Strangeness Came Along in Spades / Katherine Duffy

or The Pandemic as Portal to Poetry

Katherine Duffy discusses her poems in Issue Thirteen of The Lonely Crowd.

If you’ll allow me a little echo of Shane MacGowan’s ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’, I’ve been writing for a long time. My first ever published poem appeared in 1987, and a long, up-and-down writing career ensued. At this point, I think I can safely claim the status of grizzled veteran. As such, I thought I had pretty much figured out how things work on the battlefield. Sorry, I mean in the writing world, of course! I developed a strategy or two and, as the years passed, they solidified into a set of personal writing rules.

A central rule was something approximating: sleep on it. Actually, make that: sleep on it for many, many nights. I learned the hard way that anything written in the heat of emotion or amazement, and sent off in a flurry of excitement and pride, would make its way back to me (very) slowly, with the ashy thumb of rejection on its forehead.

I evolved a process of working through a draft or two, shelving it for a couple of months, then taking it out to redraft or apply lots of tweaks. In the last century the shelving process involved printed pages and a drawer; latterly it’s been a folder on my computer called Poetry Drafts. Work filed in there has to simmer through several versions before graduating into the ‘Poetry’ folder. I knew I wasn’t alone in this practice. The writing advice from my elders, which I devoured over the years, frequently recommended digesting any experience, any strangeness, slowly and fully, allowing time to turn it into finished work.

When the Covid-19 pandemic happened, strangeness came along in spades. There were periods during those 2.5 or so years where I couldn’t seem to write at all but, when I could, I found that the work flowed, even poured out. This was strange for me, an inch-by-inch tortoise of a writer all my life. Also, to my surprise, my first drafts turned out to be much closer to finished work than they had ever been before.

‘Protocol for a Window Visit’ is a case in point. The version you can read in Issue Thirteen of The Lonely Crowd (please do!) stems from the experience of ‘visiting’ my mother, who lives in a nursing home a few miles away, via standing outside and speaking to her through a closed window. It reads pretty much as it first came out of my head, with only a little light tweaking. The greatest exertion it caused me was finding the right verb for the very last line. I was happy with the image of science as the Christmas star in the east, pointing the way to salvation, but I knew that words like ‘shining’, ‘glowing’, etc. wouldn’t cut it. It took me a while to come up with ‘smarting’, with its nice little built-in pun, but even that particular speed-bump I got over much more quickly than I normally would.

So what was going on? Given how long I’ve been writing, I’ve certainly gone through poem-prompting life-changes before, yet up until 2020 that material all had to go through the usual slowly-turning mill. Why was I suddenly producing finished work at such a (for me) dizzying rate? Mulling it over, I’ve come up with a few possible reasons.

One is the unusual commonality of experience that prevailed at the time. There was a lot of talk about everyone being in the same boat, or at least in the same storm. Hackneyed though the imagery was, there was truth in it. I felt part of a shared creative surge that was happening in response to this new and terrible phenomenon. It’s ironic that, at a time when physical solitude was imposed so firmly on all of us, my own sense of solitary struggle with writing lessened and transmuted to a sense of something more participatory and productive. On a practical level, opportunity was knocking loudly. New outlets for poetry were opening up like flowers in spring. Websites were created, anthologies curated, and established journals cleared space for pandemic themes. All this industry must have evoked an answering response in me.

But what galvanized me most, I think, was the sheer strangeness of that time. I know I’m not alone in feeling I had stepped through a portal into a different world. A surreal, science-fictiony, movie-set world of deserted roads and official, yellow sigils, with a soundtrack of repeating, robotic health and safety announcements. It’s hardly surprising that an experience such as standing outside a window in freezing winter air, attempting a phone conversation with my mother trapped on the other side, would make my mind shift gears enough to craft a poem at cruising speed for a change.

When I wrote ‘Protocol for a Window Visit’, I was describing a very immediate situation, the details of which were so painfully and specifically strange that they were actually easy to write. Yet reading it back now, in tranquility, I think it also speaks to a more general theme of the difficulties of human communication and, perhaps, of mother-daughter relationships. Going further, at a meta level, it could strike at the idea of poet and reader, and how language works between them, both as a barrier and as something that elucidates. It still astonishes me that I was able to write a poem with a number of possible layers in such a short space of time.

Currently, the consensus seems to be that the pandemic, while not officially over, is rapidly downgrading towards an endemic situation. Certainly, the intensity has gone out of the air, and my creative modus operandi seems to have returned to what it was. I’m back to my own brand of patient poetic toil. And although I sometimes miss the heady inspiration and writing flow of those strange days, I’m grateful and glad to let the portal close now on the grim reality that was the author of it all.

Katherine Duffy lives in Ireland. Her poetry pamphlet Talking the Owl Away (Templar Poetry, 2018) received Templar’s Iota Shot Award. Two previous poetry collections were published by The Dedalus Press (Ireland). Her work was highly commended in the 2018 Rialto Nature and Place Poetry Competition. Recent poems have appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, The Blue Nib, Skylight 47, Mediterranean Poetry, and in the anthologies The Word Ark (Dedalus Press, 2020) and Places of Poetry (Oneworld, 2020).

Photo of the author and her mother taken on Christmas Day, 2020. 

The Lonely Crowd 13 cover photograph by Jo Mazelis.