Tammi Truax, the city’s poet laureate, has been contributing to the newsletters since early April, elevating the collection of public health updates and community resources with a layer of emotion and introspection.
When she was named poet laureate last year, Truax planned multiple projects around the theme “Poetry as a Bridge,” including using poetry to cultivate a more meaningful relationship between the residents of Portsmouth and its sister city of Nichinan, Japan.
But after a planned trip there with high school students was scrapped in April due to the pandemic, she instead wrote a poem honoring the nursing students whose graduation they were supposed to attend. And she has been highlighting Japanese forms of poetry, such as haiku — “Some nights are so dark/That the moon alone is sure/Morning will come” — and tanka, which she described as more personal and metaphorical — “The bramble extends/A thorny cane offering/Perfect raspberries/While everywhere else I look/An imperfect world festers.”
Having long believed in the power of poetry to help people through difficult times, Truax said she gladly took on the challenge of composing poems weekly, even though that’s different from her usual process. Often she doesn’t write the poem until the day she submits it.
“Sometimes things are percolating all week long, and sometimes on Saturday morning I have no idea,” she said. “But we are living through extraordinary times, and every week seems to provide ample material for me to respond to.”
For the July 4 holiday weekend, she produced a “found poem” by extracting words from an Alexander Hamilton essay. The following week she marked the birthday of Frida Kahlo with a poem questioning what the artist, who was bedridden for months due to illness and later injury, would make of “those of us bemoaning isolation” and unwilling “to forego what we want, think we need, do desire.”
The Portsmouth public library is including the poems in a “community diary” documenting the pandemic, and the poem about the Nichinan nurses will be read at their delayed graduation ceremony in October.
“This really does have ripples that extend out,” said Stephanie Seacord, Portsmouth’s public information officer, who compiles the newsletter and came up with the idea of asking Truax to contribute.
“I thought, maybe we can offer a moment of calm in this sea of craziness,” Seacord said. “But now, to me, it has a life in that it’s part of the new normal. It’s part of the archive of what we’re all living through.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.