For 12 years, the Traveling Stanzas Project has used participatory poetry to comment on seemingly intractable global issues such as climate change, racism and gun violence.
With the advent of COVID-19 vaccines offering the potential to end the global coronavirus pandemic, Traveling Stanzas turned to Naomi Shihab Nye, a resident of San Antonio, a new member of the American Academy of the Arts and science, to pave the way for a timely project, Dear vaccine.
The result, Nye’s four-stanza poem, Vaccine Stanzas, begins with a plea.
Save us, dear vaccine.
Take us seriously.
We had plans.
We went to places.
Children in kindergarten.
So many voices, in chorus.
Give us our world again!
In free verse, the poem quickly and lightly tackles many topics now commonly understood by millions of people who have suffered from prolonged isolation while seeking to connect: seeing the smiles of unmasked strangers, conversing face to face, cuddling, fearing the unclean air, and the phenomenon of connecting with people in their distant homes.
The poem is the focal point of an effort to promote vaccination against COVID-19, in part by soliciting participatory responses from Nye’s Dear vaccine verses.
“This poetry project just hopes to share voices to encourage, with that sense of chorus, that we’re all in the same boat,” Nye said.
Respondents are asked to start from one of four prompts: “Dear vaccine,” as if writing a letter, “We loved / could” to tell what people can’t wait to do again, “This is the” to perhaps convey frustrations or hopes, or “Vaccine, please” to advocate for an early end to the pandemic.
Among more than 1,300 responses to date, a short line attributed to Janet of Texas asks the vaccine to “restore the sound of fellowship and laughter in churches.”
Trina Wesley of Hartland, Wisconsin longs for her own form of facial recognition, with “we loved being able to see our smiles: crooked, tall, playful, welcoming.”
As part of the Global Poetry Project, these smiles come from all over the world.
“Hearing the voices of children and people in the Middle East, Europe, Singapore, and all over the place, posting their feelings about immunization, has been very moving,” Nye said.
She is proud that her local influence has encouraged many responses from San Antonio, including one from Lukin Gilliland who names Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff: “They have led us well.
Emily Sherry, also from San Antonio, begs to move on but also never to forget the lessons of the pandemic. “If our global shutdown has taught me anything, it’s … to be a better steward of my time, energy and resources.”
Agua y Poesia
Resources are at the center of another poetry project organized by musician and composer Azul Barrientos, for her Noche Azul series sponsored by the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice.
Agua y Poesia takes place April 24 in English and April 25 in Spanish. The free two-day event will feature seven poets, including Carmen Tafolla and Norma Cantú, and a plastic discussion after the readings dealing specifically with water as a symbol and natural resource. With such a universal topic, the real purpose of the event is interconnection, according to Madelein Santibañez, community organizer of Indigenous ancestry, chair of the Southwest Workers Union board and educator.
Santibañez will lead the discussion to encourage participants and the audience “to look at water holistically, rather than fragmented”.
Even as she prepares for a math degree, Santibañez’s interest in water drew her to the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University. While her teachers were initially surprised to have a mathematician in the classroom, she was able to demonstrate a connection between water resources data and a long-standing interest in water protection inspired by her tribal elders. .
“From my point of view, it’s related to… what our ancestors already knew innately,” that water passes through all living things, shapes our environment and sustains economies.
“Everything is linked, in one way or another. It is informed by these values which are based on restoring our connection to the land and to each other, ”she said. “One of our elders constantly encourages us to sensitize people who recognize their indigenousness to the land, recognizing that we are children of Mother Earth. And as such, we need to be aware of the consequences of our actions and the impact we have on our environment and the resources that give us life.
Texas poet laureate 2020 Emmy Perez to read from her poetry collection With the river on our face, whose main subject echoes the sentiment of Santibañez.
“Much of the collection is about how we are all connected, out of necessity, to water, and therefore to the land where we are privileged to live, and to the ecosystems that connect us all,” Perez said in an email.
Our collective voice
Nye said more San Antonians can participate in the Dear vaccine through a joint effort with the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at UT Health San Antonio.
The center helps distribute blank cards at its pop-up neighborhood vaccination sites so people can jot their thoughts down while they wait for the required 15-minute observation period after receiving an injection. The cards will be sent to the Dear Vaccine project to be included in the growing responses section, Nye said, joining his global choir.
“All of us who believe in poetry, we believe that poetry is our collective voice,” she said. “He tries to speak for ourselves, but also for the community and to help us see what we are experiencing and sharing – sharing this very heartfelt emotion about how science is trying to help us.”