Poetry in a time of pandemic: Local women of color find voice in COVID

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
-- Audre Lord


On Feb. 8, the women of color poets of Ypsilanti-based Untold Stories of Liberation & Love gathered to talk about our vision for 2020. What were Untold Stories members yearning to be, do, and create this year? In what ways did members want to move forth our mission of amplifying and strengthening local women of color’s creative courage and leadership? Priorities such as community workshops and a podcast emerged, along with a deep yearning for more connection and a powerful theme that made us cheer. In 2020 Untold Stories would tell the world that “Our Stories Did Not Begin With Pain.” Now more than ever, we would lead with healed power for a future grounded in ancestral legacies of love and resilience.


One month later all of us were huddled, separately, in our apartments and houses, under Michigan’s shelter-in-place order. As members lost work or held down jobs online with children stuck inside all day, and scrambled to find masks and toilet paper, the death toll rose highest and fastest in our own Black and Brown communities, where the structures of racism threaten our lives each day.


When COVID hit, all our plans and poems seemed irrelevant. But as the weeks wore on, the need for community and space to name our realities grew urgent. The idea of a shared shelter-in-place poetry project was born.


On March 15 I sent a writing prompt to every Untold Stories member, inviting them to write, using a line from Native American poet Joy Harjo, “Perhaps the world ends here…”, as a place to start. For ten weeks the prompts continued, with Untold Stories poets producing more than 30 new poems and creating a long-overdue website to share our work with the public.


One of the poems generated from the first prompt was “Aunties” by Nuola Akinde, where she writes of her need for community:


I’ve lived enough to know

That I don’t know enough

to help us survive this



The second week’s prompt, echoing Black poet Audre Lorde’s words, “We lay a bridge across our fears…”, sparked Ugbaad Keynan’s poemWe Lay a Bridge Across Our Fears”, which describes finding present-day strength in the legacy of Black ancestors:


Because this bridge built over fire and flame

Which is mean to consume and destroy

Has carried those before me


And they are free now


And I can be too


With one painful step

That burns my flesh and rips the breath out of my lungs

And a second step whose pain I'm prepared for


By April, we were in our fifth week of prompts, with “Before you know what kindness really is…” from Arab American Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness.” Erika Murcia offered these words from her poem, “Faithful Humility”, recalling her experience as a child in wartime El Salvador.


Holding hands as we

formed a circle to pray

so the bombing

in the mountains

in front of

our home

would be stopped


Natalie Diaz’ poem, Grief Work, provided a prompt in May, which led Erica B. Edwards to write of pain and hope in her poem, “A Movement”,


Legs planted still in the uncertainty of uncertainty

Trusting that everything is occurring

as it should

While you quake and (re)member to breathe

Even in the face of death


By June, our experience with COVID’s horrific racial inequities fused with our outrage at relentless brutal racial injustice in the police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade. Untold poets like Desiraé Simmons took to the streets where they shared poems echoing the prompt “A thousand less police…” from California poet/activist Maria Poblet. In her poem, “Thousands March Forward”, Simmons writes,


in the land of abundance there is always more

it is our charge to remove what was never needed


what i know to be true is more love feels best

the less we see ourselves as divided

the more connected we are to why what is

was never good enough, not in a thousand years


Today, as the pandemic surges once again, Untold Stories continues, perhaps stronger than ever. Reflecting on the pandemic prompts, Erika Murcia writes, “My experience with Untold's COVID poetry project was a creative process in which I felt connected and rooted in collective love. This process meant an opportunity to stay present to my own daily truths as the pandemic unfolds every day.” The project’s impact spanned beyond our members; for example, a teacher at University of Michigan School of Social work is using our poems and the Untold Stories website in the curriculum for her social justice course, asking her students read our work and use the prompts to write their own "pandemic poems." In the fall, Untold Stories will take to the air with a new podcast hosted by Desiraé Simmons.


Poetry has always provided a deep source of power and wisdom in the darkest times. We pray that the words of Untold Stories poets continue to generate warmth and light in our world.

Julie Quiroz is the editor of the anthology Untold Stories of Liberation & Love, a book of poetry by Ypsilanti-based women of color. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector — and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.
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