2020 was slated to be a big year for Detroit poet and author jessica Care moore. She was releasing her poetry book We Want Our Bodies Back, an ode to black women and their bodies. She was excited to be releasing the book through a major publisher, HarperCollins’ Amistad imprint, and was looking forward to the book tour that would follow. She even halted her signature live performance event, Black Women Rock!, to make space in her March calendar.
On March 5, she headed to San Antonio, Texas, for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference — the premier writing expo for published and aspiring authors alike. Attendance was down because of emerging worries over the novel coronavirus. Some speakers dropped out and events were canceled, but moore, who styles her name with lowercase letters, was still committed to making it to San Antonio’s Carver Library for a speaking engagement and reading.
“I went to AWP when a lot of people canceled, and I went kind of fiercely,” she says. “I was definitely more defiant [then]. There was not a lot of information at that time.”
When moore returned to Detroit, things had changed. Her book, due to be released March 31, was now sharing headlines with the virus. The book launch that her friend, rapper Talib Kweli, planned to DJ for her in New York would have to be reimagined as a virtual reading, and each of her tour stops was in limbo. Moore typically makes money for the rest of the year from her spring speaking events and performances. She estimates she’s lost about $50,000 of income from canceled bookings and events, and she was initially denied when she filed for unemployment, though she’s writing to appeal.
“I didn’t just lose a couple months of income,” she says. “I lost most of my yearly income.”
In lieu of the book tour and other in-person opportunities, moore has gone virtual from her living room by performing solo or being featured on live events with her creative peers. Though new to the digital realm, she goes live on Instagram each Tuesday night at 7 for The jessica Care moore Show. On April 18, she even hosted a night of performances featuring artists from her Black Women Rock! lineup. She says she’s grateful for each opportunity to connect and uplift other artists; she even puts on eyeliner and lip gloss for each performance.
Moore isn’t just adjusting to new ways of connecting with her audience — she’s also grieving and cooking and mothering and daughtering and sistering and doing her best to keep her tight-knit community intact. At this rate, she’s losing another friend to the virus each week. First, she lost her close childhood friend, Nikki Barksdale; then community leader Marlowe Stoudamire; then educator and talk-show host Brenda Perryman; and, most recently, techno producer and DJ Mike Huckaby.
The loss is staggering.
“When my friends started dying, I stopped playing my small violin or feeling sorry for myself,” she says.
Despite the chaos, grief, and uncertainty, Moore wants artists to recognize how valuable they are. She encourages institutions and organizations that are now booking artists to pay them for their time and their online presence. She sees an opportunity for independent artists to take this time, when the playing field is level, to reach out to the major industry players they would not have typically had in-person access to.
As far as inspiration goes, moore is finding it a little closer to home these days. She’s been observing the squirrels, birds, bunnies, and pheasants that come to her backyard. She’s particularly in awe of a tree that has begun to bloom. It’s featured in the suite of isolation poems she’s writing in response to all that’s happening around her.
“It’s OK not to be inspired and it’s OK to feel sad,” she advises her fellow artists. “It’s OK to have that moment of shock and not knowing quite what to do. But be encouraged and know that you’re needed and that we need your art. Be inspired by the life that is here, and listen to those things that bring joy.