Wick Poetry Center debuts Global Vaccine Poem Project

Photo courtesy of the Wick Poetry Center.

Morgan McGrath Feature Writer

“I like to think the global vaccine poem is spreading faster than the variants of the virus,” said David Hassler, director of Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center.

Hassler collaborated with the University of Arizona Poetry Center to create an online platform where people across the world can express their fears and concerns surrounding COVID-19.

“This project, Global Vaccine Poem, is an exciting opportunity to find a way for poetry to be of use to our entire society and to help give people a human face, a human voice to their fears,” Hassler said. 

Hassler said the Global Vaccine Poem Project is “an outlet [for people] to express themselves and to connect with one another through the imaginative language of poetry.” 

What began as an idea for connection has turned into an international success story. 

Early in 2020, Hassler was contacted by Tyler Meier, the executive director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, with an idea to create an online poetry project. 

Without a second thought, Hassler jumped at the opportunity. 

“Tyler called me up, and it took me about a nanosecond to say ‘yes,’” he said. 

Hassler’s website experience, alongside Meier’s new idea, enabled the project to take off. 

To further the success of the project, Hassler invited Naomi Shihab Nye, the Young People’s Poet Laureate, to create the original Global Vaccine Poem. 

“I think people really have a hunger to express and speak out,” Nye said. 

When contacted by Hassler and Meier, Nye was ecstatic at the offer to write the website’s prompt poem. 

“I started writing while we were still on the phone,” Nye said. “We were all three talking on a singular phone call and I had already written down ‘Dear Vaccine.’”

She added, “I just felt so grateful that they had thought of a way to connect our current collective community moment in the whole world … and that we could have some hope with this vaccine.” 

Within 24 hours of being contacted by Hassler and Meier, Nye sent in the first draft of the poem.

She said her inspiration for the poem came from both international and personal experiences. 

“It’s a collective experience,” Nye said. “I think poetry, for me, always comes from daily life, from real life, and not just my life, but other people’s lives.” 

Nye’s grandson, age five, experienced a year of his life in quarantine. This meant no public transportation, elevator rides and other enjoyable activities. 

From a different perspective, Nye’s 93-year-old grandmother also stayed inside for nearly a year. For her, though, this meant no more church, grocery shopping or in-restaurant meals. 

With inspiration from her family, as well as the collective global experience, Nye was able to create the four stanzas that now serve as the title page on the Global Vaccine Poem website. 

Nye wasn’t surprised by the website’s success. 

“I expected it [the response] to be big because this is such a passionate topic worldwide,” she said. 

Nye has found joy in reading hundreds of thousands of responses on the website, and she expects the success in connectivity to continue. 

“I think of the ‘Dear Vaccine’ site as this big table, and we can go there and read the voices of our friends. It’s almost like reading people’s notebooks,” Nye said. “So much relief has been embodied there.” 

While Nye is certainly passionate about poetry, she also cares deeply about getting vaccinated. She believes that vaccination is the key to herd immunity, and the only way to achieve that goal is for the majority of the population to receive the vaccine. 

“The whole world has been affected by this, and we need to do whatever we can, in whatever field we’re in, to keep encouraging one another, ‘Come on, get your vaccine…’”

Nye also said the Global Vaccine Poem Project helps to remind us that life is precious and should not be taken for granted. 

As of April 30, 2021, some 3.17 million people worldwide have died due to COVID-19. 

As a response to this, Nye said, “In honor of one another, in honor of all the people who have died, I feel like we have a duty to love our lives a little more, see the beauty in them a little more.” 

She hopes the “Dear Vaccine” poem will provide an opportunity for self-expression, connection and awareness of the vaccine on a global scale. 

“I think ‘Dear Vaccine’ is like a worldwide chorus of hope,” Nye said. 

Upon entering the website, individuals can choose one of the prompts to respond to, and each poem is eventually considered for review. 

“It’s a simple, very easy couple steps when you visit the website to click a prompt and then follow a question and type in your own creative reflection and add your name if you wish, your location if you wish and your email,” Hassler said. 

Hassler and Meier’s poetry organizations are responsible for determining which poems are posted onto the website based on accuracy and appropriateness. 

Responses are typically approved and posted within 24 hours, and individuals will be notified as to where their submissions are located on the website. 

The project’s virtual traction has been increasing everyday since its official launch on March 19. 

“When you share your voice, it goes to a gallery page, and right now we have about 12,000 responses,” Hassler said. 

Submissions have been received from 51 countries and all 50 states, he added. 

Hassler wants the project to create a sense of community and commonality on a national and global level. 

“This project as a whole, we hope … humanizes the vaccine … and perhaps offers people with a place to find some common ground and some shared values about what we all wish for at the end of this pandemic,” Hassler said. 

In the coming months, he hopes the project can continue to reach new potential. 

Hassler wants to implement pop-up events for students in the fall 2021 and spring 2022, and he also hopes for a more interactive, in-person experience among the Kent State population. 

“Our hope is that the project can have some new phases,” he said. “That next school year, fall and spring, there can be an educational component.”

Hassler has more ideas where that comes from. In the future, he believes the project could reach new mediums. 

“We would also love to create a book out of the Global Vaccine Project [poems],” he said.

The feeling of connection might look different during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t present, as Hassler and his team have demonstrated time and time again. 

“What we’re finding on the gallery page of the Global Vaccine Poem is truly we’re not alone,” he said. “We’re giving shape to it … through language.”

Morgan McGrath is a feature writer. Contact her at [email protected]