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Manuel Nava Leal’s call for submissions for his poetry anthology generated an overwhelming response from writers exploring the themes of illness, sadness and isolation brought on by COVID-19.

A slow-approaching, impending storm is how Matthew Rosas described the pandemic at its start.

“You can see it on the horizon and it looks peaceful from a distance,” he said. “But you know that it’s going to have a wave of long term effects. Kind of like a hurricane that’s hit, its years and years of effects but this is much worse.” 

Rosas, a lead counselor at Sánchez Charter School in Houston, says as schools shuttered their doors, he quickly noticed the impact of isolation and excess workload as his students and coworkers grappled with keeping pace with virtual learning. Many of them described being unable to sleep due to the stress of the pandemic, he said. 

“As I kept hearing it, it really started to affect me thinking about what this means for their health and what it says about their state of mind,” Rosas told The Americano, adding this inspired a poem.

In his poem “This Storm,” he wrote, “Weakened branches are torn away while far below isolated saplings sit sleepless, shattered by relentless gusts of grief. Those in between not deadened by sedation stand anchored, unyielding in knowing, the eye brings false comfort.” 

The poem by Rosas is one of 80 poems about the pandemic featured in Houston-based author Manuel Nava Leal’s sixth and latest published work “The Pandemic Poetry Anthology.” 

The collection of poems by poets from around the world explores themes of confinement, sadness, and other feelings in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Leal, 66, got the idea from a friend in early April to put together a poetry book about the pandemic, which he immediately agreed to. He put a call-out for submissions on his Facebook page that same day and the response was overwhelming. 

Poets from around the world, including the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, and England submitted poems via social media, email, and some by phone calls or text messages. 

Rosas said he jumped at the opportunity to work with Leal, whom he greatly admires, and that writing and sharing his poem with others was healing and helped give him perspective on how others around the world are feeling. 

“It was really helpful and therapeutic to be able to get those emotions out as I was feeling them,” he said. “It’s also a way of capturing this moment in history while it’s still fresh in people’s minds and these emotions are raw, and people are free to say what they were going through and how they were feeling in this really intense time.” 

A COVID-19 survivor from Spain was among those who submitted. She was in the hospital for over a month, and once she recovered she submitted her poem. She is the only poet in the book who had COVID-19 during the publishing process of the book, Leal says. 

“To get positive responses and encouragement from these people was such a joy,” Leal told The Americano, adding he jumped for joy when he received the first poem from England. “I think people want to say or reach out outside of their normal circle of life, to reach out to others about what they’re going through, their fears, their concerns to just raise awareness.” 

Leal also fell victim to the virus when he and his girlfriend contracted COVID-19 in June. 

“I suffered for two-and-a-half months with it,” he said. “It was horrendous and more fatiguing than anything else. I had a bad cough. It was just so draining that you have no energy.”

The experience made Leal more conscious of death, he said. 

“I see COVID as being another experience that I cheated death, but I’m not proud of it in a sense that I see so many suffering that didn’t make it through, so it’s not something to brag about,” Leal said. “For me personally, I thank God that I survived it and that my girlfriend survived it.” 

Despite his battle with the virus, he still collected poems until Aug. 21 and edited most of them. He finished the book in only four months. 

“It was hard, and it was tough work but I enjoyed it so much,” he said. “I laugh about it now because even though it was difficult, it was pleasant. I loved the whole idea and the concept.”

The vast majority of those who submitted poems had never written poetry before. Leal said this warmed his heart since he has always encouraged others to write. The Harlingen, Texas native vowed as a young child that he would advise or help others with writing in any way he could, if he was ever in that position, because he did not receive that help growing up. 

Leal has been writing stories and poetry since childhood. He specializes in short stories and has been involved in theater for more than 40 years. While he has published poetry before, including his books “Beautiful Heart” and “Shattered and Scattered,” this is his first time putting together an anthology. 

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Based on the success of the book, Leal says he will release another poetry anthology next year, which will focus on what he hopes will be the ending stages of the pandemic. 

“I want to get poetry from people who have actually suffered through it and others that have seen others suffer and die from it,” he said. “We’ve got several friends whose parents, grandparents, relatives, even younger kids have died from COVID. So the approach is going to be more profound.” 

The money from the sales of both books will go toward a national scholarship for nursing students. You can purchase Leal’s book on Amazon for $14.95. 

Leal says he hopes the book will bring a sense of comfort to those who read it and also serve as a historical piece. 

“I hope people in the future will read it and think, ‘Wow, they went through this’ and know how some people felt,” he said. “Hopefully it’s a positive thing… to make people want to continue on with life regardless of how bad it may get.”