For Art's Sake: Professor Gary Leising finds inspiration and publication in the pandemic

Dr. Gary Leising

“Though I know many writers who have found it impossible to write, that hasn’t been the case for me. I’ve been writing poems as a way to figure out what I think about the times and our isolated places in them."

While science works to guide the world to an end of the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is art that is what gets many through it. 

Free concerts and theatrical performances streamed into people’s homes, movies set for theatrical release now playing in people’s living rooms, tours of museums and galleries across the world - it is just a small sampling of the way that art is being shared to help fuel the soul and help each other through such challenging times.

Like so many artists during this strange time, Professor of English Gary Leising has also been inspired to create and share work with the world, his latest poem published in Rattle, a publication of the Rattle Foundation, whose mission is to promote the practice of poetry. 

“Though I know many writers who have found it impossible to write, that hasn’t been the case for me. I’ve been writing poems as a way to figure out what I think about the times and our isolated places in them. When a coronavirus-related news item caught my imagination, I wrote 'Five Mannequins and One Person at the Socially Distanced Dining Room'; I’m grateful the editor at Rattle decided to publish it.”

Virginia Restaurant - Mannequins 01
Mannequins provide social distancing at the Inn at Little Washington as they prepare to reopen. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

As parts of the world begin to find new ways to breathe life into their communities, a photo from a renowned Virginia restaurant began to make headlines with its innovative approach to promoting socially distant dining among its patrons - mannequins seated at other tables, creating the proper space for healthy operation in the COVID-19 era, creating the illusion of the restaurant being fuller, but also adding a little something more, which seemed to spark Leising’s imagination. 

“The idea initially seemed creepy, but as I drafted a poem, the idea of motionless diners intrigued me. What a fitting image for our stay-at-home lives, diners being served yet never progressing at their meals. I decided to write in the voices of various mannequins from a photo of this restaurant (and in the voice of one, lone human). I set each speech in the form a triolet, an eight-lined rhymed poem with two lines repeated as refrains. I played with some of the refrains, making slight alterations, because same-but-different seems the nature of these days: they’re all alike but minutely different. One day the store is out of toilet paper, the next it’s flour. One day we’re freezing up on a Zoom meeting, the next it’s Facetime… I wanted lines that seemed natural in these characters’ mouths but also echoed the greater significance of our situation, and repeating sounds, words, and lines work toward that by creating meaning with each use.”

For a structure, Leising says he began and ended with a mannequin couple enacting a marriage proposal. 

Virginia Restaurant - Mannequins 02
Mannequins provide social distancing at the Inn at Little Washington as they prepare to reopen. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

“I wanted to end with her because I was especially drawn toward someone making a decision that will affect every day to come in her life, because maybe the stilling, slowing nature of the pandemic allows some of us to reflect on what’s next. At the same time, the dire nature of a public health crisis reminds us how much is at stake—“ten thousand tomorrows,” maybe ten thousand lives?”

Leising says that throughout the pandemic, he has found himself thinking about how writing and art remind us of concerns both large and small.

“I think about Henry Moore’s sketchbook from the bombing of London in WWII, how it depicted the extremes of violence and death along with families’ attempts at everyday living. Amid the death and sickness in the world, I think reading, writing, and creating reminds us of all that we should value in life and that the world goes on. Wislawa Syzmborska’s poem “Vermeer” describes a painting, and asserts the world cannot end as long as that moment remains captured. ‘We have to admire the world for not ending on us,’ writes Colum McCann in his novel Transatlantic. Lives go on, too, and encountering art helps us find ways to make them a little better.”

You can read Professor Leising’s poem, "Five Mannequins and One Person at the Socially Distanced Dining Room" at Rattle.

Five Mannequins and One Person at the Socially Distanced Dining Room

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