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Maintaining the poetic bridge: shielding and exclusion
Poet and prose writer Karl Knights meditates on the difficulty of promoting and supporting a writing career while shielding, especially as in-person events regain prominence.
I imagine every writer dreams about what the experience of their first book will be like. Maybe you dream of a celebration, with an audience full of friends and strangers alike. What I didn't dream of was being dogged by the question, 'How many opportunities will the book and I miss out on just because I'm still shielding, and access is vanishing?'
When I got the news that my bundle of poems had won the 2021 New Poets Prize, I wrote down a list of bookshops, festivals and local venues that might be interested in hosting a Q&A, or a talk, or a reading. I wrote down eleven places. A year later, and only one of them is still offering virtual events (Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh who you should support if you can).
Each month, the number of invitations to events that I have to turn down because they're solely in-person increases. In the fortnight that I've been thinking about this piece, I have had to turn down four paid gigs. One of the pleasures of writing is seeing your work connect with readers. The late Brendan Kennelly once described poetry as 'a kind of bridge between people, a kind of connection.' Brick by brick, exclusion by exclusion, the bridge of poetry is now being dismantled for many disabled writers.
Expanded experiences now shrinking
One of the few joys of the early days of the pandemic was seeing the arts open up in a way that I had never experienced before: suddenly, instead of my choices being made for me by inaccessibility, I could choose to go to a reading, or watch a play, or listen to a friend's concert.
The pandemic is not over. The threat to disabled people's lives has gone nowhere. Taking covid precautions isn't a preference, or a favour. It is a matter of life and death for many disabled people, myself included. Maybe you think I am being dramatic. As the poet Sandra Alland memorably put it, the equivalent of 'a plane crash a day' is still happening. At the time of writing, at least 827 people died of covid last week.
Nearly everything that I could experience, often for the first time, in the early days of the pandemic has now reverted back to being solely in-person. My world is shrinking to the size of a penny.
Left in the dust
For almost every day of the pandemic, a memory has been on my mind that I can't shake. I am walking down a high street with a group of friends. My friends walk faster and faster. Soon I am left in the dust, watching their backs get further and further away until they're just dots, bobbing in the distance. As masks vanish, as virtual options dwindle, as infections rise yet again, shielding writers are being left behind. It is not too late to be inclusive, to be more thoughtful. You can keep walking and fade into the distance, or you can turn around, slow down, wait. What will you do?