Poetry, some say, is emotion in words. It can slap us in the face, shout our greatest accomplishments or whisper our greatest fears. In times of trouble, it can also provide a moment of solace or a glimpse of hope.
For much of his career, Kevin Coval has used poetry to highlight the dignity and resiliency of Chicagoans. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that toughness is being put to the test.
Coval spoke with Reset to share some perspective, inspiration and a few new pieces.
On seeking perspective — and slowing things down
Kevin Coval: The world is so fast, and my world is as fast as everybody’s. The rapidity of time begins to slow in these spaces, and I think it’s an opportunity to rebuild, to refocus on kind of who I am, what do I think, what I really care about, and try to prioritize that. In that regard, I think there is no real silver lining to any of this, but I certainly could imagine that the world wants us to slow down for ourselves, for the planet and probably for one another, to really invest in what is our own internal monologue saying and … to really be in the business of doing some deep and radical listening.
On finding inspiration in new spaces
Coval: Chicago has the best tradition of literature, and so it’s a good opportunity to read and reread some of the heroes and to also discover new voices. But also I’ve been motivated by what is happening in cultural spaces online. Over the weekends or even in the evening, I’m hopping around to all these different parties that the homies are throwing, deejays I know who are putting stuff up on IG or in Zoom. .... To be able to hop in and out of these spaces has been really powerful, to see how people are adapting. It’s grassroots culture that always dictates the future [and] is really at the vanguard of the ways we operate. I’ve just been really impressed by the ways certain rapper friends have started virtual ciphers, and they kind of passed the word to one another, you know, the way that they’ve done in playgrounds for generations, now they’re doing virtually. I’ve been motivated by seeing young people particularly kind of figure out ways to connect and reup in those spaces.
On seeking solace through stories
Coval: I think all of us need to seek solace in the things that bring us solace. I think language and emotion and just people’s stories, I think, can get to that. I believe poetry is everywhere, and I believe everyone’s a poet. I think all of us have stories to tell, things that we see in our every day. I think we need to find the moments of joy, the moments of curiosity and kind of highlight those as opposed to just paying attention to what’s on the news. I mean, we should be aware of what’s going on in the world, and also we make the world around us. And so I think for me, the poetic imagination is always helpful, but particularly helpful in these moments because we could be attuned to the little things that bring us joy, that make us smile, that give us hope, that turn our attention to how people are helping one another in this time of need.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.