Nick Toczek reaches his poetry milestone – a year of daily poems about the Covid-19 pandemic
Congratulations to veteran performance poet Nick Toczek, who on Monday reached his target of writing a daily Covid-19 poem for a whole year. Nick began on 15 March 2020, when the first lockdown was announced. On Monday night he posted on Facebook: “That's it! My first daily pandemic poem was for 15 March 2020. My last is today's (15 March 2021). Yesterday's was therefore actually a year's-worth, but I wanted to finish on the day I started.”
When he wrote his first Covid poem, did he think he'd be writing them for a whole year? "Not at all. I just vaguely thought that writing a few might be interesting and help to keep me motivated. I earn most of my living as a writer-in-schools and had just had all my upcoming gigs for the next few months cancelled. What set me going on writing a daily poem as the pandemic spread and grew was a chance remark by my then-13-year-old granddaughter. She said to me: 'If this is really a pandemic, Grandad, then that means I'm really living through history, doesn't it?' That phrase 'living through history' stuck in my head. That's when I decided to keep my 'poetic Pepysian diary'. "
Has writing them helped him to cope with it all? "Absolutely... it's given me a daily task (occasionally burden!). It's helped me to voice all my fears, anger, frustration. It's made me study and evaluate every stage and development of this pandemic and the issues surrounding it. It's helped me to better understand myself and others during this whole ordeal. It's made me maintain and develop my writing skills. And (by posting them on social media sites) it's kept me in touch with so many friends and acquaintances as well making me new friends. Also, it's given me new and relevant work to perform at each online gig I've taken part in. The main challenge has been to keep the poems good and varied. That's been the most challenging aspect of the year-long task."
Nick's family has been hit by Covid. "Back in 1971, I bought John Prine's first album and have been a huge fan ever since. His Covid death early on in the pandemic (7 April 2020) hit me really hard. My partner, Gaynor, is a senior manager in the NHS, so we've been more aware of developments than the broader public. Also, because I have worked (as a writer-in-schools) in almost 50 different countries, I've been caught up in previous viral outbreaks (SARS, etc.). As early as January 2020 I was ordering fifty-packs of those blue masks from China. In February I got plastic visors and had stocked up on food. In March/April I bought a finger-clip blood monitor and a breathing mask with small oxygen canisters.
"My cousin, Paula, was the first family member to get it. She still has long-Covid symptoms. Later, other family members caught it. The worst was very recently, when our son-in-law (father to our two grandchildren) was twice rushed into a high-dependency unit after catching it. He's only 35 and was previously healthy. Twice we and the hospital thought he was dying. Thankfully he's now home but has a multitude of long-Covid issues affecting most of his main organs. He's been told that his lungs alone will take at least a year to recover.
"Other family members have it right now. albeit in milder form. Gaynor and I have both worked from home and been very careful to avoid contact with others where possible. It's been grim seeing how many have ignored precautions and grossly underestimated the risks and consequences. I hope my poems have helped some readers to better understand the issues."
Remarkably, when writing his Covid poems, he never missed a day. "No. I'm disciplined. Indeed, if poems didn't work out, I've shelved them and written something else. The result is I've the 366 daily poems (I started and finished on 15 March, so wrote one extra day) but I've also a file of more than 200 other finished or part-written poems which I never used. Also, I was writing non-Covid poetry too, so I actually wrote more like 600 or more poems over the year. The poems will continue, but not every single day.
"I've other projects under way that need more of my time and attention. I've researched and featured in a short film, 'Tvins' about my father and his twin brother who were wartime refugees. That's finished and is being launched this April. Since January 2020 I've also been working with the UK band Signia Alpha (led by an amazingly talented musician/producer called Matt Webster) and (entirely separately) with a German multi-instrumentalist and producer called Thies Marsen. Working with each of them as a vocalist/poet/lyricist, we've produced two CD albums and three vinyl albums (each lavishly packed and pressed on coloured vinyl).
"I've additionally had a book of my pre-Covid poetry, 'Voices In My Head' published, plus the first ('Corona Diary') of three collections of those daily pandemic poems. The second book 'The Year The World Stood Still' will be out in late April, and the third (each contains around 120 poems) will follow in June/July. After that, I've two more albums of music already coming together, and have at least two more (prose, not poetry) books to finish. Virtual school visits are back under way on a weekly basis, and I've autumn festival bookings which may be physical or may be via Zoom/Teams/Webex or Skype. Ditto overseas bookings. I'm only 70, so retirement's still a long way off!"
Here’s Nick’s final Covid poem:
by Nick Toczek
Daily poem duly written
Year-long in pandemic Britain.
Words can boom as does a bittern,
Others purr like cuddled kitten.
Once I’d started, I was smitten.
Never had one thought of quittin’.
Language wrought to rightly fit in
Tightly like a like hand in mitten.
It’s a bug and I was bitten
Year-long in pandemic Britain.