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Inspired by 'The Decameron,' these poems are a modern pandemic time capsule

Soft Skull

A lot of us know what it felt like being stuck inside during the pandemic: We were bored, and almost always on the internet. Writer Leigh Stein's new book of poems is a sort of time capsule that captures this experience.

"I'm someone who has always pushed back against the idea that the internet is not real life," Stein says. "So I see our lives on social media as just as real as the lives that I lead when I'm grocery shopping."

The book is called What To Miss When, and though Stein has been busy — she published two novels and a memoir over the last few years — this is the first book of poems she has written in almost a decade.

It took work getting the poems out.

When the wine dried up, the poems flowed

"There was a period where I was getting concerned about how much wine I was drinking and I didn't know how to stop it or change it," she says. "I felt like I was in this bad pattern. I couldn't get out of [it]. I didn't know what to do."

So about two weeks before we all went into lockdown, Stein decided to stop drinking for 30 days just to see what would happen. "And like a miracle, my poetry came back to me for the first time in ten years."

Leigh Stein
/ Brian Jacks
Brian Jacks
Leigh Stein

It's now 18 months later, and Stein is drinking again, but just about a third of what she used to. Her experiment made her reconsider the habit of going out and always drinking with certain friends. And she realized that by not drinking, she wasn't giving something up, but rather getting back a part of herself she had really missed.

"It was almost like there was a room in my brain and I had lost the key to open the door to the room," she says. "And then I found the key."

During lockdown, poems started flowing out of Stein to the point where she was writing a poem a day. And the book that resulted from, as Stein puts it, is about a "certain laptop class of Americans" during the pandemic.

"We were all extremely online," she says. "We were fortunate enough to be able to work from home [and] we were watching a lot of drama unfold on social media."

Stein found inspiration in Boccaccio's Decameron

The framing device for What to Miss When is actually a 14th century book about the plague: Boccaccio's The Decameron. And though she'd never read it before lockdown, she found it has "eerie parallels" to our current pandemic.

"The wealthy who could afford to flee Florence fled," she says, talking about the classic. "And the people who couldn't afford to have their second country home or their villa stayed in the cities and drank to escape their fear of death."

The people who fled to their villa in The Decameron would share stories and medieval fables with each other to pass the time. So Stein included our own pop culture moments in her book to highlight the stories we told each other during the pandemic.

"We were all having the same kind of pop culture experience because of what was available for us to stream," she says, talking about her descriptions of viral shows like Tiger King or Love is Blind. "And then we were all tweeting about what we were streaming."

Poems about stress cleaning and Zoom yoga and nighttime beauty routines live next to poems about movies that look at distortions in time, like Groundhog Day.

All you have to do is sign off

One poem, called "Everywhere You Look A Spectacle" references Palm Springs — a film from last July in which two characters played by Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are stuck in a time loop.

In many ways, Stein's examination of her own drinking patterns was also a deeper look into our cultural obsession with social media. In reference to the film's time loop, the speaker ends the Palm Springs poem with a note to self:

Cristin Milioti had to teach herself

quantum physics on YouTube to escape

the rom com's repetition glitch.

All I have to do is sign off.

All I have to do is sign off.

All I have to do is sign off.

This story was edited for radio by Reena Advani and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer and Jeevika Verma.

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Jeevika Verma
Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.
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