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Finding connections across stanzas

Under physical distancing, U of T students stay in touch through virtual poetry project
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Poetry can serve as a way to connect, both in-person and online. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY
Poetry can serve as a way to connect, both in-person and online. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

Last month, U of T student Grace Ma started her project, People Read Poems. During National Poetry Month this year, weeks of physical distancing turned into months. Instead of completing exams and wrapping up the semester around campus, she and her friends were scattered across North America.

Ma studies English and environmental science and is going into her fourth year at U of T. Her poetry is published in Acta Victoriana, The UC Review, and The Lyre, amongst other places.

“With everything that happened with the pandemic and people moving away,” Ma noted, “I just wanted to bring my love of poetry and my desire to connect with my friends… creatively and just do this project.”

“The core of the project is so that people can read poems. It’s a very simple mission,” she noted. “I want to keep it low-key.” 

The making of People Read Poems

For the project, she reached out to friends and asked them to pick a poem and record themselves reading it. 

“I wanted people to record it outside or with the window open… and then also leave the recording running for a minute or so after they’ve read,” Ma said.

Even though the poems are recorded across Canada and in the US, the background soundscapes are strikingly similar. 

“The recordings show that it’s mostly traffic or birds chirping or somebody passing by,” she said. “Which is, I guess, very interesting ultimately, because… these recordings were done in Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, in the US — in suburbs and city centres. But at the end of the day, they kind of all sound the same.”

When the League of Canadian Poets had to cancel its April “Poetry and Healing” event intended to raise funds for SickKids, they instead asked for recorded readings by the poets to post online. This inspired her to go ahead and do something similar, though on a smaller scale.

While Ma had experience with photography and videography, she had not done anything with audio. However, according to her, audio is more straightforward, so she used that medium for the project.

“I know, for me, when people ask me to record a video, I need to think about how I look and where to place myself and how to place the camera,” she reflected. “Audio, in that sense, would just technically be a little simpler.”

She sees the project as less of an endeavour of creative productiveness and more as a low-stakes activity to connect with friends.

“You don’t have to be productive [under physical distancing],” Ma noted. “But then, I also feel like being productive is what keeps me afloat sometimes.”

The project’s readers

Jonathan Labao, a U of T student who is one of the readers, found the project to be a great way “to interact more with people in the poetry community… from the comfort of home.” Another reader and U of T student, Anvesh Jain, added that “poetry has given [him] some of the tools to process the pandemic and work through things in a language that makes sense to [him].”

Labao and Jain are both U of T students. Labado studies cinema studies and book and media studies, and has forthcoming poetry in The UC Review, while Jain is specializing in international relations. His poetry is published in the Literary Review of Canada.

Both are very appreciative of Ma for inviting them to participate in the project. While Jain, at this time, finds himself writing and reading more than ever, for Labao it’s the opposite. 

“Participating in this project has meant a lot to me,” Labao wrote. “I’ve been kind of out of it in terms of writing, and haven’t been able to write anything I liked, so Grace asking me to be a part of this was a good morals boost… It made me feel like I was part of a community/group, like I wasn’t an island.”

For Ma, the project turned out to be a good thing to occupy herself with. 

“The process of it — making the project guidelines, reaching out to friends, designing the website — that definitely made me do something, and it’s something that I looked forward to,” she said.

However, she sometimes feels doubts about the project, like if it’s okay to spend time and effort on something like this during a pandemic when many people are suffering. 

“Some days I really question the project… Like, what’s the point?” Ma noted. “But I think, ultimately, any spaces that offer you an opportunity to create in these sort of times, that are obviously safe and you feel comfortable in, are so essential.” 

Spreading the word

According to Ma, while she has not focused heavily on advertising the project, other people have spread the word. 

“I promoted once on my Instagram story, and I’ve had a few friends that also have just promoted it on Instagram and Facebook [and] probably word-of-mouth a bit,” she said. “One of my friends sent it to her grandma, and her grandma really liked it and listened to all the recordings.” 

Jain is one of the friends who shared the project on his social media. 

“I was surprised by how many people actually went and clicked through the website and listened to the various pieces,” Jain wrote. “My hope is that we were able to brighten people’s day, even just a little bit.” 

For Ma, at this initial stage of the project, it’s mostly been about doing something collaborative with friends. 

“Listening to my friends’ recordings [was] really wonderful, because it’s very soothing,” Ma reflected. “I haven’t really been reading or writing as much, frankly, so I think it was just nice to listen to the poems. [To be] listening to your friends’ voices is a very nice feeling, too, especially when we’re all so apart right now.”

The first series of People Read Poems, which is published on the website and also accessible on Bandcamp, provides a statement about the month of April by each reader. For future series of the project, Ma is thinking about different options. 

“Maybe we could have a sonnet series,” she said. “I was thinking also maybe having a very long poem and then [assigning] people different sections of the poem and then [combining] it all in one audio… There’s a lot of different opportunities to collaborate.”

While Ma conveyed that she hopes people will read poetry more, she also believes that poetry is a natural part of our lives, whether we think about it or not. 

“I think we’re all writing poetry — songs and words, like everything,” Ma reflected. “I mean, everything can be poetry. So, I hope everybody thinks they’re a poet.”