For 12 years, the Traveling Stanzas project has used crowdsourced poetry to comment on seemingly intractable global problems such as climate change, racism, and gun violence.

With the advent of COVID-19 vaccines offering the potential to end the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, Traveling Stanzas turned to San Antonio resident Naomi Shihab Nye – a new American Academy of Arts & Sciences member – to lead the way on a timely project, Dear Vaccine.

The result, Nye’s four-stanza poem Vaccine Stanzas, begins with a plea.

Save us, dear vaccine.
Take us seriously.
We had plans.
We were going places.
Children in kindergarten.
So many voices, in chorus.
Give us our world again!

In free verse, the poem touches quickly and lightly on many topics now commonly understood by millions of people who have suffered through extended isolation while straining for connection: seeing the smiles of unmasked strangers, conversing face-to-face, giving hugs, fearing unclean air, and the phenomenon of connecting to people in their faraway homes.

The poem is the focal point of an effort to promote COVID-19 vaccination, in part through soliciting crowdsourced responses to Nye’s Dear Vaccine verses.

“This poetry project is just hoping to share voices to encourage, with that sense of a chorus, that we’re all in this together,” Nye said.

Respondents are asked to begin from one of four prompts: “Dear Vaccine,” as if penning a letter, “We liked / being able” to recount what people are looking forward to be able to do again, “It’s the” to perhaps recount frustrations or hopes, or “Vaccine, please” to plead for a quick end to the pandemic.

Among more than 1,300 responses to date, a short line attributed to Janet from Texas asks the vaccine to please “restore the sound of fellowship and laughter in the churches.”

Trina Wesley of Hartland, Wisconsin, longs for her own form of facial recognition, with “we liked being able to see our smiles: crooked ones, big ones, mischievous ones, welcoming ones.”

In the scope of the global poetry project, those smiles arrive from around the world.

“Hearing the voices of children and people in the Middle East, and Europe, and Singapore, and just all over the place, posting their feelings about getting the vaccine, it’s been very moving,” Nye said.

She is proud that her local influence has encouraged many responses from San Antonio, including one by Lukin Gilliland that names Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff appreciatively: “They led us well.”

Emily Sherry, also of San Antonio, begs to move forward but also to never forget the lessons of the pandemic. “If our worldwide shutdown taught me anything, it’s to … be a better steward of my time, energy, and resources.”

Agua y Poesía

Resources are the focus of another poetry project organized by musician and songwriter Azul Barrientos, for her Noche Azul series sponsored by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

Agua y Poesía runs April 24 in English and April 25 in Spanish. The free two-day event will feature seven poets, including Carmen Tafolla and Norma Cantú, and a plática discussion following the readings focusing specifically on water as a symbol and natural resource. With so universal a subject, the true focus of the event is interconnectedness, according to Madelein Santibañez, a community organizer of Indigenous ancestry, board president of Southwest Workers Union, and an educator.

Santibañez will lead the discussion to encourage participants and the audience “to look at water in a holistic way, instead of a fragmented way.”

Even as she prepares to receive a degree in mathematics, Santibañez’s interest in water drew her to the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University. While her professors were at first surprised by having a mathematician in class, she was able to demonstrate a connection between data on water resources and a longstanding interest in water protection inspired by her tribal elders.

Data analyst Madelein Santibañez.
Madelein Santibañez Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“From my perspective it’s connected to … what our ancestors already have known innately,” that water flows through all living things, forms our environment, and underpins economies.

“It’s all intertwined, somehow. It’s informed by those values that are grounded in restoring our connection to the land, and to each other,” she said. “One of our elders is constantly encouraging us to spread awareness around people recognizing their indigeneity to the earth, recognizing that we are children of Mother Earth. And as such, we should be aware of the consequences of our actions and how we’re impacting our environment and the resources that give us life.”

Emmy Perez, the 2020 Poet Laureate of Texas, will read from her poetry collection With the River on Our Face, the main subject of which echoes Santibañez’s sentiment.

“So much of the collection is about how we are all connected, by necessity, to water, and thus to the land where we have the privilege to live, and to the ecosystems that connect us all,” Perez said in an email.

Our collective voice

Nye said more San Antonians can participate in the Dear Vaccine project through a joint effort with the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at UT Health San Antonio.

The center is helping to distribute blank cards at its pop-up neighborhood vaccination sites for people to jot down thoughts as they wait through the required 15-minute observation period after getting a shot. The cards will be sent to the Dear Vaccine project for inclusion in the growing responses section, Nye said, joining its global chorus.

“All of us who believe in poetry, we believe that poetry is our collective voice,” she said. “It tries to speak for ourselves, but also for community and to help us see what we’re experiencing and sharing – sharing this very heartfelt emotion about how science is trying to help us.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...