All of us are experiencing something new and confusing at the moment, as we navigate - or drift - through the new world of coronavirus.
While creative writing is generally not a job that can be lost, the effects of the pandemic on all aspects of this activity have been profound.
Like many poets, I find that getting a poetry manuscript together takes a long time. I tend to write individual poems on whatever comes to mind, and only when standing back after some years do I see the links and contrasts that emerge.
Those characteristics are often strong enough to mean that a book has produced itself; all I have to do is bring the threads together in the right weave.
In 2019, I realised that I had two very different manuscripts to send off to publishers. A few of the poems in them were seven years old or more, but most are more recent.
One of the manuscripts, called Monstrous, dealt with supernatural creatures of a horrible sort, from murderous garden gnomes to sharks that eat suns, the hideous future of the game of cricket, and a 19th century trip to the moon complete with unseen aliens.
The second manuscript contained many poems about climate change, environmental degradation, and a section dealing with more personal concerns. I called this Utterly, after W.B. Yeats's "utterly changed" in "Easter, 1916". Sending both manuscripts out to different publishers, I was surprised and delighted when both were accepted for publication.
So 2020 would be a great year, with two books published. Pick your cliché: never count your chickens before they hatch, or there's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip. Or, to invent a brand new cliché; a car can stall in the drive-through as much as in your driveway.
The books have been published; Monstrous in May, and Utterly in July this year. In the meantime, of course, our way of life has been disrupted by the virus, so the books, while certainly physical objects, can't be launched in the usual way.
A launch usually entails a real audience, wine, a live speech, and a reading of some of the poems. Even writing that sentence, my diseased mind circles round the Ruby Princess, probably because of that nautical word launch. The virus is seeping in everywhere, working its way into whatever we want to write about. (By the time this article appears, there will have been an online launch of Monstrous, which will be an interesting new experience.)
At a time when many people are dying from coronavirus, and when there's a hideous daily update of new cases in numbers now resembling a respectable innings in cricket, it seems selfish to focus on the loss of poetry readings and launches. Those small omissions from social life seem more like individual stitches pulled out from a jumper, rather than a total unravelling.
Technology has allowed us to hold launches, meetings and readings, but in each of these we see representations of each other attending, rather like old-fashioned portraits that magically utter words. Or automata gone viral. We can't read each gesture, or see the whole body. The experience of each other has been miniaturised, as if in homage to the virus.
I have heard that Zoom has been a boon for some; for some people living with disability, and for others who find physically attending events difficult for a variety of reasons, ranging from money to geography to child-care. It's important to realise that there may be a need to continue on-line means of meeting in many areas of the arts (and elsewhere).
For me though, the loss of physicality seems to withdraw interest from works being presented, as if the screen were draining the poems, or other work, of something vital.
Seeing Zoom (and other on-line platforms) as a type of vampire is undoubtedly childish, but that way of communicating does thin down how we interact, replacing all the movement of bodies in relation to each other, the subtleties of tone and smell.
It's as if we were wearing invisible masks, even when we don't need to, because we are truly distanced. Our eyes are doing too much work, our bodies too little.
Writing too has changed for me during this time. A feeling of incredulity, of confusion takes time to process; it doesn't automatically translate into the written word. (How must it be for those permanently living in a state of uncertainty? I can't imagine that.)
These slow, zombie days have been interspersed by days and nights of feverish writing, as if I were suffering from a disease in a Victorian novel and having a final flush of red-cheeked energy before the inevitable demise.
I recently managed to write a poem about the virus itself, and that was like a tiny exorcism, bringing the devil of unease into a more approachable state. It was a fleeting outbreak of control, or the illusion of it.
Part of the distress of the virus is the realisation that we are places for creatures to inhabit, that we are not above nature at all. It's all a bit of a blow to the ego.
I began to realise how much my usual method of working; thinking about something for days or weeks, until it has found the right form, then writing it very quickly, was dependent on habit; the daily coffee at Tilley's, walking the dog, or a visit to the gym.
I have found it hard to settle down and write when I don't have the usual casual contacts with other people, and when so many activities are either impossible, or seem suddenly risky.
However far the poems themselves may go back or forward in time, or to other places, they are tied to daily rituals and a type of conservatism that I really don't like to associate with myself. (Wearing a purple beret while following a routine does not make it less of a routine.)
Writing prose has been slightly easier, at least when the expectations are more clearly defined. For example, I have produced a few book reviews where a piece of a certain length was required, and the purpose of the writing was clearly defined.
But even words written for reviews have not come as easily as usual.
Reading has been harder, too, as if half my mind were always somewhere else. Probably at a Dan Andrews press conference.
Reading requires a certain giving over of oneself to the process, the quietening of the mind to external noise (even though you may think about issues raised by the book).
Reading poetry requires an attention that seems almost impossible at the moment. Thought, or worry, keeps clanging in my ear.
I realised that the virus was even shaping my choices in reading. When I found myself rereading Love in the Time of Cholera and beginning a history book called The Black Death, I knew that it was time to break out something different.
Horror novels by Stephen King give that delightful frisson of dread, at a time where real, unpredictable dread is all around us, but invisible.
King's narrative flow and detailed creation of a world is strong enough to pull me along and put worry to the side, at least for several hours. It's funny that horror can be so comforting.
Writing, reading and publishing are still occurring, but have all been reshaped by the pandemic. Whether there is a normal to return to remains to be seen.
- PS Cottier is a Canberra poet. The two books mentioned in this article are Monstrous (Interactive Press) and Utterly (Ginninderra Press).