Writing the Lockdown (Guest blog: Michele Witthaus)

Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, I had been writing poems at the rather sedate rate of one or two a month, sending some out for publication and experiencing a string of small successes along the way. I wasn’t hugely productive but that didn’t bother me particularly. My day job as a journalist kept me busy enough with churning out thousands of words on demand.

Michele Witthaus, journalist & author of VISIBLE SPECTRUM

When the world suddenly went into the surreal experience of lockdown in March, the way I lived my life – and approached my creative output – changed overnight. I started new routines, almost without thinking about it. First of all, I began taking long daily walks, usually between 6.30 and 8.30 in the morning, as that was the only time I felt safe going out of the house at first. 

As I grew bolder, I explored ever further towards the edges of the city, taking footpaths into the countryside around Leicester. And while I was out there, tramping along, I began to mentally craft poems. Sometimes I’d speak the lines that came to me into my mobile phone, worried about losing them, and I would plod along muttering phrases and trying out different words. This proved quite good for social distancing as people tended to avoid the crazy lady talking to herself. On some occasions, I would hear an entire poem composing itself in my head and it would sit there snugly until I reached my computer to transcribe it. 

I had been a member of Leicester Writers’ Club since the summer of 2017 and was hugely relieved when the Club managed to shift its weekly meetings online. Every Thursday night, at the newly instituted Zoom meetings, I would bring my week’s batch of poems to share. The other participants were remarkably generous in welcoming my recurring flood of words and offering feedback. I valued this particularly as I was increasingly aware that some people were having a distinctly different experience of lockdown, finding it very difficult to write under the stressful new circumstances we all found ourselves in. 

Realising that I was generating an unusual amount of material (for me, anyway), I reverted to the working habits of my day job and created a new spreadsheet to keep track of the mounting pile of poems, which soon grew to nearly 100 over three months. I also began looking for outlets for them, and tracked my submissions and the responses on the spreadsheet. Soon, I had had poems accepted by several online publishers and also by a few of the Covid-related anthologies which were suddenly springing up around the world. 

In the midst of this, I also started to see the fruits of some submissions of poems I’d written before lockdown. In particular, my poem, ‘Visible Spectrum’, was accepted for inclusion in the Space Cat Press anthology, ‘Uncharted Constellations’. Looked at in the context of my ‘pandemic poems’, many of which question the ways we consider life and our place on the planet, this poem fits quite well with the themes explored there.

I had marked on my calendar the closing dates for several pamphlet and collection competitions but wasn’t sure whether my ‘lockdown ramblings’ qualified for any of them. However, encouraged by Space Cat Press co-founder and fellow Leicester Writers’ Club member, Siobhan Logan, I sent off 28 of the poems in response to a call for pamphlets by Wild Pressed Books. To my immense surprise, I was successful in this venture and the poems were published in late August 2020 as ‘From a Sheltered Place’. 

‘From a Sheltered Place’ (Wild Pressed Books, 2020)

During the whirlwind of productivity that marked early lockdown for me, fellow writers kept asking me when I thought I might stop writing this series of poems. At first I thought that maybe I would simply keep going – that this daily poetic output was my ‘new normal’. But, as the initial phase of the global Covid-19 response drew to a close, and individual countries went into the next phase of managing their outbreaks, I felt less and less inclined to write about the experiences of lockdown. So I stopped just before hitting my ‘century’, although a few poems emerged in subsequent weeks whenever I felt strongly about new developments. 

I would certainly say that writing these poems helped me through the first disorientating stages of adapting to the coronavirus situation. It was a time when my usual freelance work disappeared for months and I had long hours each day alone without family responsibilities. Coincidentally, I was living in temporary accommodation with most of my belongings in storage while a move was delayed by many months due to the challenges imposed by the virus. Although everything around me felt transitory, I was safe and felt as if I had permission to focus properly on my creative writing for the first time in many years. 

I am grateful for the opportunities that this period afforded me, recognising how many others did not have the advantages I did during this unprecedented time. And I hope the poems continue to be of some use and interest, whether for people grappling with the meaning of the Covid-19 era now, or for future readers looking back on what happened to us all in 2020.

Check out Michele’s reading of ‘Visible spectrum’ here.

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