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Pandemic And Poetry Collide For University Heights Poet Philip Metres

English professor Philip Metres is John Carroll University 's director of the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Interdisciplinary Programs [Carissa Russell / Brews and Prose]
English professor Philip Metres is John Carroll University 's director of the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Interdisciplinary Programs

The month of April was shaping up as the "cruelest month" for University Heights poet Philip Metres.

His readings for poetry month and his book tour was canceled because of the current pandemic.

Then on top of all that he got sick.

"I was stricken with some kind of ailment that went straight into my lungs. Needless to say I've been on asthma medication for about three weeks. Thankfully, it seems to have dissipated, but I did wonder if I had a mild case of coronavirus," Metres said. "But if that was the mild case, I'd hate to see what the full-blown cases are like."

However in recent days, things have been looking up for the John Carroll University English professor.

He's healthy again and just found out he's been selected as a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

"I've applied for the Guggenheim Fellowship for the past decade, so winning it this year comes as a surreal wonder and a profound relief. I'm grateful to the foundation for their validation of my work, particularly my new book 'Shrapnel Maps ,' and their support of poets and poetry more broadly--a genre that is not always given a lot of love," Metres said in a recent email.


Philip Metres' book "Shrapnel Maps" comes out April 24 from Copper Canyon Press

Metres is disappointed he cannot share "Shrapnel Maps," which focuses on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, at public readings this month. 

"I was really looking forward to engaging with audiences about the subject," he said.

Metres compares the current pandemic to "a big invisible tsunami drowning us in its reality."

The John Carroll University professor of English has had a lot of time to think about the themes of his book and how it relates to what's happening now.

Just as we all feel vulnerable during the pandemic, Jews and Palestinians live in a state of vulnerability in their daily lives.

"The Jewish community has a history of persecution and then overcoming and surviving, as do Palestinians," he said.

The pandemic has revealed our "primal vulnerability," Metres said.

"We've all had to confront the possibility that we could not only get it but we could die and that people we love could die. I think one of the reasons conflicts happen is this feeling of vulnerability," he said.

Another parallel is that everyone experiences the pandemic differently.

"I'm in the middle class, and that basically means I'm sequestered in my house but I can more or less do my job," he said.

He knows others are not so fortunate.

"Service workers are daily exposed and vulnerable. So we're experiencing the pandemic differently," he said.

Metres believes the same could be said of Israel and Palestine.

"They share the same space," he said. "Yet they're really living in profoundly different environments and experiences."

That conflict is mirrored in the first poem of the book, "One Tree," inspired by a true story of conflict between Metres' wife and their neighbors.

"We are essentially having a struggle over whether or not a tree should be able to fully flourish. For us the tree is beautiful. For my neighbors it's blocking the light into their garden," he said.

"One Tree" by Philip Metres

As we deal with the coronavirus, we're dealing with a time of tragedy and a time of tension, when people are nervous and upset. Is it a time of poetry?

"In times of grief, in times of reflection, people naturally gravitate toward poetry, because they see in it an expression of something sort of primal and fundamental to being human," he said. "So I would say, 'yes, it's always a time for poetry and now more than ever.'"

Philip Metres' new book of poetry " Shrapnel Maps" comes out April 24 from Copper Canyon Press

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.