The Washington University campus and St. Louis community began stay-at-home orders in March 2020, and we were all abruptly, completely, and necessarily isolated from in-person contact. As the real-time meanings of what this pandemic meant for people’s lives and work began to emerge, we were struck by how, in the midst of such a monumental health crisis, humanities-focused or -inflected work was what was sustaining people in their daily lives, connecting them to others—favorite novels, histories of pandemics, museums, art, poetry, performance, music. This was especially evident on social media. These conditions really provided the jumping off point for our project. We wanted to facilitate real-time connections among our communities through the humanities. After consulting with several WashU poets, we decided that poetry would be the way to bring us together.
In April, National Poetry Month, we launched Life/Lines, a daily poetry project. Every morning, we sent an email to our sign-up list with a five-word prompt, most often created by a “guest curator” from the campus or the St. Louis community, and a new lines- or network-themed image that helped distinguish one day from the next. Participants wrote a short poem that included these words and sent it back to us. We published them all—no judging, no editing—on our website and then shared them in the next day’s email. As we proceeded through the month, sign-ups increased daily, and poem submissions skyrocketed. At a certain point it felt like the poems had become a “counter-contagion!” And we found ourselves tracking the spread of poetry instead of the virus. At the project’s conclusion, more than 350 people from the campus and St. Louis community were participating and they had written more than 1,200 poems. When we asked them to share their experiences at the close of the month, they confirmed that the project had indeed provided a strong and steady lifeline during a spring of isolation, fear, and uncertainty.
Jean Allman is a J.H. Hexter Professor in the Humanities and director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. Kathleen Fields is the communications editor of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.
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