Dr Mariah WhelanDr Mariah Whelan

It has been an academic year unlike any other, with students, staff, and Fellows in and out of isolation. With many scattered around the globe, dealing with illness themselves or that of loved ones, and dealing with loss and grief, the pandemic has taken an undeniable toll on us all. I spoke to Dr Mariah Whelan on how the practice of poetry, particularly through her workshops, has helped combat some of the isolating effects that the pandemic has brought on the university population, and how it can bring us closer as a community.

Whelan took up her position as the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at Homerton College this year. The residency, she tells me, was set up by the late poet and Homerton alumnus Jacqueline Bardsley’s husband, in honour of her belief in the power of poetry to foster and uphold a sense of community: ‘the goal of the residency is to put poetry at the heart of Homerton’s college life’. What has been unique about this residency, apart from it being the College’s first ever poet residency, is that it coincided with a pandemic and as a result has come with unanticipated challenges as well as benefits.

“When you can hear the poem without it being mediated through a data cable it’s just gorgeous!”

Throughout the year she organized various workshops, writing sessions, and open mics; and hosted readings with guest poets such as Marvin Thompson and Mary Jean Chan, all over Zoom. She tells me that while her previous residencies have always involved being on-site and hands on, teaching poetry over Zoom has been especially interesting: ‘it’s exciting in terms of how many more people and different types of people you can reach when you do everything online.’ Those who otherwise could not muster the energy to walk in the cold to an evening session can easily click on and join in.’ On the one hand, we’re missing out on what happens when you put human bodies in a room together, like during Joe Biden’s inauguration when Amanda Gorman read out her poem, it was electric, right? You could just feel what those bodies being close to each other was doing. When you can hear the poem without it being mediated through a data cable it’s just gorgeous,’ she beams with excitement. ‘So we’re missing out, but we’re also addressing access issues that have been ignored for so long. I’m deeply interested in how we can combine the two, going forward.’

Whelan’s workshops seek to realize this combination and provide a quiet getaway from academic pressures. ‘I get so many emails from students who say having this creative activity to look forward to is really important. The pandemic is making everything that’s stressful about Cambridge life worse, so people are enjoying the opportunity to have fun and play around with language.’ The workshops honour this concern and always emphasize the importance of creativity as play, as something meant to be low stakes and low stress. They sometimes begin with a moment of meditation or a self-grounding exercise, followed by a gentle walk through the process of conceiving and writing a poem. Whelan goes through the basics of a form or literary device depending on the topic at hand – a sonnet, metaphor and simile, a visual exercise meant to stimulate poetic imagery – and walks the class through line by line, or stanza by stanza, while writing her own poem alongside everyone. Because of her laid-back style, poetry writing is highly accessible and relaxing, almost therapeutic. At the end of the session, she will read out her own poem, often prefacing that this is not meant to be a finished version, and then invite anyone else brave enough to read out what they have produced. The turn-out again is always great, with often inspiring and imaginative work being shared and encouraged – though clapping is not possible without the risk of audio disruption, the applause reaction on Zoom does the trick.

Part of what makes this collective, simultaneous act of writing poetry significant is that it allows us to straddle two worlds, that of the self and other. ‘When we write a poem about someone else or the environment,’ she says, ‘when we distance ourselves from the “I,” very often that’s when the interior, private, and vulnerable side comes out.’ Our poems benefit from engagement with the communal because it helps us name our own vulnerabilities in relation to others, place ourselves within a wider framework, and gain perspective on our roles. This is also why poetry in practice reflects with immediacy our current experiences of something as socially disruptive as the pandemic. She draws a parallel with Michael Longley’s 1998 poem ’Ceasefire’, which was written in the wake of the IRA ceasefire in the 90s: ‘some of the best poetry written on big global events tends to approach the subject indirectly. Longley’s sonnet is about the Trojan War, but publishing it in the context of the ceasefire and exploring the question of how to make peace happen, indirectly through Priam and Hector, was an effective way of engaging with something so emotionally and socially huge. It would be head-spinning to approach it directly.’ Poems necessarily become a reflection of their times.

“I think we need to get more radical in demanding from our institutions spaces where art is used to think about the issues we are facing”

This is not to say that poetry cannot engage directly with the pressing issues of the day. A benefit of connecting to the communal through poetry is our renewed sense of purpose and desire to advocate for positive change within our communities. In fact, poetry is becoming an increasingly useful tool within activism, an inciter and instigator of change. Whelan’s sessions, such as one on eco-poetry, demonstrate a very conscious engagement with the environment, and a heightened sense of individual responsibility. When facts and figures are not always enough to persuade someone to take action, a well written poem with a cause in mind has the potential to jolt us out of passivity, or at the very least stimulate discussion. ‘If you can tap into another human being’s feelings and imagination that will usually get you miles and miles further than reasoning with them,’ she says, ‘I think we need to get more radical in demanding from our institutions spaces where art is used to think about the issues we are facing.’ This year, the connective powers of poetry have helped us process not just the pandemic, but the various global issues that coincide with it.


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In her own writing practice Whelan is equally purposeful. ‘So, for the first half an hour of every day I sit down with my notebook and I journal. Then for the next half an hour I read poetry. I do this every week, Monday to Friday.’ Whelan straddles worlds too as both an academic who approaches literature with a critical eye and a poet who engages her creative side. ‘I think of it in terms of methods – I have my critical methods and my creative methods. The key to doing it is thinking about them as equally rigorous. Creativity is not just sitting around – well, sometimes it is, but that’s just one of its many methods’. Apart from her work at Homerton, she is a Fellow in Creative Practice at University College London, a co-editor of the poetry magazine bath magg, and much more.

More on Whelan’s work can be found here on her website.