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Oct
01
2022
Literary Arts

‘Navigating the Pandemic: Stories of Hope and Resilience’

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Despite being physically separated for much of 2020 and beyond, people have still managed to find ways to collaborate on creative projects during the ongoing pandemic. Connecting in isolation via alternate methods — by phone, mail, email, video conference — has meant that all distance is, in a way, equal. A writer from, say, Spencerport, N.Y. can reach out to a choir director from Yellow Springs to help her put together a book.

Which is what happened earlier this year, when New York writer Teresa Schreiber Werth collaborated with villager and World House Choir Director Cathy Roma — among a host of others — to write, edit and assemble “Navigating the Pandemic: Stories of Hope and Resilience.”

The book features poems and essays from more than 30 writers, including Werth, Roma and villager Dawn Knickerbocker, as well as other artists connected to Roma. Writers share a wide range of feelings engendered by the pandemic among the book’s pages — grief and fear, but also hope, joy and, occasionally, humor.

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Werth, who spoke to the News via phone this fall, said the initial impetus for the book came from her experience observing and shepherding grief as a funeral celebrant.

“All I could think of was the families who were trying to deal with that horrendous loss — not just loss of life, but separation, disappointment, feeling isolated,” she said. “It overwhelmed me, because I knew what those families were going through.”

Werth said she also knew her own voice and perspective were not enough for the kind of book she was envisioning.

“I didn’t have all the knowledge and expertise to address this new kind of loss and grief on my own, but I knew that I knew people who did,” she said.

The collaborative book, “Navigating the Pandemic: Stories of Hope and Resilience,” features contributions from over 30 writers, including local Cathy Roma, who explore the wide range of feelings engendered by the pandemic.

Having had a long career in public relations writing, Werth also has an established history of using writing as a way to navigate crucial stages in her own life.

“In 2009, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, and my way of coping with that experience was to write a book,” she said.

That book, “Pink-On-Pink: Writing My Way Through Breast Cancer,” a collection of poetry and prose, would eventually lead to Werth’s first collaboration with Roma. While undergoing chemotherapy, Werth would listen to the music of MUSE, Cincinnati Women’s Choir. At the time, the choir was directed by Roma, who said she received an unusual request from Werth.

“[Werth] reached out and said, ‘I’ve published a book about my struggle, and I would like MUSE to commission some women composers to set any of the book’s poems to music,’” Roma said. “For 30, 45 years that’s what I’ve done — commissioned women to write music — but I’d never been approached by a poet. And I said, ‘Why not? I’ll try it!’”

The collaboration resulted in two songs: “I Am Forever Changed,” composed by Elizabeth Haskins, and “You Were Meant for This,” composed by Elizabeth Alexander, the latter of whom also contributed her own writing to “Navigating the Pandemic.”

In addition to Alexander, other artists in Roma’s network of creatives contributed to Werth’s book, including Ysaye Maria Barnwell, a composer with whom Roma has worked in both MUSE and the World House Choir. Also included are the lyrics to Ayanna Woods’ “To Propagate a Home,” which was written in the wake of the mass shooting in Dayton’s Oregon District in 2019 and debuted that year by the World House Choir.

Another inclusion is the work of Guy Banks, an artist with whom Roma has worked since 2012. Banks, who is currently incarcerated in Columbus, performed under Roma’s direction in The Kuji Men’s Chorus, which was formed at Marion Correctional Institution. Banks is expected to be released March 25, 2022, and will become a villager himself: his first term as a student at Antioch College is to begin on April 11.

Banks is a rapper and poet who performs under the name Tron. His contribution to the book, an improvised poem, reads in part:

“This time will reshape the minds of this generation/a virus declared a war on all of us/kings, queens, rulers, and Presidents, convicted felons in all the same elements.”

Roma’s own essay for “Navigating the Pandemic,” entitled “Count It Joy: Making Music In Prison,” details her joy in working with The Kuji Men’s Chorus to perform “Hamilton” within the walls of the prison, in which Banks played the title role. Roma’s piece also includes writing from some of the production’s incarcerated cast, including Banks.

“It was a source of incredible joy and resilience, and I kept thinking about that as I thought about what I would write [for the book],” Roma said. “I wanted the men’s voices to be able to speak.”

Werth said that featuring a variety of voices was part of her ideal vision for the book — particularly when it came to voices that are underrepresented.

“The experiences of all these different groups vary so greatly, and that’s what I focused on — getting input from a diversity of artists,” she said. “One voice doesn’t represent a whole group, but I wanted to enhance the voices I [could access].”

Werth pointed to the work of villager Dawn Knickerbocker, who contributed the essay “Our Bones Remember” to the book. In the essay, Knickerbocker outlines her perspective on the pandemic as an Ojibwe woman, and the ways that Indigenous history and the history of colonialism intersect with the history of mass disease and illness.

“For many of us, this is triggering of trauma remembered,” Knickerbocker writes. “Nearly all the population areas of the Americas were reduced by over 90 percent because of disease. … And so it goes, our Native Nations are no strangers to the danger a pandemic can pose. Our bones remember. I remember.”

Werth said she hopes that, by recording people’s reflections on and during the pandemic, the book will itself be a telling of history.

“​​I hope the lasting significance of this book is that it will allow our grandchildren’s grandchildren to understand some of what happened during the first four months of the pandemic, which was really only the prologue to the whole event,” she said. “That’s when people began to realize how dramatically this was going to change their lives.”

“Navigating the Pandemic: Stories of Hope and Resilience” edited by Teresa Schreiber Werth, was published by Page Publishing and is available at dandelionbook.com.

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