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Creative Writing Students Respond to COVID-19 Through Poetry

By Richard LeComte

National events burst into the curriculum of the University of Kentucky when precautions over the novel coronavirus drove instruction online. As the students of Julia Johnson’s large-lecture core creative writing class in UK’s College of Arts & Sciences saw their lives upended, she felt they needed an outlet to express their fears, emotions, and hopes.

“What we were experiencing being in quarantine and a global pandemic situation was something none of us had ever experienced before,” said Johnson, a poet and professor in the Department of English and MFA program in Creative Writing. “And to be a student during this — that adds another level to the experience.”

The result: Nascent poets and writers in both her undergraduate and graduate classes expressed themselves through haiku and other kinds of poetry. Some students then recorded themselves reading their poetry to post online. The results can be seen here.

“What I saw was that these students were able to express themselves in ways maybe they couldn’t do before,” she said.

The undergraduate student-poets were in Johnson’s Introduction Creative Writing class, which satisfies a core requirement for UK students. One of her teaching assistants, MFA candidate Gabrielle Oliver, assigned the Japanese haiku form to her section students.

“Gabrielle loves the haiku form,” Johnson said. “What we discovered is that students seem to express themselves more easily if they use a highly structured form of poetry, such as the haiku or the tanka, for example.

“Beginning students work surprisingly well in form,” Johnson said. “When there are rules they have to follow, it gives them an important guide so they’re not feeling aimless.”

After instruction shifted online, Johnson said, Oliver and makalani bandele -- both teaching assistants for Johnson’s course and MFA candidates in poetry -- gave the students the option of writing about pandemic experiences through haiku.

“When they started turning them in, I was really blown away,” Johnson said. “Also, some of the poems are kind of heartbreaking, and because of the nature of the constricted form, they are kind of packed in a way that intensifies the emotions.”

Johnson also gave her students the option to submit videos of themselves reading their poems as an additional outlet for expression.

“Students who are great using iPhones and taking selfies sometimes are really shy about videotaping themselves reading a poem,” she said. “That’s why I encouraged them to try it so they could open themselves up to the experience.”

Meanwhile, for some students in Johnson’s graduate MFA poetry workshop, the subject of the pandemic came into their work, which is on display as well on the website.

“The students in the graduate workshop were turning in pandemic poems when it wasn’t even an assignment,” Johnson said. “They were naturally writing those poems.”

Emily Goldsmith, a first-year MFA student in poetry, said the experience of writing during the pandemic was informative.

“I found myself sitting for long periods of time or paying attention to details I often overlooked,” she said. “I couldn’t escape what was happening nationally and globally. There was an urgency to this subject I didn’t feel in the same way as my other projects.”

Johnson said she hopes the collection of poems from students who allowed their work to be displayed on the website will serve as a record of the thoughts and feelings of UK students in unusual times.

“It’s an important record of what students are experiencing,” she said. “It’s really insightful.”

Watch and read their poetry here: