Postcard poetry in the age of a pandemic

Mail art has often been understood as a participatory, collective, and intimate poetic exercise. How to write and share poetry collectively during a pandemic? This summer, I had the pleasure of working closely with a group of dynamic young writers in a creative research collective that utilized virtual poetry postcards. To help foster connections, conversations, and creativity across Zoom screens, the students created a virtual poetry project where they shared an image and poem every week with one another. As certain individuals could not receive mail due to the pandemic, their digital poetry postcard project provided a needed intervention during the pandemic. In doing so, they maintained a practice of literary community. 

In addition to poetry postcards, recent graduate Izzy Dean as Project Lead facilitated a discussion of the Femme Sharks manifesto, and our dynamic discussion instigated a collectively written manifesto below. Collectively named the Poetic Sparks, this community of writers utilized multiple ways of creating and connecting together during these challenging times. I like to think of the spark as a small light from electricity or fire that begins something special that can spread. 

I’m pleased to share the Poetic Sparks Digital Postcard Project and the manifesto featured below in this post. As writers and artists coming of age during a pandemic, their collective creativity reminds me how working with college students is gratifying. During these challenging times, the work of a younger generation of writers writing together, and for one another is buoying. Along with the poems, each writer included a poetic statement with their work. They also provided an explanation of process. I hope readers can engage with and celebrate these collectively shared poems and images as well as the collectively written manifesto that necessarily intervenes and sparks through digital screens. — Margaret Rhee 

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A Poetic Sparks Postcard Project 

By: Alicia Kwok, Anisha Johnson, Anna Baynton, Izzy Dean, and Morgan Sammut 

Article materials curated by Anisha Johnson 

Project summary

While working with Margaret as a research collective this summer, we knew that we wanted to find a way to connect with and support each other as both colleagues and friends — and thus was the Poetry Postcards project born! Over the past several weeks, we’ve been taking turns sending virtual postcards to members of the group. Since we are all so far apart, this project helped foster our creative community and bring us closer together despite the challenges caused by the pandemic.

Creation of the postcard project

Two of our members were in places it was difficult to get mail to, so we decided to email the postcards because that was already how we were communicating. Each postcard has three parts: a picture (optional), a little note about your week, and a poem, either one you wrote or enjoyed. Anna and I decided to have a rotating schedule of who was sending a postcard to whom, because there was an odd number of us, and I think there’s something beautiful about ending the summer with a response from the person you wrote to originally. — Morgan Sammut 

Poems + Images  

Alica Kwok 

sourceland

also known as homeland, motherland, nation of origin. also known as

neither home nor mother nor origin and sometimes not even nation,

depending on your luck. go ahead, draw a card. depending on your luck,

the joss paper exchange rate will be in your favor and you will descend

from the clouds to worship the ancestral faces of strangers and you will

ask yourself is this the part that completes me? depending on your luck,

your card will reassure you, yes, you are here, your arrival having justified

your being so that you can look at your hands today and ask yourself,

would this skin fit better in a more exotic time zone? go ahead, draw a card.

authenticity is a game best played by orphans and other romantics, 

by aliens and other liars. tell yourself this country makes liars of us all. 

depending on your luck, you will believe it when you tell the mirror 

i am not a liar, and you will believe it when the mirror says it back, 

and you will still believe it when you run out of cards to draw, when 

you are left with nothing but the mirror and your ill-fitting hands: 

i am not a liar, i am not a liar, i am not a liar.

Poetic statement: The short explanation for this poem is that it’s about national identity and the process of identifying with a nation as part of a diaspora. The longer explanation is that I wrote this poem around the same time that the new national security law in Hong Kong (where most of my family is from) went into effect. I had been closely following the news in Hong Kong since the protests there became international news last year, and, ever since, I find myself returning to the relationships between myself, the places I inhabit, and the political discourses that distort and essentialize said relationships. As the political situation in Hong Kong worsens, I am increasingly afraid that the place I am constantly trying to preserve and remember in my writing will one day become totally inaccessible to me.

At the same time, I feel compelled, as someone who (depending on the day) identifies with the Chinese diaspora, to identify with the Chinese state even as it restricts and threatens people close to me, something that I cannot bring myself to do. “sourceland,” therefore, is my attempt to reject the romantic impulses that glorify a sourceland/homeland/motherland (take your pick; I have complaints about all those words) that I do not know (and in turn, it does not know me). This poem is a reminder to myself that I do not owe my allegiance to any nation on the basis of my blood or my labor or my personhood, and a reminder that wholeness is not a destination. Also, I thought it would be fun to write something inspired by the instructions for a card game. 

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Anisha Johnson 

retrouvailles

i.

retrouvailles. French, noun: literally “rediscovery; a reunion (e.g., with loved ones after a long time apart)

ii.

my life is ripping itself from me like a shadow from a magic boy

transmuting hours into seconds like gold into lead — 

(can experiences die if they were never lived?)

college life in spiderwebbed storage and

summer plans gone the way of the titanic and 

friends who are more screen than face:

i am falling out of my place in the world,

sand in an hourglass with an empty bottom.

but something i’ve realized: the one thing the pandemic cannot take away

is me.

so here is a letter for myself who is you who is everyone who is struggling

to remind everyone who is you who is me that 

we are greater than our greatest fears.

it has been a long time since we have seen our friends

but it has been even longer since we have seen ourselves.

iii.

if you ever want to see infinity, look into a mirror

or if you don’t believe your reflection, then i could set it up for you like this:

human = True

human_value = “infinite”

while human:

print (human_value)

now do you understand your programming?

look at the sky. it is gray with tears because it knows it is smaller than you. 

iv.

pay attention to my telephone, i’m calling the stars

(or something above, behind, between, amongst, inside them) — 

wherever the number i’m calling is.

if an alien picks up, i’ll say 

i’m an alien too —

if it goes to voicemail, then i’ll keep calling until the phone/the stars/my Body dies.

human = False

if human:

print (“i want to be more”)

else:

print (“i already am”)

i am calling everything outside of me, but it is still me.

i look at the sky and it is gray with tears because it knows it is smaller than me.

now do you see how big i am?

now do you remember how big you are?

v.

we’re inside the colander that is the sky

draining into the world while it drains into us

wondering how we are supposed to fit inside ourselves.

human = True

#this is not the same as brainpower because minds are bigger than brains

mindpower = 1

while human:

print(mindpower)

mindpower += 1

the answer is that we will never fit

because draining out has made us bigger not smaller

and the world has coded us to keep growing 

vi.

the pandemic will not end us because infinite things go on forever.

Poetic statement: My creative work is both untidy and unplanned — I write novels and poems without outlines, take photographs without premeditation, and compose music without a single theme in mind. However, this lack of organization and forethought is the lifeblood of all of my artistic projects. My creative intent is to create without intent: I have found that liberating myself from specific goals and end results brings about a much deeper form of self-expression. Furthermore, embracing uncertainty and letting go of what my work will ultimately look like allows me to focus more on how I hope it will affect people.

I believe in discovery and experimentation; as such, I do not have a favorite medium or a specific creative style and probably never will: my goal is not necessarily for my art to be recognized as mine, but rather for it to be recognized as art. All of my art and writing projects are inherently different and unique: they are my left brain and my right brain, my anxiety and my calm, my happiness and my sorrow, my outer presentation and my inner self. I hope that my work expresses my entire contradictory being and communicates to my audience that every part of themselves is equally stunning, valid, worthy of acceptance, and vital for creating art. We don’t need a plan or a purpose. We need only ourselves, and that is enough to make our work beautiful and powerful and relevant.

The poem that I chose to include here is a code poem that I wrote when I was feeling particularly miserable about COVID-19 and felt that writing a poem about the situation might uplift my spirits and hopefully provide a new perspective to anyone else struggling with the pandemic.

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Anna Brayton

End of the Verses of Jean Prouvaire

tell me, tell me I am not alone

(the sparks are dancing in the night) and I

am crying out to any who will hear

come hear! come hear!

for we have come to wash the windows of the world

we have come to make of things what they should be

(the sparks are dancing in my soul) and I

am crying out that I am not alone

that I believe that I am not alone

although in blue-spun twilight I have wept

in what seems loneliness to those who do not know

(the sparks are dancing in our eyes) and I

have seemed alone to those who cannot see

through mud-streaked window-panes, until we come

and scour off the ages with our shouts,

our dreams, our blood — come hear!

I know, I trust that we are not alone

(the flames are dancing in the street) and I

see worlds on worlds still shining in the night,

the worlds my friends are dreaming with their lives

(the stars are dancing in the sky) and I

can die like this, the future in my eyes.

Poetic statement: I wrote this poem as a character study of Jean Prouvaire, a young revolutionary in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The poem is an expression of my affection for the character, a tribute to his courage and hope. Much of my work is similarly character-focused; I am interested in the emotions of my characters, how they handle the conflicts into which they are thrust, more than in the content or the outcome of those conflicts. And I am interested in their relationships with each other — more to the point, their love for each other and how they express it. It is there that my values intersect deeply with my work. Deed is more important than consequence. Whether one’s efforts succeed or fail is irrelevant. The point is to love actively, impractically, relentlessly, regardless of one’s fear.

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Izzy Dean 


Poetic statement: This poem was written during my time in confinement in Madrid, a city hit hard by COVID-19. During my time under lockdown, I felt great anger and sadness towards the United States for various reasons — the governments dealing with the pandemic, the police murders of innocent Black people, the deployment of federal troops in my home state of Oregon in reaction to the Black Lives Matter peaceful protests. Having the isolation and space away from my country of origin gave me time to be critical in a way that I don’t think could have happened if I had been living there. This poem emerged as a result of my loss in faith in humanity but navigating my way back to it. I decided to write this poem in Spanish and translate it to English, because it greatly shows what a lot of my work focuses on — the intersection of two worlds. Gloria Anzaldúa has been a great 
influence to me and my work; her mestiza consciousness has been a guiding force, the creation of a space for two identities to exist in conjunction with one another. My senior year I took a class about translation theory, and since then I have been fascinated by the way that words hold different weight in each language, then applying that to the process of maintaining meaning or sentiment by the original author, rather than just a direct translation where so much of the writer’s voice is lost.  

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Morgan Sammut  

The Shape of Your Heart 

def theShapeOfYourHeart():

print(“Who has your heart?\n”)

hasMyHeart = input(“my family, my friends, my lover\n”)

if (hasMyHeart == “my family”):

print(“family is the first we have”)

print(“their love is the ultimate salve”)

print(“if your family has your heart,”)

print(“shapeOfHeart = hug\n”)

elif (hasMyHeart == “my friends”):

print(“friends are the family we choose”)

print(“(and thus, I believe, the hardest to lose)”)

print(“if your friends have your heart,”)

print(“shapeOfHeart = hold\n”)

elif (hasMyHeart == “my lover”):

print(“someone who can always make you laugh”)

print(“after all, they are your other half”)

print(“if your lover has your heart,”)

print(“shapeOfHeart = kiss\n”)

elif (hasMyHeart == “myself):

print(“then you need no wise words from me)

print(“in you is everything you could ever be)

print(“if you have your own heart,”)

print(“shapeOfHeart = complete\n)

elif (hasMyHeart == “you):

#me? Im the lucky one to have your heart?

#even though youve never met me?

print(“and you have mine")

print(“shapeOfHeart = <3\n)

else:

theShapeOfYourHeart()

theShapeOfYourHeart()

theShapeOfYourHeart()

 

Poetic statement: My work exists at the intersection of myself. I am fascinated by the idea of where we can take work, and I strive to work within different forms to see what I can do next. A lot of my work is informed by my interest in technology and my curiosity of where technology will take us. Especially in my code poems and other work that deals with AI or programming, I am questioning the line between objectivity and subjectivity. All of my work is forever trying to answer questions of where we can take work beyond just a standard novel or short story, how we can create intersections between literature and other fields to create new stories, and how we can use different formats or styles of writing to highlight different aspects of a piece.

One of the tasks I was assigned for the internship was to help out with a writing workshop. The week I was assigned included code poetry, and one of the prompts was writing a poem in code. Since I wanted to make sure everyone in the class had access to resources for writing in code, I created a slideshow to (very quickly) run through some Python basics that they might use for their code poems. I thought having an example poem at the end might be helpful for them to see and try to work off of. So thats what this poem came out of: trying to have a code poem that included basic principles (if/else, variables, printing), and also, since I was sharing the code, I thought it would be fun to include some stuff in the code you could only get to if you knew it was there or if you tried typing in things that are not explicitly listed. 

 POETIC SPARKS MANIFESTO 

Summary: This manifesto was written by our research collective and was inspired by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “Femme Shark Manifesto.” After leading a group reading of the piece, we felt empowered and supported by the members of the collective. We decided to create our own manifesto to show the various ways in which we will show up for one another. During a time of such uncertainty, this manifesto represents the various ways we have promised to support each other and our work.  Poetic Sparks