The Muse & Me

  • By Barbara Twigg
  • March 18, 2024

On my evolution as a folk writer.

The Muse & Me

Do you ever wonder what you might’ve been doing had you lived several centuries ago, when most art was folk art or folk music or folktales? I suspect I would’ve been an overworked scullery maid who died young. But maybe, just maybe, I would have hummed a pretty tune or laughed out a funny rhyme.

Though I’m not a professional writer, I have spent years creating pieces that fall into folk categories: poems and songs of celebration for my friends and family. For significant birthdays, I’d write each person in my life a custom creation of humorous doggerel, drawing upon their passions and quirks, successes and foibles.

The limit? One major poem per person. (Exceptions: Grandkids would get one every year, as would those over 90.) Retiring? You got a poem. Moving? Graduating? Big anniversary? You got a poem. I became a human Hallmark card.

And then came the pandemic. Suddenly, we had time at home. Lots of it. For the first time, the rush of change and fear and isolation captured my attention like never before. I found myself moved to write again and again as 2020 and the next fraught years unfolded. My first poem (written on April 25, 2020) faced the covid crisis head-on and began:

So here we sit, the lucky ones,
Who don’t yet have the virus.
Nor do we have essential jobs
Where danger would require us
To dress from head to toe
In PPE that would attire us,
Like doctors, nurses, tech, and staff,
How greatly they inspire us.

But what is tragedy without comic relief? As a pianist with a vast collection of sheet music, I started writing song parodies, too. Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” became “Piano Mask.” The lyrics to “Oklahoma” slid easily into “Vaccination.” No singer myself, I started performing them in crude fashion for homemade cellphone videos and sending them to the people in my world — both near and far — imprisoned at home.

Then came the murder of George Floyd. The children lost in Uvalde. National tragedies piled on top of covid deaths, which were themselves climbing to unspeakable numbers. When American losses hit half a million, I wrote a blues-tempo song: “We’ve Lost So Many, 500,000, and I’ve Got — the Covid Blues Today.” When our country hit 900,000 deaths in early 2022, I wrote a poem called “Ruminations on ‘Nine’”: “900,000 lives, the Covid loss we share. 900,000 lives, are we to grin and bear?” Poems poured out of me in the emotionally sharpened times.

My favorite personal moment came in October 2022. In some quarters, there was controversy about whether to get the new covid booster. But off I went to get one, and on the way home, an unusual parallel popped into my mind:               

To be, or not to be boosted —
            That is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The coughs and fevers of outrageous Covid
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.
Today this arm I bared, a single prick.
To die, to sleep — to sleep — perchance to dream:
            Ay, there’s the rub.
Bivalent Pfizer, make thy journey smooth,
            Thy potion bold,
            Thy power strong to steel my blood.
For in that shot of hope what dreams may come
When we have offered up our very flesh,
And life must give us pause.

I was rather proud of this one and thought there was one person beyond my usual circle who might enjoy it: Anthony Fauci. I managed to get an email address for him and sent the poem off, figuring it would be blocked by a firewall. Imagine my shock and delight when he replied: “Barbara: Thank you for your note and for sending me the piece that you wrote. Well done! Best regards, Tony.” Tony!

As the quarantine eased and people reentered the public world at various paces, I finally dared to attend a movie (masked) in a theater in February 2023. It was “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” Yes, it was creative and superbly acted, but I hated the nonstop chaotic fighting and almost walked out. That experience moved me to share my thoughts with friends, and so began my practice of writing a pithy one-paragraph review every time I saw a film in a theater.

I’m up to 23 now, the most recent being the contemplative Japanese-German movie “Perfect Days,” based on four short stories on the life of a Tokyo public-bathroom cleaner. Before that were the powerful “Origin” — based on Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste — and the terrific “American Fiction.” I add a photo of myself in front of each movie poster; for “Perfect Days,” I’m surrounded by the theater’s mops and a trashcan.

Today’s world offers no end of topics both tragic and joyful for poetry and song. The slaughter of innocents in Israel and Gaza. The creak of an old-time screen door. Climate change. The World Series. Guns. Kids who just eat the rolls at Thanksgiving.

If only the perfect poem could heal our divided nation.

[Editor’s note: Barbara Twigg guest wrote this month’s “Next Book” at the invitation of columnist Amanda Holmes Duffy.]

Barbara Twigg is a longtime DC-area resident. Her first job after earning a B.A. from Yale and an M.A.T. from Harvard was teaching English at the National Cathedral School for Girls. Having later worked many years in the energy-efficiency field, she now plays piano for local theater productions and parties, writes poems of celebration for the life milestones of friends and family, and answers the poetic Muse of Worry in today’s stressful world.

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