt like I was sliding into a loop of insanity; every day felt the same. Now my days were defined by poetry. There was finally something to look forward to. For so long, our anxieties had been at an all-time high. Some of us are clamouring for hospital beds while the rest of us are trying to safeguard our jobs.

This April, after over a year of living through a pandemic, my family and I fell prey to the virus – the looming dread was now tangible. Until now, it had only been a concept to be wary of, to take all preventative measures against. Now, cooped up inside taking laboured breaths, the only respite was to write. Poetry was the pranayam I didn’t know I needed.

Poetry was the pranayam I didn’t know I needed.

Much like myself, there were people who were forced to confront a heretofore unexplored sea of emotions. Our lives had never been collectively threatened before. Writing poetry helped untangle this web of loss, hopelessness, and haplessness. There was something so meditative about writing in verse – free or structured. Knowing that it came with no compulsion to be perfect or to sound entirely profound helped streamline my thoughts.

Seeing something on paper has always legitimised its presence to me. Writing about the pandemic meant coming to terms with reality, to no longer be depersonalised from it. Having said that, I also found myself drawn to poems that were rife with imagery, ones that spoke beyond words and explored more profound dimensions. I wrote extensively about how life on the outside had turned on its head whereas life on the inside could not have felt more mundane. In my poem, “Legacy for the Dead”, from Amidships, I explored this discord:

“The void that comes in moments strange lies untouched in this wind,

where nothing moves or goes astray, dead flowers and mules akin.

For what may go, one may not know, and no truth in what may stay.

All that waits may bloom or grow, or wilt in great decay.”

For me, seeking imagery meant delving into the imaginary. I realised that it was only in my imagination that reality did not seem so daunting, that life felt better. Writing poetry became, at once, a refuge from reality and the exploration of it. I could no more extricate my poetry from the gravity of the situation than I could myself.

One day I will come back to all that I have written during the pandemic, like a relic from the past. I will relive these moments through vignettes of phrases; but the pandemic will exist with me only for a brief moment. A time when this will no longer be our reality. Maybe then I’ll start writing poetry about hope.