Poetry for Pandemic-Related Inequity in 'Between My Body and the Air'

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'Between My Body and the Air.'
'Between My Body and the Air.' (Youth Speaks)

It's no secret that the pandemic has made clear the very real inequity in America. Low-paid line cooks, factory workers and construction crews are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19. Longstanding housing instability, especially for immigrant families, means cramped quarters and fast spread of the virus. Existing health care policies favor those employed full-time. And even the CDC recognizes that COVID-19 disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities due to existing structures.

These are big ideas to fit into poetry, but if anyone can do it, it's the young. Between My Body and the Air is a poetry anthology from Youth Speaks, the San Francisco nonprofit which for 25 years has worked to shape young writers' and poets' voices. Refreshingly, the book's 60 poems don't read like a series of nightly news reports, but rather, reflections of each poet's experience before and during the pandemic. Take Elizabeth Joseph's "Quarantine Cooking," which reads in part:

quarantine cooking calls for canned beans at the back of the shelf
you brush dust off the top before opening
and spice it with the herbs three years older than that
know this is all you have and it has to be enough

when you make cake to iron out stress,
you’ll have to substitute applesauce for eggs,
distance for love, and Twitter threads for healthcare.

On Feb. 19, the physical release of Between My Body and the Air is celebrated in an hour-long online event featuring several poets from the anthology (one of whom, in full disclosure, is Samuel Getachew, Oakland's 2018 Youth Voice Poet Laureate and current KQED intern). For Black History Month, organizers have chosen an all-Black lineup, which also includes guest sets by Safia Elhillo and Imani Cezanne. The book is available here, and the event streams at 4:30pm Pacific Time on Youth Speaks' YouTube channel, available to view here.

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