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Virtual arts as the new normal, and Brokaw's Exquisite Quarantine Poems

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Here's what the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us: Slow down.

In a Facebook video, Rochester artist Mark Groaning paints a parking lot retaining wall at Artisan Works. - FACEBOOK SCREENSHOT
  • FACEBOOK SCREENSHOT
  • In a Facebook video, Rochester artist Mark Groaning paints a parking lot retaining wall at Artisan Works.
Rochester artist Mark Groaning posted on Facebook a nearly 20-minute video of himself on Facebook, painting a parking lot retaining wall at Rochester's gallery of the curious, Artisan Works. It was something like Bob Ross on "The Joy of Painting," minus the happy trees. Slow, unexpectedly hypnotic. Groaning might want to put together a proposal for PBS.

Slow down. There's communal poetry writing happening out there this very second; we'll get to Joanne Brokaw in a few moments.

Slow down. In Germany, Munich has canceled Oktoberfest. City officials might as well tell everyone in the city to stay in bed for the entire month.

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Rochester events have been dropping like empty beer mugs as well, shattering summer plans. The CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival announced on Monday that it will present an abbreviated festival, starting on October 2. But that's if we're clear of the coronavirus pandemic, and the state grants any proper permits.

Don't panic...Slow down.



But don't surrender to the Culture Vultures. Use caution while navigating your remote through the uncertain wilds of Netflix, where you might stumble across an episode of fake Oklahoma cowboys tossing raw meat at caged tigers as tourists applaud. Will we remember 2020 as the year our culture had descended to the level of "Tiger King"?

Now that we have gauged the deadly intent of coronavirus, we're seeing local arts organizations step up. The monthly First Friday becomes a Virtual First Friday. About a dozen nonprofit, university, and commercial art venues that normally open their doors to the arts curious will instead present a virtual tour of city creativity. Hosted by Rochester Contemporary Arts Center, starting at 6 p.m. Friday, and running until about 9 p.m., each venue or artist gets 10 minutes. The lineup ranges from Pittsford Fine Arts to Cat Clay to Writers & Books. You'll find the Zoom link for Virtual First Friday at firstfridayrochester.org.

Here at WXXI, and our media partner CITY newspaper, we are assembling a curated collection of culture. Last Friday, WXXI Classical 95.1 launched its first "Harpy Happy Hour" at The Little Virtual Café, the first in a series of live events. Harp-driven, of course.

Two weeks ago, WXXI's HomeStage was launched; so far, songs by John Dady, RPO harpist Grace Browning, and the indie rock band Yellow Kite have aired. After the reality of coronavirus hit, the CITY events calendar — which WXXI's Arts & Life page links to — was updated to reflect the times. Now we're scouring social media and asking musicians and museums and poetry groups to submit their virtual events.

CITY, WXXI, WRUR, and Classical 91.5 want to boost awareness to the scene by adding virtual performance listings to our existing calendars. Creative castaways can send their internet events to calendar@rochester-citynews.com.
  • CITY, WXXI, WRUR, and Classical 91.5 want to boost awareness to the scene by adding virtual performance listings to our existing calendars. Creative castaways can send their internet events to calendar@rochester-citynews.com.
Maintaining something like a comprehensive calendar is slow work. Particularly when it's something new, like the idea of virtual events. And what's happening with virtual events on social media will stay with us, and eventually work in collaboration with culture as we knew it, when things return to normal.

Will things return to normal? We should hope not. That's how we got here in the first place.

Slow down.

Now, as promised, communal poetry.

In the early 1900s, some of the founders of the surrealism arts movement created a drawing game, The Exquisite Corpse. An artist would create a drawing and, by carefully folding the paper, obscure all of that drawing except the bottom edge; the next artist would continue the drawing from there, then the next artist, then the next … and then, a completed artwork.

The Exquisite Corpse became a poetry event as well. And the local cultural enabler, Joanne Brokaw, has revived it as a virtual event. Except, "I didn't want to use the word corpse," she admits, mindful of the moment in which we find ourselves.

And so we have The Exquisite Quarantine Poem. Groups of four and five poets, writing four lines apiece. After the first poet creates the opening stanza, based on a prompt word supplied by Brokaw, each subsequent poet sees only the previous poet's final line, then creates the next verse. Sometimes with a specific rhyme scheme — perhaps the second and fourth lines rhyme — sometimes as free verse.

Brokaw has posted the first three on her blog, "Notes from the Funny Farm."

Joanne Brokaw - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Joanne Brokaw
Brokaw, who lives in East Rochester, has published a book on how introverts can release their inner creativity, "Suddenly Stardust: A Memoir (Of Sorts) About Fear, Freedom & Improv." She was on a roll this year. Teaching, writing, performing in comedy improv groups, preparing to speak at a national convention, walking the dogs. She's been a regular at the Rochester Fringe Festival. "I should be rehearsing for a play right now," Brokaw says.

Then, "It literally came to a screaming halt."

It was the coronavirus, of course, that slammed on the brakes. And for a while, Brokaw was even showing some signs that she might have contracted the virus herself; her doctor wasn't sure, because Brokaw didn't qualify for a test. The illness passed — it was some kind of bronchial issue — but, "I got depressed, I literally didn't want to do anything," she says.

Then a friend said, "It's time to stop whinging on about things."

Whinging. It's a British word. It means complaining, hand-wringing about things of little importance.

"I have spent my entire creative adult life beating myself up for not producing enough stuff," Brokaw says.

"I know one thing I'm good at is breaking people out of their shells."

And thus, The Exquisite Quarantine Poem. Words that are, she says, "Something to do during the quarantine, it's not about the quarantine."

As virtual poets sign on — and many are not poets, they're just people with thoughts waiting to escape — Brokaw arranges them in groups for each poem. There's a waiting list. "No one knows what's going on," she says. "They are creatively building this artwork.

The first lines from an Exquisite Quarantine Poem called "Joy":

I laughed out loud with

the sudden knowing,

We all have a heart.

… Do I tell them?


You can join this artwork at notesfromthefunnyfarm.wordpress.com.

Brokaw labels herself an "accidental creator." Echoing Bob Ross, that exceptionally happy fella behind "The Joy of Painting": "There are no mistakes," she says. "Only happy accidents."

Brokaw calls the coronavirus quarantine "The Pause."

"Because I am not going to panic," she says. "I am not going to fall into old anxiety patterns. We're all taking a pause for the greater good. We are sacrificing the self for the community."

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.