Rachel Hadas is the author of the new poetry collection Pandemic Almanac. Her other books include Piece by Piece. A poet, essayist, and translator, she is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark.
Q: In Pandemic Almanac's afterword, you note that you wrote the poems between February 2020 and July 2021, and you say, “Although they're not the only poems I wrote during those seventeen months, these particular poems cohere.” Can you say more about that?
A: Looking back, I see that the poems written between late February 2020 and July 2021 that I included in Pandemic Almanac do seem to be the most salient ones – the others have fallen by the wayside.
It was fun to look at what I’d written and put the poems in chronological order as a sort of unintended through-line of my experiences/surroundings during that time.
Q: Looking back at the period of time during which you wrote these poems, how do you feel it affected you, and did it help to write about the pandemic as it was occurring?
A: Writing, in my experience, is always good – good to do, good to look back on the results of (as I’m doing now).
Whether one uses writing--chiefly but not solely poetry in my case--to invent or simply to vent, it helps, it’s both a challenge and a solace.
It’s a way of keeping in touch with oneself--experiences, thoughts, dreams, fears--and also, eventually, of reaching out to others who (as has certainly been the case with the pandemic) have been experiencing parallel challenges.
I’m far from the only writer to have kept going partly by keeping track. There are many of us, many books written during the time of the pandemic (or should I say during its first 16 months or so?) already, and many more on the way, without a doubt.
A very few examples: Charlotte Innes’s poetry collection, Pandemicals; Marilyn Hacker and Karthika Nair’s renga correspondence, A Different Distance; Gary Shteyngart’s novel; Fred D’Aguiar’s memoir Year of Plagues; Gabriel Jospiovici’s brief essays, One Hundred Days.
Some writers welcomed the sudden expanse of time; others struggled; some did both. Some wrote very little. But most of us who’ve been writing for years feel safest on what James Merrill called the life-raft of language. It keeps us afloat.
Q: The author Reeve Lindbergh said of the book, “From constraints of pandemic living to national issues to her teaching life or at home in New York and Vermont, Hadas brings a light touch to serious ruminations.” What do you think of that description?
A: I’m always delighted when people say I have a light touch. I’d love to know exactly where in Pandemic Almanac my longtime Vermont neighbor and dear friend Reeve Lindbergh found the lightness, but I’ll take it! And because Reeve is a wise reader and a person who knows me very well, I’ll even believe her.
Other than “Preexisting Conditions,” which I hope is entertaining, the poems are often somber or ominous, but there are many moments, especially in the poems set in Vermont, of beauty and respite: dough rising in a bowl, squirrels frisking on the woodpile, red sky of a late autumn dawn.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope readers enjoy poems that may mirror their experiences (say, teaching on Zoom, as in “In the Cloud”). People who already know my poetry may enjoy familiar notes or themes; perhaps some people will find a poem to enjoy for the first time.
I hope people will see some truth, if only an inevitably partial truth – a testimony – in the book.
And because of the unsettling and disorienting isolation of the months of social deprivation, just the sound of a recognizable voice reporting on an experience that is somewhat familiar might be validating, or consoling, or just companionable.
Writing the poems in Pandemic Almanac, and reading others’ poems, was all those things for me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m not writing much – just inching along toward semester’s end and partial retirement.
The next book of poems I want to turn my attention to will be either a slim volume or a New and Selected, tentatively entitled Ghost Guest. I have plenty of poems, but I need to prune and sift.
Also, later this spring the University of Michigan Press will publish Tales of Dionysus, a rollicking epic in 48 books by a Greek poet of very late antiquity, Nonnus. The translation of Book Sixteen, a fairly salty episode of date rape, is by me. I enjoy translating, and hope to have a chance to do more.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: What else? Now toward the end of my academic career, I’m happy to be involved in the Teagle Foundation’s Cornerstone Initiative, specifically a program called “Teaching Transformative Texts.”
The idea is to foster the humanities(an endangered species for sure in higher education), by means of teaching workshops, campus visits, and last but not least by grants. All this is both related to my work as a poet and an interesting step away from, or beyond, it.
Thank you for your interest!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rachel Hadas.