Minisode: Pandemic Poetry
RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a full episode transcript. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
In a time of confinement and isolation, how can we express ourselves and connect with the world around us? In this bonus minisode of RadioEd, Colorado Poet Laureate and DU alumnus Bobby LeFebre joins us for a discussion on the role of the arts during crisis. This period of physical distancing has proven both inspirational and challenging for LeFebre, who has had to get creative with the way he presents his work. LeFebre also shares one of his latest, pandemic-inspired poems with RadioEd and describes his creative process, while also offering advice to aspiring poets.
More of LeFebre's work:
Intro, Lorne Fultonberg: You're listening to RadioEd, a University of Denver podcast. I'm Lorne Fultonberg, and the co-host you may hear meowing in the background of this minisode, that's my cat Chef because we're still producing this podcast from our remote studios via Zoom. As we're all cooped up during the pandemic, so many of us have been seeking new ways to express ourselves and find connection with the world around us. That's why Bobby LeFebre's creative work seems even more important. He's the Colorado Poet Laureate, or, as he puts it, the state's poetic voice, charged with promoting and celebrating the art form in the community through panels, workshops, and readings. We asked him about the importance of the arts during tough times and advice for aspiring poets. But we started by asking the DU alum how it felt to be named the youngest poet laureate in state history and Colorado's first poet laureate of color.
Bobby LeFebre: You know, it's an amazing honor, obviously it’s such a beautiful thing. This position has been around for over 100 years, and when I was named, I was of course very happy, I felt a lot of gratitude, and at the same time there was some conflict there because I know that I am not the first young person or the first person of color qualified to occupy this seat. It really got me thinking about where this position in arts and culture in general fits into the general structure of the world that we live in: How do these systems that create conditions snowball into things that are big like this? And so it was great. And I think it's honest of me to have those conversations especially with the approach that I'm taking in bringing not only my voice but voices of my community and communities that I'm an ally to, to ensure that those voices are uplifted, celebrated, and amplified in a way that they may have not been in years past.
Lorne Fultonberg: State Poet Laureate is a very publicly facing role, though. I'm curious, under the stay at home order, what's it been like to be doing a public job in private essentially?
Bobby LeFebre: Yeah, you know, it took a minute to figure out how it was going to work. It took a minute to figure out and accept the fact that this was going to be the sort of quote un-quote, “new normal” for a while. And so, it happened at a terrible time because April, as you may know, is National Poetry month, so I had dozens of appearances, performances, readings, [and] conversations scheduled that we had to either cancel, postpone, reimagine, or turn virtual. So we did a lot of Zoom readings, we used technology and what's available to us to connect. And I think that those early conversations about the difference between social distancing and physical distancing was an interesting conversation. Because although we are sort of forced to be physically distant, how can we maintain that social proximity and connection to people? Artists, creatives, we find a way around things. We will make art in every circumstance, and in a lot of ways these things sort of amplify us, ramp us up, and light a fire under us to create even more.
Lorne Fultonberg: Has this influenced your work at all?
Bobby LeFebre: Yeah absolutely. I have definitely written about this issue that's happening to all of us trying to make sense of it, trying to even just sort of contextualize my own feelings around it. And again, always thinking about who's being impacted most, who's not, why is that, and that has led to a lot of contemplative work. So I think that we are finding ways to create and we're finding ways to address this and poetry is definitely one way that we do that. And I think people go to poetry in times of confusion [and] strife, because it is able to translate some of those messages in ways that are easier or more emotionally available to consume. So, it's been good.
Lorne Fultonberg: How have you viewed the role of poetry and the role of the arts during times of crisis?
Bobby LeFebre: I think that art and the way that we perform this sort of identity in a lot of ways, is really the cornerstone of our culture. We go back and we look at ancient civilizations, we look at their literature, we look at their art, we look at what they left behind, and again, it's really a way for us to translate our existence in these ways. And no better way than now to employ those aesthetics and ways to help tell the story [be]cause I think that ultimately 20 years from now when we come back to these moments, art will be at the forefront of our conversations. It'll be the theater that comes up, it'll be the poems we made, the visual art that muralists created, it'll be the dances and the songs that we will go back to to remind us of what our existence was at that time. I think that now we're trying to find a way to continue that in this new way that we're going to be forced to live [in], and it'll be very interesting to see how we adapt to new circumstances.
Lorne Fultonberg: On a more micro level, something that I've noticed during this pandemic is people returning to hobbies or passions that they left behind or maybe they're getting into something new. My mom for example has always wanted to write poetry and enrolled in a Zoom poetry class.
Bobby LeFebre: Wow.
Lorne Fultonberg: I was wondering what you thought for people who are getting started in writing poetry or even just starting to read it and understand it. Any advice?
Bobby LeFebre: Yeah, you know what, I think that for far too long and for far too many people, I feel like poetry is this sort of thing that people feel is behind their reach or comprehension. And I feel like that has largely been due to the connotation that we've given to it. It's existed in a weird high brow sort of thing, and it doesn't really have to be that. Again, I think the primary purpose of poetry, of good poetry, I feel is communication. And if you're not communicating with folks, if poetry isn’t connecting, then it's really not doing anything besides serving as a stroke to the ego, and I think that that's not what poets really intend to do. So the more that people find themselves into it, starting to read it, figuring out what types of styles and writers that they like, what type of voice they like to hear, what topics really resonate with them—there's a connection that they make, and I think that connection really sparks, in some people, the desire to begin to express their own feelings and to write their own, so I think it's great. I think it's great that people are picking up new hobbies and reading and connecting with poetry in new ways.
Lorne Fultonberg: Not only do you write poetry, but you also are an actor and you perform. What's the difference between writing a poem and performing a poem?
Bobby LeFebre: Writing poetry is a very solitary act. I think James Baldwin talked about the writer's curse and that we're alone so much pretending that we don't need anyone but ultimately if there's no audience, if there's no listener, if there's no reader, what are we doing? And so the process of writing is very personal, it's very solitary. But the performance, the reading of it is the opposite. It's that bridge, the performance of the poem, the reading of the poem is the bridge between that solitary and that communal aspect that has always occupied this space of poetry. In a modern context, we're getting more to a performative nature of poetry. Performance poetry is [and] has been for the last 10, 20 years, really been taking off. There are things like slam poetry that young people gravitate toward and it's really this marriage of writing and performance as well as community building. There's definitely [a] connection between the solitary aspect of writing it and creating it and that personalized vision turning into a collective experience.
Lorne Fultonberg: We asked you to bring one of your poems that you wrote during the Coronavirus pandemic today to perform for us and I'd love for you to read it in a moment, but first I was wondering what you'd want people to take away from the poem that you've brought and what was your experience like writing it?
Bobby LeFebre: You know, it happened very fast. Sometimes poetry is something you sit on, sometimes a poem takes days, weeks, months, years to finish. And other times they just are what they are, and I think that sometimes the most passionate poetry I've ever written is stuff that I don't really give a whole lot of editing to and I just let it come out. And this is a list poem of sorts, so it's sort of [a] stream of consciousness. I didn't even go back and fix anything, I didn't go back and try to change anything because this is what came out when I was thinking about those things that I had just kind of talked to you about: Who I was thinking about, why I was thinking about them. I'm not concerned necessarily about writing the best poem that's going to get published in the most prestigious journal. That's never been my approach. I don't write to be published, I don't know write to exercise and flex all of the things that I know about form or technique. Really, I wanna connect with people and I wanna tell the most genuine stories and show folks a little piece of the way I think and feel and that's really what I focus on.
The poem that I'm gonna read, I wrote around workers. As we've watched this conversation, it's almost become cliche around what's essential and what's not. That word is such an umbrella term, it's such a spectrum, right, of who has been deemed essential. And, at the end of the day, there are people who are caring for us, there are people who are serving us, there are people who don't have the luxury to work from home, there are people who are still taking the bus to get places and all of these places and spaces that they're occupying have a revolving door of people and they're at higher risk for things. There's no better time for empathy. There's no better time for us to take care of ourselves but also look at the collective and what does this mean for us all and how can we all not only imagine or reimagine a new future together, but how can we start to make tangible steps toward real change and a future that is more inclusive and kind to everyone and a lot of my work explores that. Who are we missing, who's not at the table, how do we get them there, or do we need to just completely destroy this table and build a new one? So, in this short poem, that's sort of what I was thinking about.
Lorne Fultonberg: I'd love to hear it.
Bobby LeFebre: (Reciting poem) “And together we watched it happen, watched the stars come out at night. There right before our eyes, a grand reveal. And the stars, the people, they did what they always do. They got up, they packed their lunch, they clocked in, they delivered their bodies, they took orders, they worked, they didn't complain, they were grateful. They smiled, they cashed their checks, they paid their bills, they were broke again. They prayed, they stretched, they made miracles, they raised children, they dreamed in grocery stores and fields and janitors’ closets and restaurants and shelters and classrooms and factories and banks and offices and warehouses, buses, trucks, trains, some in emergency rooms and in clinics and morgues and mortuaries. They worked because rent, because food, because bills, because insurance, because integrity, because heart, because someone has to make the money for those at the top who don't really make it themselves.”
Lorne Fultonberg: That was Bobby LeFebre, Colorado Poet Laureate. To read more of Bobby's work and watch some of his spoken word performances, head to du.edu/radioed. Alyssa Hurst is our executive producer and mixed our sound, James Swearingen arranged our theme, Tamara Chapman is our managing editor, and I'm Loren Fultonberg. (Cat meowing) That's Chef, and this is RadioEd.