Carol Ann Duffy has launched an international poetry project with major names including Imtiaz Dharker, Roger McGough and Ian McMillan, as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The former poet laureate hopes the project, entitled Write Where We Are Now, “will provide an opportunity for reflection and inspiration in these challenging times, as well as creating a living record of what is happening as seen through our poets’ eyes and ears, in their gardens or garrets”.
Hands, Duffy’s poem, was written on 26 March and sees the author reflecting on how every Thursday, “we clap at the darkness”, and on how she can see the hands of her absent daughter “when I put my head in my own”. Another contribution from the Scottish poet takes a fiercer tone: Since You Ask sees her “Scunnered, stymied, shafted, shaded, / shat on from a great height, spaffed, spooked.” It ends: “OK, OK, OK. Onwards.”
In Andrew McMillan’s Garden, he writes of how at first the dead “were few / enough to name them / but soon they grew too many / the vast fields of them”.
Duffy is spearheading the project with the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. Contributors range from new and emerging poets to award-winners Raymond Antrobus and Andrew McMillan, and some of British poetry’s biggest names, such as Gillian Clarke and Jackie Kay.
“We need the voice of poetry in times of change and world-grief. A poem only seeks to add to the world and now seems the time to give,” said Duffy, who is creative director of the writing school.
In Cranes Lean In, Dharker writes of a phone call with her daughter while she looks over a London in lockdown: “Petals brush my face. / You say at last // the cherry blossom / has arrived // as if that is what / we were really waiting for.”
She wrote it, she said, “standing at a window looking out over the marooned city. London had stopped its eternal building and the streets and stations were becalmed.”
“That was the day it suddenly came home to many mothers what this meant, this strange waiting time without their children,” Dharker went on. “I could hear the phone calls all over the world, people separated and searching for words of hope and consolation to give each other. The words my daughter gave me were about kindnesses, and something we had both been waiting for: the cherry trees blossoming in the parks and streets of London.”
McMillan, winner of the 2015 Guardian first book award and a contributor alongside his father, Ian, said it was “really important to record as a continuing historical document the times we’re living through”.
“I’ve always believed a poet’s job is to be a witness, and this is just another example of that,” said McMillan, who said he had found it very hard to write his poem.
“There are some things which feel beyond language – huge numbers of deaths, untold suffering, unmanageable fear. We’re dealing with abstracts and the first instinct within that is to reach for abstracts ourselves, but abstracts don’t make for good poetry,” he said. “All I tried to do, and all I think any of us can do, is focus on something small and contained and concrete, and try to tell it that way.”
In Unbecoming Maramot, Romalyn Ante, an award-winning poet who works as an NHS nurse, writes after a shift: “She walks an unlit road on her own, yet not alone. / Look at her now – night after night, shift after shift.” TS Eliot-winning poet George Szirtes is writing a new poem every day for the project, while Moira Egan and David Tait are writing from lockdown in Italy and China respectively.
Prof Malcolm Press, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, called the initiative inspiring. “I am sure that these outstanding poems will voice the sentiments and feelings that many of us around the world will share,” he said. “At the same time, I am confident that these innovative and imaginative works will inspire creativity and hope.”