It’s not every day that you see former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and actor Bill Murray in the same Zoom event. Yet that was the case on Nov. 12, when Theater of War Productions and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers presented “Poetry for the Pandemic.” Not only did the event provide a chance to listen to highly acclaimed poets recite poetry, but it was also a rare opportunity to witness established creatives passing the torch down to up-and-coming artists.
Poet Joshua Bennett and theater director Bryan Doerries, who is known for creating the Theater of War project, hosted “Poetry for the Pandemic.” The hour-and-a-half-long event showcased poetry from established poets and members of the class of 2020 National Student Poets Program, which represented exceptional poets from high school students nationwide. Some of the veteran wordsmiths featured included Mahogany L. Browne, Molly McCully Brown, Patricia Smith and Herrera; the special guests included actors Tracie Thoms and Murray.
Poetry unearths the difficulties of the human experience and provides the tools to overcome personal and social adversity. We need to share stories in a communal setting and be understood, yet as the pandemic has forced people to work and attend school remotely, this necessity has been neglected. This event successfully brought people together again for the celebration of humanity in all its diversity and commonality. As Doerries remarked, the purpose of art is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted,” — and “Poetry for the Pandemic” undoubtedly rekindled souls.
Another stirring moment occurred when Herrera read Isabella Ramirez’s poem about her immigrant mother. In fact, most of the night’s poetry tackled issues such as immigration, identity and economic hardship. It was wholesome to see two members of the Latinx community connecting over shared experiences and wonderfully crafted verse.
Murray read two poems in his soothing, deep voice, successfully capturing the emotion of a person so obsessed with poetry that they proclaim they wish they had never found it. Murray is known for going to public events and being down-to-earth with everyone he meets, making him an absolute legend in my book. His quiet yet comforting personality meshed well with the other special guest, Thoms, who read each poem with high energy and moxie.
In the latter half of the event, a few lucky audience members from around the world joined the call and spoke to the poets. Audience members expressed how the night’s poetry personally spoke to them: For a paramedic in the crowd, the fact that the poems were read by other poets rather than by the authors illustrated poetry’s universality. An African British man reflected on the childlike perspective that flowed through the evening’s poems — he believed it added a beautifully simplistic layer to darker themes such as poverty and discrimination within the works. A Haitian American girl expressed gratitude for the realistic representation of the “dual perspective” of second-generation immigrants in the poems.
The poets concluded by writing down the musicians that inspired them in the chat, which included “the entire Björk discography,” “‘Bambi’ by Jidenna,” “‘Black Dog’ by Arlo Parks” and “anything by Smokey Robinson [and] Sam Cooke.”
What do two second-generation Mexican immigrants, a paramedic, a group of talented high schoolers and Bill Murray have in common? They all share a deep love for poetry and an appreciation for its ability to relay the human experience like no other. We all contain the capacity to love poetry because it is the same as loving life, with all its imperfections.
I implore you to pick up a book of poems, sit down in a comfortable chair and let the tender words take you back to a time before the pandemic when you felt light and carefree.