Daniel Mark Epstein is an award-winning poet and biographer. In April of 2020, he wrote a sonnet sequence about the pandemic, which formed the basis of a collaborative film produced by Holly Peppe, along with input by Paul Hecht and artistic direction by Doug Trapp. Below is the recent conversation I had with Epstein last summer about the remarkable project (edited for length and clarity).
Readers may access the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDJ4TKPqNTc
LM: All of the material in Cruel April: Poems from the Pandemic works so well together—texts, voices, images, and music. The sonnets feel entirely fresh and modern while still being tied to the past and grounded in poetic tradition. They are performative of the subject matter—the ancientness of plagues in human history as a shared experience of suffering, loss, and anxiety, but also wholly of their own cultural moment. A lot of folks with whom I have spoken have been so stunned by these unprecedented times that they are still trying to process what is happening, rather than trying to produce art in response. I suspect you are the sort who, once inspired, works feverishly to see the creative energy through to completion. I wonder if you care to comment on the composition of the poems?
DME: The composition of the sonnets in Cruel April: Poems from the Pandemic was uncharacteristic for me. First of all, in a lifetime of writing poetry, I have rarely written about current events. My practice has been “emotion recollected in tranquility,” Wordsworth’s phrase, and usually by the time I get around to writing about an “event” in the world, the public has nearly forgotten about it.
Also, I wrote the complete cycle of sonnets, fifteen in all, in fewer than two weeks. In an average year I might write seven or eight lyric poems altogether, or one longer narrative poem. So I was in a kind of trance, and I did indeed work nonstop during that time while one poem led to another.
Yet much of the work was deliberate, and the choices were very careful. I chose to write Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnets. I needed the strictest possible form in order to impose the sort of distance or objectivity that might ordinarily occur with the passage of time. I felt an irresistible urge to write the poems, but I knew that if I did not use every formal trick at my disposal the poems would dissolve into sentimentality or pure gothic panic.
In April I sent the poems to a few friends. One, Holly Peppe, is an experienced producer. She managed to put together the film, miraculously, in a few weeks. Everybody donated their time and artwork; it’s truly a non-profit labor of love, and we just want people to see it. I think that you believe, as I do, that artists, by creating something of beauty and clarity in a time of chaos, can introduce a kind of order—catharsis, and maybe healing.
LM: I can well understand your need to write about the pandemic, and I think the collaboration offers a sense of community at a time when all of our natural inclinations to come together have been interrupted. The title for the project, Cruel April: Poems from the Pandemic, seems a clear reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and the first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” which begins, “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Did Eliot’s poem serve as the initial inspiration for the sequence, and if not, what did?
DME: The Waste Land was not a direct inspiration for the sequence, although the tone of some of the poems may have been influenced by that poem. The title Cruel April: Poems from the Pandemic was actually selected after the poems had been written. It was suggested by the producer of the film, Holly Peppe. We had to choose a title (and subtitle) that would represent the poems and that would also attract viewers to the film on YouTube. There are all sorts of algorithms that affect whether people go to a site on YouTube or not.
LM: We have lost an enormous number of lives, and we are seeing spikes due to things like colleges and universities resuming in-person classes, and too many people are not taking the pandemic seriously. Given that you otherwise deal with facts and historical information as a biographer, how did that other half of your career as a writer influence the sonnet sequence in terms of documenting this momentous event?
DME: For the most part I keep my life and work as a biographer separate from my work as a poet, although the second arose naturally out of the first. And yet these sonnets have an epic dimension, in that they include history, previous plagues like the Black Death in Europe in the 13th and the 17th Centuries, and the Pandemic Influenza of 1918. I’ve actually written about these things, and studied them as an historian. I wrote about the Flu Epidemic of 1918 in Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson because her daughter nearly died of the flu that year. A professional historian has a timeline in his or her head. If you’re a Medieval historian it may start in the year 600 A.D. and go to the present. If you’re a Civil War historian it may start in 1830 and go to the present. But it’s not just a geometric linear figure; it’s more like a moving panorama.
So in writing the COVID-19 Pandemic sonnets I had a sense of the events taking place over centuries. The sonnet “Journal of the Plague Year” is mostly lifted from Defoe, who was writing about the plague in England between 1664 and 1665. It would not be as natural for me to do that if I had not written those historical books.
LM: There is a nice mix of male and female voices in the video, and each poem could conceivably be read by either gender. I would argue that such a strategy helps to universalize the experience of each poem, even while we may feel the poems very personally. Could you please comment on that?
DME: The actors—Tyne Daly, Paul Hecht, Jennifer Van Dyck and Harris Yulin—are quite wonderful. The poems are dramatic lyrics, and it was exciting for all of us to discover that most of the poems could be read as easily by a man or a woman. As you suggest, if you came upon the poems in a book and knew that a man was the author, you might assume that the poems are all in a man’s voice. And yet the “personality” of the speaker has been refined, or “objectified,” to a point where the speaker is mostly not gender-specific.
The extremely subjective, confessional voice is, to some extent, a post-modern phenomenon. Dante, Shakespeare, and Eliot make every effort to refine their identity to a point where they can speak for all of humankind. The poem is not about Shakespeare, or about Eliot, it’s about us. Although I have written some very personal poetry I’m not sure it’s my best. I am pleased with the fact that these sonnets are not personal or tied to my identity. I tried to tell everyone’s story in a moment of crisis, when the crisis is something we share, a thing that we all have in common.
LM: I would like to note the sonic quality of Tyne Daly’s reading especially because it has a very recorded, almost tinny and not-quite-real-life sound. I think the readings were done via Zoom. My reaction is that the sound of her reading works really well and lends a sort of virtual distance that is a reality of the project, while also capturing the nature of communicating remotely in the time of COVID.
DME: I’m so glad you like the sound of Tyne Daly’s voice (a famously beautiful voice) in spite of the recorded quality—or, I suppose, because of it. We were very frustrated that we couldn’t have all of the actors in a studio. All of them had to record the poems in their own homes. Some have their own recording studios (if you’re a professional actor you might have such a thing), but others, like Tyne, were just doing their best. Yes, I think she recorded via Zoom. And she sounds like she’s in a cellar. But you’re right, it does give her voice a strange and wonderful quality that the others don’t have. They all sound like they’re coming from different places, and it’s sort of an accidental benefit, a “silver lining” kind of a thing.
The video was made in about two weeks, incredibly quickly. Moreover, if there hadn’t been the pandemic, these actors and artists would not have been available. So what you’re looking at, in this little twelve-minute film, is quite a remarkable ensemble work created during a crisis.
LM: How involved were you in the film, the production end? We had discussed the art and music, and your decision that you wanted no music during the readings and no scrolling text at the bottom of the screen.
DME: Yes. I told the artistic director that I wanted the language to be the center of attention. No music playing except when the credits roll at the beginning and end. One or two visual artists per poem. No actors onscreen. I got to choose which actor would read which poem, and I had the final say over which “take” would be used in the final cut. I had nothing to do with the magnificent artwork. It was provided courtesy of members and friends of the Trivoli Artists Gallery (TrivoliArtistsGallery.com; see film credits for a complete list of artists). I also like the music, by Kevin Macleod, which is haunting and plaintive, tonally right for the film. Everybody donated their time and their art.
LM: Let’s talk a bit about the poem titled “Notre Dame.” I was so struck by it—how you brought in a momentous and otherwise seemingly unrelated past event (however recent; although, 2019 seems such ages ago now after this trying year) and the way it served as a portent in retrospect.
DME: The composition of “Notre Dame” is a little different from the other sonnets. It is the only poem that is not wholly spontaneous, in that I had considered writing a poem like that ever since the Cathedral burned. The church has been an important locus for me nearly my whole life. I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris. I’m not Catholic, I’m Jewish, but Notre Dame has been significant to my spiritual life. I thought to myself in that moment, “It is not a good portent for Europe, or for the world,” that this church, which has been standing here for a thousand years, through wars and fires and plagues, has at this moment in history gone up in flames. Sometimes it takes me months and sometimes years to process the emotions that eventually produce a poem. Often it is a matter of finding the form that will suit the content. In this case I think it was finding the form. And timing. I was ready to write the poem.
LM: If one is being a careful reader, poetry forces one to want to make sense of it. A poet can have a very specific thing to communicate and assume his or her meaning has been conveyed. Even in those instances, however, a writer cannot entirely control how a reader responds to something. This effect seems to come into the realm of what we’ve discussed about prophecy. We typically cannot apprehend authorial intent; whereas, with a living poet—such as yourself—you can tell me what you intended, yet that still doesn’t close off other avenues.
DME: I’ve translated a lot of Mallarmé. I’ve even created some verse poems in English that are based on prose poems of Mallarmé. He’s a great example of a poet who is working at a level where what’s clear to him might not be clear at all to the reader. Yet there is such a magic in the language, such an interior logic, that we can find our own meaning in it and create a world that may not be Mallarmé’s world, but is one that works for us as a coherent matrix of understanding. I would say that the first stanza of “Analogies” shows the influence of Mallarmé—probably more than any other of the poems in the series.
LM: Thinking about figural meaning puts me in mind of biblical prophecy, biblical writing, poetry in scripture—whether Old or New Testament—storytelling, parables, paradox. I’m thinking, too, of scriptural exegetical practices: The harder you work as a reader, the more meaningful, memorable, and valuable the prize.
DME: It is the author’s responsibility to do his or her job first. If the author has, then it’s the reader’s turn to make the most of what’s on the page. I have taught some courses in modern poetry, and I love to teach Marianne Moore because students start out thinking, What in the world is this? What’s going on here? What I’m able to get a class to realize is that this is difficult, but worthwhile. Take, for example, a poem like “To a Steam Roller.” It’s a challenging poem, but worth the trouble. Similarly, the most difficult poems of Yeats are worth every minute that you put into them. That’s true about any great poet’s work.
LM: In terms of sequence then, were the poems written in the order in which they appear or in some other way? Was the overall structure present to you as you wrote?
DME: I wrote them in exactly that order. Often, I looked at them and I wondered, Is this the order that they are really supposed to be in? I tried juggling them around. That process just confirmed to me that this really is the way they were meant to be.
I did have the number fourteen in mind, to have fourteen sonnets of fourteen lines. It just seemed like the right number of sonnets I would need in order to create this thematic narrative. And it’s exactly what it took. I didn’t want to write any more sonnets. The only surprise is that when I went back and counted, there were fifteen, and that’s when I realized that I had a prologue and fourteen sonnets.
LM: So even the “Prologue” was here originally?
DME: Yes. I was originally going to title it “Tune and Tremolo.” It made sense to call it “Prologue,” though, so it became exactly that. It’s the kind of unexpected thing that sometimes happens.
LM: I believe poems are meant to be heard aloud. But there is something to be said for a poem’s physicality on the page, which is often vital to the meaning. In your sequence, you have a lot of enjambment, slant rhyme, internal rhyme, and eye rhyme. One cannot fully enjoy any of those nuances upon just hearing the poems—it’s only in seeing them on the page that one can appreciate them.
DME: These poems are meant to be heard first. Yes, they matter visually on the page. They work both ways, but my first concern is that they be heard, which is the reason the medium of film serves them so well.
LM: Thank you. It has been such a pleasure to discuss the pandemic sonnets with you, Daniel—and poetry more broadly. Once again, the film can be viewed at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDJ4TKPqNTc
Daniel Mark Epstein is a poet, playwright, and biographer whose work has been widely anthologized and translated into many languages. His Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems was published by Louisiana State University Press in 2015. That book was recently published in Italy by Raffaelli Editore as Dall’alba al crepuscolo. His non-fiction works include several books about Abraham Lincoln and biographies of Bob Dylan, Walt Whitman, Benjamin Franklin, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. He is currently editing the Diaries of Millay for Yale University Press. His honors include the Rome Prize and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. (photo credit: Sarah Longaker)