As the pandemic stormed in and unceremoniously upended in-person events last March, it also cast members of Writer’s Block across the country.
With the university campus closed and businesses shuttered, many young members of the scrappy weekly poetry and writing group had to leave Boulder. It was tough, says Maribelle Holmes (they/them), who went back to their native Wisconsin last year, because Writer’s Block offered the kind of community that many of its members had been searching for — a family. Acceptance.
“If you missed a week, people would notice,” Holmes says. “They’ll check in on you, they won’t let you slip through the cracks.
“I think that building community like this is so rare these days,” they add. “So many people don’t have a safe place to go. And this place, no matter how new you were, was so safe — and still is. The fact that it’s managed to survive a global pandemic, when people have had to move home because of not working enough to be able stay in Boulder… if I didn’t have this poetry group while being in Milwaukee, I would have completely stopped writing, I think.”
But Holmes and a devoted core of members gave Writer’s Block a virtual second life, hosting groups on Zoom every week instead of at Block 1750 dance studio, where the group existed in its original life over the last four years. Now, exactly 52 weeks later, the online gathering is drawing almost as many participants as the in-person gathering, and the members are looking to celebrate a weird year the best way they know how — with a zine filled with original writings and artwork. The book is tentatively slated to come out digitally later this month (around March 31, for a $1 donation), and a few hard copies will land at Boulder Book Store in April ($10 donation).
“I guess making the zine is a way to document this year,” says Changa Hernandez (he/his), the shaggy-haired, low-key founder of Writer’s Block (though Hernandez may cringe at the formality of a word like “founder”). He’s seated next to Lee Frankel-Goldwater (often known as Lee FG, he/his) during this Zoom call, flanked on either side by the rectangularly framed faces of Jonathan “Jonnom” Schmitt (they/theirs), long-time Boulder poet Ira Liss (he/his) and Holmes.
“This is actually our sixth zine we’ve made,” Hernandez clarifies. “We used to make one every couple of months. When the whole ’rona thing happened, nobody was on the zine for a year. This is the first time Writer’s Block made a thing while the world ended.”
And even with the world figuratively ending around them, the dedicated crew of Writer’s Block never set out to document their virtual year, just to apply some glue that could hold the group together until they could meet in person again.
“Changa had not particularly wanted to have an online group because it was against the ethos of Writer’s Block,” admits Frankel-Goldwater, a regular with the Block for the past two years.
“I’m so sorry!” Hernandez chimes in.
“It just immediately became my home,” Frankel-Goldwater says of his first time at a Writer’s Block gathering at 1750. “I remember this feeling of walking in and wanting to take off my shoes, like I was home. It was so comfortable. I wanted to be in this space.”
Members would take turns guiding other members with writing prompts — imagine you’re a house and in need of renovations; where would you start? — then sharing their work, maybe breaking into smaller groups, and finally closing the night out with music and dancing in the studio space. Sometimes they would make brownies in the studio’s oven.
And then the pandemic came. Block 1750 closed.
“And our meeting space as a poetry community died,” Frankel-Goldwater says. “The first week we would have missed a session, I got this strange feeling — like a calling, something from outside of me: make a Facebook event and put up a Zoom link and see what happens. And people started showing up. What’s really amazing was that nobody knew how long this was going to last. It went from a temporary moment to let’s do this for 52 weeks straight.”
The online gatherings haven’t been for everyone; the group says some regulars from the in-person group haven’t joined online. But others have filled in the gaps, many who feel more comfortable online.
And Zoom, for all its frustrations, has provided some playful moments (exploring the limitations of a rectangle during improv warm-ups), and life lessons (in how to listen more and talk less).
“It hasn’t been without its struggles and growing pains,” Frankel-Goldwater says. “I think we’ve done our best. I think those who are here are joyful.”