Celebrating 25 years of National Poetry Month: Perseverance through COVID and Anti-Blackness

Although we are at the end of National Poetry Month, we have not forgotten about celebrating its cultural, historical, and artistic impact on our community. 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of celebrating poets and their work. This year for National Poetry Month we would like to spotlight poetry that embodies our lived experience since April 2020. Since then, we have continued to navigate a global pandemic while seeing the best of us and the worst of us as the practices of anti-blackness continue to persist.

Surviving COVID through Pandemic Poetry 

Although we are in the midst of a global pandemic, that has not stopped the flows of creativity and the need for its symbolism to soothe our souls. The United Kingdom’s National Poetry Library featured the work of contemporary American poets and their responses to the current pandemic. 

Again, saying, I am here. I’d call it endless,

Endless. What is stripped of its mortality

Goes on like a soldier to war. But we can’t

Do that, not really. Instead, we balance

An excerpt from Noelle Kocott’s “At the beginning of COVID,” is the headliner of a 2020 twelve poem series entitled “In the beginning of COVID-19.

Newspapers and other popular news sources have also provided an outlet for poets during the pandemic. The New York Times highlighted a selection of pandemic poems sent to the editor. 

I want to walk amidst a crowd.

I want to lift this morbid shroud.

I sit, sequestered in my home,

And yearn to mingle, travel, roam.

An excerpt from “Wish” by Erika Fine, the poem was published along with several other reader submissions in the May 22, 2020 edition of NYT in its Opinion / Letters section, entitled “Coronavirus Poems to the Editor: ‘Death Too Wears a Mask’.”

Spoken Word as the voice against injustice and a re-telling of the Black experience

The historic roots of white supremacist culture and systemic racism of American society sadly remain intact and persist.. For BIPOC artists, the use of their work as a platform to speak out about their lived experiences is often the only way for them to reconcile the trauma, injustice, misconceptions, and hate they endure as a part of othering.

We all into being underground railroad in audio form

This profession ain’t no hiding place in a battlefield

Does this look like shininess we’ll never be able to afford?

Everyday get lit like nothin but statistics stacked against my people

Sewage drains into a subconscious

To pickpocket a future in the midst of a techno takeover by pasteurized alabaster

Uh-uh

*This excerpt is from Olu Butterfly Woods’ “An Artist Prayer” the spoken word audio track was transcribed by me and may contain inaccuracies.

Released in 2004 as part of a jazz album entitled “Black is…” by Fertile Ground; the spoken word performance was reprised for Woods’ appearance in the music documentary “Dark City: Beneath the Beat” recently released on Netflix and included in the film’s original soundtrack. Woods style embodies Afrofuturism, and she has referred to her collection of works published in “The Revenge of Dandelions” as “Urban JuJu Poetry.” In 2016, Woods, along with partner Jason Harris of Newfuturism.com, organized a major Afrofuture Artscape Exhibit, “The Mothership Connection” in Baltimore’s Pearlstone Park. To anyone familiar with her work, it should come as no surprise that her passion for poetry can be found in most of her endeavors. 

As defined in the Poetry Foundation’s glossary of terms, Spoken Word is poetry intended for performance; characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation, and word play, and frequently refers to issues of social justice, politics, race, and community. Although sometimes published in print / to page, the genre has its roots in oral traditions and performance and often contain elements of rap, hip-hop, storytelling, theater, and jazz, rock, blues, and folk music. As Black America continues to endure the lethal policing of Black bodies and the ravages of health inequity on Black existence in the midst of a pandemic; Olu Butterfly’s reprised performance of “An Artist’s Prayer” in Dark City: Beneath the Beat reminds us that poetry is not only symbolic and therapeutic, but also direct and empowering.

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