Artists Collectively Write a Poetry Book During the Pandemic

The Poem is Telling Me I Remember, a new book of poetry and visual art published by Creative Growth, lists anywhere from six to 15 authors below the title of each composition. They worked collaboratively in group settings at Creative Growth, the Oakland studio and gallery for artists with developmental disabilities, first in-person and then online. Some of the artists incorporate language into their visual art. But for most, it was their first experience intentionally writing poetry. Lorraine Lupo, the workshop facilitator (with Kostas Anagnopoulos), recorded the lines verbatim and sequenced them into complete pieces. Even artists whose lines were omitted from the final poem received a byline. This was a resonant decision: Just like essential worker discourse during the pandemic has surfaced the labor underlying services and commodity circulation, creative communities have highlighted the porosity of influence and collaboration.

Creative Growth artists and staff

Line breaks indicate different contributors such that the poems seem to grow by accumulation, with the authors nudged by one another towards whimsy, abstraction, and vulnerability. There are ekphrastic descriptions of visual art, and tributes to workshop members composed in their absence. “I Remember,” the book’s longest piece, inspired by the same-named Joe Brainard poem, comprises full-sentence recollections of many of the same objects, feelings, and historical moments, like the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Elsewhere this accretive quality is destabilizing. “A Tiny House” features a remarkably elastic “it,” the pronoun representing a burning roof in a bathtub in one line and a shared brain in the next. Opposite the poem of domestic alarm and magical remedy, in one of the stirring text-image pairings, Peter Salsman’s untitled acrylic painting depicts telephone cables linking neighboring rooftops and a brooding, gold-streaked sky. 

The Poem is Telling Me I Remember spread

Most of the contributors, including artists William Scott, Cedric Johnson, Larry Randolph, Jessica Rodriguez, and Dinah Shapiro, have worked at Creative Growth for a decade or more. The workspace, housed in an old auto repair shop, closed last March due to the pandemic, disrupting a cornerstone of the artists’ creative practice and social life. Creative Growth staff, mainly teaching artists, reacted decisively; they ensured the artists had supplies, including computers and stable internet at home, and that the remote programming featured interpretation, breakout rooms, and other accessibility measures. The Poem is Telling Me I Remember arose from the workshop participants’ camaraderie and the labor of staff artists working as caregivers. It shows how determined collectivity, at least as much as hermitude, has defined cultural production during the pandemic.

The Poem is Telling Me I Remember is published by Creative Growth.

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