Popular poetry group launches anthology after being flooded with pandemic poems
Less than a month ago, poet Janine Booth set up a Facebook group for fellow poets wanting to write about the issues and experiences that people were facing during the coronavirus crisis – and was amazed at the response. Within one week the CoronaVerses: poems from the pandemic group had enough poems for an e-anthology, which has just been launched. A print edition is intended to follow. All the poems in the anthology were posted in the group in its first week, as well as hundreds more.
The anthology has been edited by Janine (also known as The Big J) and fellow poetry veteran Attila the Stockbroker. Janine said: “My initial thought was that a lot of people would write poems about the Covid-19 crisis … and that it would be great to have a place where they could live together. That way, people could tell their stories, express their fears, their anger, their humour and their care to each other in poetic form. Setting up the group felt like an act of solidarity in difficult times.”
She added: “I thought it might come together after a few weeks or maybe months. I never expected to be buried under an avalanche of so many poems that we had to set a deadline for the anthology of just a week from the group's founding!”
Most of the proceeds will be going to We Shall Overcome, a campaign group set up in response to austerity, which organises gigs to promote political activism and to raise funds to help homeless people and others. Among the anthology's contributors are familiar Write Out Loud names such as Laura Taylor, Ian Whiteley, Ushiku Crisafulli, Paul Blackburn, and Gordon Zola.
We wanted to know more. Here are Janine’s answers to a series of questions from Write Out Loud:
When you set up the Coronaverses Facebook site, did you always intend to put out an anthology? Did the popularity of the site take you by surprise? To date, any idea how many poems have been posted there? I know there are more each day ...
My initial thought was that a lot of people would write poems about the Covid-19 crisis - both established poets and rank amateurs - and that it would be great to have a place where they could live together. That way, people could tell their stories, express their fears, their anger, their humour and their care to each other in poetic form. Setting up the group felt like an act of solidarity in difficult times. I suppose the possibility of an anthology was at the back of my mind from the start, but I thought it might come together after a few weeks or maybe months. I never expected to be buried under an avalanche of so my poems that we had to set a deadline for the anthology of just a week from the group's founding! I can't possibly tell you how many poems have been posted. Hundreds, certainly, maybe thousands. I lost count weeks ago! There is some great quality stuff in there - from the rank amateurs as well as from the established poets.
The immediacy of poetry on social media is a far cry from when you and your anthology co-editor Attila the Stockbroker first trod the boards as young punk poets in the 1980s. Would you agree that social media gives far more poets a voice? Have you been involved in any online gigs yourself since the lockdown?
The ranting poetry movement in the 1980s was all about the punk ethos of getting up and shouting about what mattered to you. And yes, social media makes it easier to get a wider audience for that. We're not having to Letraset leaflets to plug gigs any more. It gives everyone more of a voice, but in doing so, it does create something of a cacophony, so it also makes it a little harder to be heard!
I've been a bit too busy with the anthology to do online gigs so far, but I'll be taking part in a couple over the next week, and then I'll get my act together to do my own after that. I've also made a few videos, which are on my YouTube channel. Attila has been entertaining his fans and raising a small fortune for good causes. With the government being so uncaring and inadequate, someone has to.
Poetry is assuming much greater importance in these times, with poems quoted on news bulletins and on all sorts of programmes. Why do you think that is?
Poetry is a medium through which people can make their point in the way that they want to - whether that is tenderly, angrily, swearily, crypticly, wittily, funnily, or anything else-ly. At a time of global crisis, the usual forms of communication are maybe not enough, so people turn to poetry for that extra dollop of emotion, of imagery, of explanation, of hope. And, of course, with all the live sport and soaps cancelled, they have to find something to fill the airwaves!
You published a book about your battle with cancer last year, that was enthusiastically reviewed by Laura Taylor for Write Out Loud. Has your own experience of the NHS made you more acutely aware of what those on the front-line must be going through at the moment?
I guess so, although I have always been an enthusiastic campaigner in defence of the NHS. That was not even the first time that the NHS saved my life. Fifteen years ago, it put me back together after a firework blew my eye out. It will be an absolute travesty if all the warm words and applause for health and care workers does not lead to better funding, better pay, improved working conditions, and an end to the intrusion of the private sector into the NHS and social care. So I'm doing what I can to help the fight for that to happen.
I remember hearing you deliver a wonderful poem called 'Night Tube' a year or two ago ... Are you still working as a night station supervisor on the London Underground? How has it changed down there since the lockdown?
I am, yes. It has changed massively in the last month, especially since the near-full-on lockdown. Night Tube itself has been suspended, although I still go to work for the late evening service and minding the station when it is closed. Ridership is down to a single-figure percentage of normal levels, as the message is getting through that we only want key workers to travel. We have a strong union, and have been able to secure 100% sick and isolation pay for all workers, including low-paid contract workers such as cleaners who did not have it before. I should also mention that the book cover was drawn by a workmate of mine. And, of course, I have written a new poem describing the eerie atmosphere of the station. You can read Night Tube (Covid-19 remix) here