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‘Dancing in the Dark’ - A ‘Lockdown’ Tale

In the middle of March things started to look worrying. By the third week of the month the country was locked-down to try to deal with the ‘corona’ virus. We’d never experienced anything like it before and could see a hazardous road ahead.

It turned out to be very hazardous and the deaths started to mount up in hospitals, care homes and the wider community. We entered a slightly surreal but menacing present where we hung on the words of politicians and scientists for re-assurance. Sadly some politicians and some of their friends have let us down. Their cavalier politics are not suited to self-restraint or socially-conscious ways of behaving. Exceptional cats were emerging from bags.

Most of us, too frightened to venture out, or far, found new ways of staying safe and staying apart. For some writers and artists it must have felt like a blessing; at last, a chance to get on with some new work undisturbed. The main problem was money, of course, as it usually is. How do you earn money if all the opportunities to perform, entertain or sell books, for example, are closed down? There are online sales, of course, but do they make for a living? My experience would indicate an emphatic no!

Then someone discovered Zoom and other ‘online’ means of communicating and, before you knew it, the world and her husband wanted to get in touch. So, we were not quite so isolated, after all. But the income thing was still an issue.

The Arts Council came up with the wonderful idea of supporting some ‘online’ arts activity through its ‘Emergency Funding’ scheme and, I’m very pleased to report, Offa’s Press, the small Shropshire poetry press I’ve managed for the last 10 years, was in receipt of some of this. Bless the Arts Council for its perspicacity and good will!

But during the ‘lockdown’ there has been the persistent problem of how to get work out there. A number of online anthologies have been appealing for poems on how we all feel, how we’re coping ( I think we know); some have done live readings through social media; some have taken part in projects where recorded material has been streamed, but it’s all a bit unreal. Until we get venues open again, and who knows when that will be, it will remain strange and distant and the isolation we all feel will be compounded by not being able to meet up with other writers, poets and, crucially, audiences.

During ‘lockdown’ I’ve done a lot of reading and I’ve been particularly drawn to the Roman poet Ovid, sent into exile by Octavian Caesar (later the Emperor Augustus) in 8CE for ‘unspecified crimes’ that almost certainly included writing some saucy material in his book of love poems Ars Amatoria, the ‘art of love’, when Octavian was trying to push a more ‘puritan’ agenda. Fashions change and Ovid was dispatched as far from Rome as could be managed, at that time.

Finding himself exiled by the Black Sea, Ovid, who never saw any of his family or friends again (he died in 17CE), wrote that he had no audience, that he was tongue-tied:

“writing a poem you can read to no one

is like dancing in the dark.”

Epistulae ex Ponto (Book IV, 2), Peter Green’s translation, University of California Press, 2005.

Let’s hope the lights come on again soon and the poetry show goes on.

June 2020

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