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Download “Sickness”

Collaborators’ Q&A

What made you want to submit this poem to our “Sense of Home” feature?
Poet Jennifer Perrine: I was just over two weeks into sheltering at home when I saw the “Sense of Home” prompts in my inbox. I’m not sure I can adequately describe the glee and gratitude I felt when I read them, especially the “Beautiful Outlaw” prompt.

I had been trying to write about the chaos and disorientation of those early days when I first recognized the severity of the pandemic, and hadn’t had much luck. When I read the Broadsided prompts, though, I remembered my great love for Oulipo and for extreme formal constraints. I dug into all of the prompts, starting with “Beautiful Outlaw,” dazzling in its outlandishness and intensity. The thorniness of the constraint helped unearth “Sickness” and its meditation on love in a time of heightened risk.

I wanted to send the poem to Broadsided to let you all know how much I appreciated those prompts. They helped me to see possibility where I previously had felt only thwarted and stumped.

What drew you, artistically, to respond to this poem?
Artist Michele L’Heureux: I love how nuanced and tender the poem is, how it uses a capsule of daily life for two people in love as a vehicle to convey the complexity of our current times.  It is both heartwarming and heart-wrenching at the same time—a compelling combination.

Do you often work within the constraints of prompts or exercises?  Why or why not?
Artist Michele L’Heureux: Yes, I love to give myself prompts that impose constraints on myself as an artist, as they provide terrific challenges and encourage unique ways of problem-solving. I might restrict myself to using a certain material, or choose a grid of equally sized papers, or create a pattern that I commit to repeating. I often use printmaking as an exercise to generate a lot of raw material with which to work and to get myself warmed up for building a canvas.
Poet Jennifer Perrine:
I do! I love formal constraints, and when I write, I almost always have some sort of prompt as a starting point. Occasionally these are prompts shared by a literary organization, a friend, or a community workshop, but mostly, they’re constraints that I’ve created for myself—a nonce form, an artwork I want to respond to, a phrase or line to riff on.

It wasn’t always this way—I used to wait for the muse to strike, or I’d sit down and freewrite and see what came up. But the longer I’ve been writing the more useful I find constraints and prompts to be. They break me out of my usual habits and patterns. They push me to use language in a way I might not ordinarily or to write about things I’d otherwise avoid. And most importantly, they bring me joy. There are few moments I find so satisfying as creating a ridiculously difficult constraint and then working through those confines and emerging on the other side with a poem.

In addition to providing that thrill—a very safe version of Houdini’s sensational escape—constraints also help keep me centered in the politics of writing. Working through the restrictions and obstructions of formal constraints has always felt like good practice for navigating the many social conditions meant to bar or block access, to check or curb behavior. 

How has your sense of home shifted in the COVID-19 pandemic?
Artist Michele L’Heureux: I have always been someone who has enjoyed making a nest, surrounding myself with simple things that please me, and performing daily rituals like gardening, reading, and cooking, so in many ways being quarantined has supported my preferred lifestyle quite nicely. However, it has been hard to stay grounded in these simple pleasures as my anxiety about the state of our world has worsened over time.  Home feels less and less like a retreat from the negative forces in the world and more like a permeable vessel where those forces try to seep under my doors and through my screens at all hours. Rather than being able to separate home from the place where I work or dine or exercise or am entertained, it has become the everything place, which can feel a little overwhelming at times. 
Poet Jennifer Perrine:
During the past few years, pre-pandemic, I spent very little time at home. I threw myself into work, and when I wasn’t working, I was out socializing, dancing, taking classes, going to readings, visiting museums, and otherwise doing all the things. In these last several months, I am slowly warming to being in my house and to making it a home. I clean up after myself more frequently. I cook every night. I have grown my first real garden since I moved to Oregon four years ago. I pickle and can. I pluck and freeze berries by the gallon. Occasionally, I just sit in the backyard and look at all the birds that visit. Are more birds nesting and feeding in my neighborhood because there’s less human traffic? Or were they there this whole time, and I just never noticed?

Despite all this homemaking, I still feel uneasy spending so much time in my house and yet as I see evictions on the rise here and elsewhere, I’m also grateful for the stability of my home. Even though I was homeless many years ago, I now often take my house for granted, and the pandemic has reminded me that home, for most of us, is more precarious than we often are willing to imagine or to admit.

Has your relationship to your creative work shifted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Artist Michele L’Heureux: I am challenged to work with the supplies that I have on hand (which are abundant!) and inspired to work on small, quiet work that reflects my need for control and joy right now.  
Poet Jennifer Perrine:
I’ve noticed I’ve been writing more frequently since the pandemic began. Writing is how I make sense of the world, and these last few months have been brimming with senselessness. Before the pandemic, if I went a while without writing I might have felt disappointed or a little out of sorts. Now, if I go more than a week or so without writing I feel completely thrown. Writing has always helped my wellbeing and now more so than ever.

I’ve also given myself more room to create in other ways. Aside from the aforementioned cooking, I’ve been drawing a bit and experimenting with origami which I find soothing when I can’t sleep.

How did you choose the “Vectorization” site for your collaboration (pictured left) and, if anything were possible, where in the world would you most love to discover your broadside posted?
Artist Michele L’Heureux: I brought the broadside on my morning walk with the express goal of finding a place to post it. This site was the first that caught my attention and felt suitable. I am avoiding medical facilities to the best of my ability, but I’d love to see this broadside posted at a nurse’s station or in a doctor’s waiting room as a reminder that patients come from all walks of life.
Poet Jennifer Perrine:
Every day for the last few months, I’ve walked my dogs along the Trolley Trail, a lovely path which once carried a streetcar and now is primarily a bike path winding south from Portland. The spot pictured is about two miles from my house, and it’s where I usually turn around and head back home. Each time I pass this board it’s almost always empty and so it seemed like it was begging to be Broadsided. I’m hoping that now that there’s one thing on the board to stop, read, and ponder, other folks will be inspired to add to it, too.

Lately, I’ve been most delighted to discover art or kind words in neighborhood windows, chalked on streets, and on the sides of otherwise blank buildings, so I’d love to be surprised by spying my broadside in one of those local places. But as long as the possibilities are endless, I’ll say: the International Space Station, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, or Anthony Fauci’s home office.  I want to see this broadside in places of hope, science, and imagination.

Read any good books lately?
Artist Michele L’Heureux: I just finished Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which I loved—what a classy role model for all time!
Poet Jennifer Perrine:
Speaking of hope, science, and imagination, the first book I read this year—or one thousand years ago in pandemic-time—was Ted Chiang’s Exhalation.  Those stories moved me deeply, made me question my ethical stances, and left me in an introspective mood that I’ve carried into 2020. More recently, I’ve read and recommended to others Celia Laskey’s Under the Rainbow, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, and Traci Brimhall’s Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod.

On those long Trolley Trail walks, I’ve been listening to audiobooks, and my two favorite this year have been She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement (Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey) and Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases (edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman). The former enlightened me not just about the particular stories that Kantor and Twohey investigated but also about the careful consideration, strategy, and even suspense involved in journalism. The latter deepened my understanding of both the history and the present of the Unites States’ injustices. I recommend the book in any form, but the audiobook is particularly worth it for Billy Porter’s reading of Marlon James’ essay on Lawrence v. Texas.

Seen any good art lately?
Artist Michele L’Heureux: My favorite art project of late is Shelter in Place Gallery, a dollhouse-sized gallery designed by artist Eben Haines where artists can show “large scale” works that are 1:12 scale (1 inch = 1 foot). Brilliant! Check it out on Instagram @shelterinplacegallery
Poet Jennifer Perrine:
It’s been a minute since I’ve been able to see much art in person, but Hank Willis Thomas’ exhibit at the Portland Art Museum earlier this year shattered and rebuilt my heart. His work is outstanding on its own—consciousness-raising and hope-filled—and I wouldn’t have thought it could be made any more memorable until I checked out the curation notes written by students from the King School Museum of Contemporary Art, which is housed in an elementary school in Portland. One piece in particular—“We the People,” a quilt made from decommissioned prison uniforms—was paired with an interpretation by a fifth grade student that made me both weep and clap for that young person’s brilliance.

Also, whoever painted stones with little images and left them strewn about the neighborhood, perched on mailboxes, and nestled against power poles—I adore you.

Anything else? (Here, we invite the collaborators to invent a question, add a comment, or otherwise speak to what the questions so far have not tapped about their Broadsided experience).
Artist Michele L’Heureux: I want to thank Jennifer for writing a love poem for our times that feels both weighty and hopeful and that inspires any number of interpretations. I am a believer that love is the only path forward and I try to approach the world with tenderness and compassion. Jennifer’s poem is a sweet reminder that love can heal and protect, especially in the face of looming evil. I am so grateful that artists of all kinds—musicians, poets, sculptors, painters, dancers, and more—have been disseminating their work in all kinds of creative ways, spreading love and hope to a wide audience, connecting us in meaningful ways. Of course, this is what Broadsided has been doing so well for so long!
Poet Jennifer Perrine: I want to offer gratitude again for the “Sense of Home” prompts, which opened a door I did not know was locked.

I also want to share how moved I was (and am) by the artwork Michele L’Heureux paired with this poem. I spent ages looking at those collaged bodies, whose fractures reveal both their fragility and their mending. And then I spent another good long while reveling in the texture and folds of that silky blanket and how perfectly it evoked care and comfort and tenderness.

I have also been thinking a lot about the artwork I’ve stumbled upon in my neighborhood—those chalked streets, those painted stones!—and how they have sustained me these last few months. I want to encourage folks to post these “Sense of Home” broadsides in their neighborhoods, in case they might bring someone that moment of joy and connection we all need so much right now.

To add a little further encouragement, if you’re one of the first 250 people to post a Vectorized “Sense of Home” broadside and tag me on Instagram (@mxreading), I’ll donate $5 to Portland Homeless Family Solutions in your honor. PHFS has expanded their homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs during COVID-19 so that people don’t face eviction due to falling behind on rent during the pandemic. The good work they—and so many other community nonprofits—are doing now will help prevent trauma, stress, and homelessness until rent and eviction policies catch up with the reality of this crisis.

The Prompts: “Beautiful Outlaw/Belle Absente”

Writer Prompt: Sometimes called the “something is missing poem.” Our current state of physical distancing seems like a perfect time to practice this Oulipo-inspired form, which speaks to something it can never name, something that is always beautifully, painfully missing.

  1. Begin with a word as your title. This creates the scaffolding for your poem. It could be “shelter,” or “health,” or it could be someone’s name whom you can’t be with in person right now, or somewhere you can’t be: “Louisiana,” “Grandmother,” “subway,” etc. Anything will work.
  2. You will have one stanza for each letter in your word. If your word is “Shelter,” your first stanza will be the “s” stanza, the second will be the “h” stanza, and so forth (NOTE: we only accept poems of twenty-five lines or less so your stanzas need to be planned accordingly!)
  3. Each stanza must use every letter of the alphabet except the one it refers to.
  4. So: your “s” stanza will use every letter but “s,” your “h” stanza will use every letter but “h,” your “e” stanza will use every letter but “e,” etc. Achieve this however you see fit.
  5. This is a great form for pushing your use of language and grammar, as you won’t be able to say things in the way you’re used to. Cozy up to that dictionary.

Artist Prompt: Inspired by the poem “Sickness,” your visual response must not use any imagery common to this moment (masks, gloves, etc.) and must address sickness without using the word “sickness” or any of its letters individually. Take a look around your workspace: what is the most pervasive color there? Whatever that is, please use at least eight colors (the same number as the letters in the word “Sickness”), but never that one.

Note:  This broadside and interview are included in the anthology, Broadsided Press: Fifteen Years of Poetic/Artistic Collaboration, 2005-2020 (Provincetown Arts Press, 2022).

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