In her work, Anne Waldman asks again and again what it means to be a poet in our time. I think about this in relation to how COVID-19 has created radical shifts in the way we work, even in what work we are doing. Dot Devota began a quarantine journal after a long period of illness-related not-writing, in part because the gestalt shift of quarantine led her to reconceptualize the project of writing, the idea of what it means—and what is required—to make art. —Erika Stevens, senior editor
For the past three years, I have experienced what I call an illness-induced writer’s block. When the pandemic hit, I began to write again, but only because quarantine first forced me to give up completely: I abandoned my desk and lay in bed. “I wanted to record only the day,” the poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes in Attic Life during Moscow’s famine in 1919. Eventually, I reached for my computer, and flat on my back, I rested it on my stomach. I typed. My symptoms didn’t interfere.
Being ill often feels like being stuck inside. My main symptom is constant dizziness. No matter what I am doing, I am spinning around trying to focus on a single object. The world swings, rises in the swell, blurs, twists, flips, rolls, and drops while squeezing my brain, sitting heavily upon it, and fizzing inside. I see the world through the jerky handheld-camera action of a documentary film. It affects writing because most of the cognitive burden falls on my eyes. They can neither rest comfortably on the computer nor bounce around the page, up and down from screen to keys. Looking down at letters causes motion sickness, vertigo, and makes me want to vomit on the book, souring what I’ve loved most.
Now we are burdened by a concise moment. To the point of concussion. How symbolic: we are stuck inside. The pressure is on imagination, original ideas, having to pool resources without relying on one’s past most dominant resource, a crude oil of sorts, which sits outside the door souring. We cannot fear how resourceful we might find ourselves to be. How re-sours-full.
I am disabled by the architecture of writing. My eyes, fated to dart sparingly and late, are fixed to a point out of time while my mind speeds ahead, loses control, and abandons working in tandem. It doesn't cause distracted misspelling, but spelling reshaped by a lost habit to keep up. To really focus now that it’s difficult, now that focus is not meaningless and not meaningful but purely creative. Every word mounts me, sits on my stomach while I’m lying awake. The words rise above the horizon and stare me down. When I write it’s like I’m reading a book before sleep transgresses consciousness, and in the wild I no longer have that story with me.
Creativity has been our pet, instead of something wild that must be extremely disciplined in order to survive. Some might have thought creativity meant meandering endlessly, free to write about whatever we wanted, engaging in “collective slant”—ways to speak about the larger picture, the human condition, even, without being trapped by a concise moment. A person given whatever space they need versus a person given no space to exist. Creo versus creatio, “to make” versus “creation from nothing.” Creativity, always changing, must change in order to inhabit itself.
“How can we still be creative during this time?” a student from Columbia University asks me during a virtual poetry reading. I am sympathetic to feeling forcibly ejected from one’s own life, getting stranded, asking Now what? I tell her creativity now means “what keeps the mind from eating the rest of me.”
During this mandemic (my Freudian slip typing pandemic), my toddler and I go on nightly walks to visit all the tiny cactus you must hunt for between evaporated wildflowers. I look at Yumi’s thigh and yell Blood! but it is dried juice from a frozen cherry. Now Yumi looks at her thigh and yells Blood! where there is none. I redirect her to an old wound on her knee and explain scabs. She reverts to the trauma that caused the scab of healing: “Fall, fall.”
I live in the past that taught me, but what appears on the page is that I am a function of its code. The code is a new reality I must live in, because within my physiology I alone realized it. The code is so many symbols and characters and is needed to unlock me to the outside. But once outside, who cares?
The poet Dot Devota is the author of The Division of Labor (Rescue Press), And The Girls Worried Terribly (Noemi Press), The Eternal Wall (Book*hug), and Dept. of Posthumous Letters (Argos Books). MW: A Field Guide to the Midwest is her nonfiction novel; excerpts are published in PEN America, Denver Quarterly, and the Poetry Foundation (blog), among other places. Her recent manuscript >SHE is autofiction.