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Guest Post & Giveaway: Writing in Times of COVID-19 and Social Protest by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin

It seems like I’ve know Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin forever, and maybe I have, but I love their passion for teaching, especially for teaching students how to write creatively, especially when it may be hard to do so because of isolation and pandemics. Their second edition of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets was published this month, and they’re kind enough to stop by with a guest post about the book, writing during the pandemic, and more. One lucky U.S. resident could receive their very own copy of the book, which includes workshop-tested prompts and poems from students, local writers, and more.

Please give Valerie and Lynn a warm welcome, and stay tuned for the giveaway:

Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin: Thanks, Savvy Verse & Wit, for inviting us to talk about Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (2nd Edition) and to talk about our writing and teaching.

Lynn Levin: The new coronavirus has us living in strange and fraught times that will surely go down in the history books. And it’s the same for the Black Lives Matter movement that continues to gain power after the murder of George Floyd. As writers, many of us feel that it is vital to wrestle with these cataclysmic events, to engage them in our writing. We have some ideas for addressing these issues in your creative writing: some of them are based on our teaching and our own writing practice, some of them are adapted from our new book Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, Second Edition.

Valerie Fox: Yes, the COVID-19 times have surely had an impact on so many aspects of our lives, in so many ways. Teaching-wise, I noticed in March and following, how it was really important for writers in my college classes to document their lives, in as you say, “fraught” times. In one class, we were reading and writing about flash fiction, and when given the choice between creative and critical writing, most students chose to write their own flash fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction. And many were very eager to document their lives in isolation, their worries for friends and family most at risk, and so on. Importantly, as the Black Lives Matter protests intensified, many were taking part in demonstrations and documenting that, too.

The reflection, learning, and writing on race, as well as the reflection, learning, and writing on the pandemic—both deeply influenced these writers. One strategy that was helpful involved asking writers to create in a letter format (addressing their future self, for instance, or directed to a real person being affected by the virus, and so on).

Here’s one example. Some clever writers (as a collaboration) exchanged photographs representing their work spaces and feelings of isolation, and then they wrote poems about each other’s photographs. This got the writers thinking about perspectives, and their creative collaboration was a great way to connect.

Lynn, do you have some specific tips?

LL: Yes. There is a lot to be angry about these days, and the I-hate poem, a prompt from our book, may provide you with a stance by which you can address people who refuse to wear masks, who pack into virus-spreading events, who are responsible for taking innocent black lives, and who generally espouse all types of hate and bigotry. You could write an I-hate poem directed at the virus itself or prejudice itself. You might write your I-hate poem in list form or in stanzas with rhyme.

Turning specifically to the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves having to social distance and stay at home as much as possible. This can be frustrating, and we have a prompt in the book called the paraclausithyron that is well suited to expressing how it feels to be separated. In the classic literary tradition, the paraclausithyron is a lover’s lament before the beloved’s closed door. In this case it may be your lament before your beloved hair dresser’s locked salon door, or the closed door of your school, or the closed door of your child’s school. To write a paraclausithyron for COVID-10 times, you might address the door or the person behind the door as you reveal your longing and imagine how you would like things to be. You could even use the paraclausithyron to express your frustration at needing to stay home behind your own closed front door.

Here’s a look at Serena’s junk drawer

VF: Yes, “Home” as an idea, sense of place, setting, or motivation for writing. For one online class, with Writers Room, we asked students to think about previous homes they had lived in and use memories and descriptions as the basis for poems. Another exercise was to write about the contents of junk drawer or medicine cabinet in their present home. The junk drawer writing inspired many writers to look closely at some part of their homes (or their lives) that they don’t usually inspect so thoroughly. Then, they could use the items/images/tools/mementos to jog their memories or help them come up with a story. Some poignant work came out of this.

Personally, I have a lot of unfinished writing, so in these recent days I’ve been spending a lot of time editing and striving to finish works. Earlier this summer, I felt paralyzed when it came to starting new pieces. So I am using our prompts, Lynn. Our “change a moment in time” chapter has been helpful, specifically. And I also created a poem based on our “Song-title” chapter, to develop a character in a series of linked flash fiction pieces I am currently working on.

One of the unexpected outcomes of not seeing people as much in person has been doing more online workshops. I enjoy that, a lot, including with my usual longstanding workshop I have belonged to for ten plus years. (Though I miss the snacks and wine and being in the same physical space.) I have tried a few other online workshops, as well. The deadlines are useful.

LL: If you are in an online poetry writing class at a school or through a literary organization, you are lucky because you are already in a community of writers. But COVID-19 makes building a community of writers more important than ever and more challenging, especially because you cannot congregate at a coffee shop or library or other physical space. That said, a blog like Savvy Verse & Wit gives writers and readers a special gift. It creates a dynamic gathering, and
it’s not bound by geography.

Serena, thank you so much for creating this beautiful community and for giving us a chance to share.

Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your insight.

About the Poets:

Levin and Fox co-authored Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, Second Edition, which was published in 2019 by Texture Press. It was selected as a 2020 finalist by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It’s organized around twenty specific writing prompts, and includes numerous examples accompanying all of the prompts. The examples are from both established writers, up-and-coming writers, and even those from the tradition. Both Levin and Fox have been teaching writing at Drexel University for over twenty years and enjoy collaborating and teaching together.

Valerie Fox has published writing (prose and/or poetry) in Juked, Philadelphia Stories, Reflex, The Cafe Irreal, A3 Review, Across the Margin, Cleaver, New Flash Fiction Review, Sentence, Hanging Loose, and other journals. Valerie’s books include The Rorschach Factory, The Glass Book, and Insomniatic. A story she wrote is included in The Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings. Her work has been selected for both the Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction series. You can learn more about her work here.

Lynn Levin’s most recent poetry collection, The Minor Virtues, is listed as one of Spring 2020’s best books by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her previous collections include Miss Plastique, Fair Creatures of an Hour, and Imaginarium. She is the translator, from the Spanish, of Birds on the Kiswar Tree by Odi Gonzales and co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets. Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, Artful Dodge, on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University. Visit her website.

ENTER the Giveaway: Comment about why you’d like to win the book, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, Second Edition by Aug. 7 at 11:59 p.m. EST