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.

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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.

She reached out to Ms. Truax to ask for a weekly contribution.

“She has not only risen to the occasion by providing a poem, she is also teaching Portsmouth about poetry, which is part of her role as poet laureate,” Ms. Seacord said.

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Credit…Charles Krupa/Associated Press

In Portsmouth, the poet laureate serves a two-year term. The program, which was established in 1997, supports “an outstanding local poet” and “brings people to celebrate the written word.” Ms. Truax is the city’s 12th poet laureate. The Portsmouth program echoes similar programs in neighboring Maine, which has a venerated poetic tradition and several cities with laureates of their own.

“Tammi is part of a long and noble tradition of poetry in Maine, and of the tradition of Maine poets laureate to bring the joy of poetry to the wider community by any means possible,” said Jenny Doughty, president of the Maine Poets Society. “Offering a way to look at the times through the lens of poetry, to bring a moment of joy or reflection or even to tap into their own creativity, is a psychologically and spiritually healing thing at the best of times, and even more so during a pandemic.”

Ms. Truax, an elementary school librarian who lives in Eliot, Maine, just across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, said that she thought of poetry “as a healing power.”

“I think connecting to a poem because you connect to the feeling is what makes poetry powerful,” she said.

“The poems are an unexpected bright light from City Hall,” Anne Weidman, a 63-year-old Portsmouth resident, said on Friday. “The poems add a human voice to the sometimes depressing lists of food resources, government-assistance links, mask-wearing protocols and health statistics. They are a Sunday feature, and it’s a day that I always make it a point to click and read the advisory.”

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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