A New Hampshire Poet Laureate Lifts Her City’s Covid-19 Advisories

They arrive each week.

Words of light encouragement.

Moments to reflect.

On Sundays, thousands of residents of Portsmouth, N.H., find a poem nestled inside the city’s Covid-19 newsletter.

The poems, written by Tammi J. Truax, the city’s poet laureate, help offset the gloom of the pandemic while giving residents a chance to pause briefly and reflect on something other than the virus.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been over 6,700 cases and at least 419 deaths in New Hampshire, according to a New York Times database, with a recent average of 28 cases per day.

The idea for featuring the poems came from Stephanie Seacord, the public information officer in Portsmouth, a city of about 21,000 residents about 60 miles north of Boston.

Ms. Seacord was compiling information about the coronavirus and health updates in a weekly city newsletter sent to some 5,000 email subscribers and circulated on social media.

“When the pandemic hit, it became quickly clear that people needed information more than once a week,” Ms. Seacord recalled in an interview on Thursday, adding that “things were changing almost on a daily basis.”

In mid-March, the newsletter turned into a daily advisory of coronavirus cases and tips, such as where to find personal protective equipment.

Around that time, Ms. Seacord had the idea that including a poem in the Sunday newsletter would be “a good calm moment in the middle of the intensity,” she said.

Frequently Asked Questions

Updated August 6, 2020

  • Why are bars linked to outbreaks?

    • Think about a bar. Alcohol is flowing. It can be loud, but it’s definitely intimate, and you often need to lean in close to hear your friend. And strangers have way, way fewer reservations about coming up to people in a bar. That’s sort of the point of a bar. Feeling good and close to strangers. It’s no surprise, then, that bars have been linked to outbreaks in several states. Louisiana health officials have tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota has traced 328 recent cases to bars across the state. In Idaho, health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections among young adults who had visited several bars in downtown Boise. Governors in California, Texas and Arizona, where coronavirus cases are soaring, have ordered hundreds of newly reopened bars to shut down. Less than two weeks after Colorado’s bars reopened at limited capacity, Gov. Jared Polis ordered them to close.
  • I have antibodies. Am I now immune?

    • As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
  • I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?

    • The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
  • What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?

  • What is school going to look like in September?

    • It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.

So far, Ms. Truax has contributed 17 poems to the newsletter. The shortest was a haiku, a traditional Japanese three-line poem; the longest was 31 lines of free verse.

The themes vary.

“Each week I have just been writing about what has been on my mind,” said Ms. Truax, who is also the current Maine beat poet laureate, adding that she writes the poems on Saturdays.

One poem paid tribute to a new class of nurses in Nichinan, Japan, one of Portsmouth’s sister cities.

Ms. Truax and students from Portsmouth High School had planned to visit a school and its companion nursing school in Nichinan in April; the trip was canceled because of the pandemic.

Inspired by the nurses, Ms. Truax wrote a poem about them. It began:

As you finished your formal studies

the world has demonstrated

what an enormous responsibility

is being pinned upon you

along with a pretty white cap.

Another poem, called “Transitions,” was about masks and saying goodbye to a fellow poet.

Today I find the mask useful

along with sunglasses

to hide my tear streaked face,

not wanting to scare the barista

who has enough to deal with

behind his own mask.

For July 4, Ms. Truax created a “found poem” by extracting lines from Alexander Hamilton’s essays.

“Like so many, I had just seen ‘Hamilton’ for the first time, and it was what I was thinking about,” Ms. Truax said.

In the most recent Sunday newsletter, tucked amid news of the death rates of Covid-19 in the United States and New Hampshire, there was an ode to fishing by Ms. Truax.

At about the age of eight

my father gave me a fishing pole.

A girly one, pretty, like an accessory.

Bright blue stripes — how I loved it!

Ms. Truax said she hoped that the poems provide comfort.

“If they help anybody at all get through this difficult time, I would be content,” she said.

One unexpected result: inspiring a reporter to open his article with a haiku.


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Author: Johnny Diaz
August 8, 2020