Book collects COVID-19 experience

“Alone Together,” edited by Jennifer Haupt, is a collection of essays penned in the time of COVID-19.

“Alone Together,” edited by Jennifer Haupt, is a collection of essays penned in the time of COVID-19.

It’s a strange sensation to hold this book in my hands now. The 258-page paperback, slightly oversized, is a vessel full of true stories straight from the solar plexus, poems penned during the worst of times — and reflections on our best selves.

This is “Alone Together,” editor Jennifer Haupt’s collection published last September. It has just won the Washington State Book Award for general nonfiction, and I’m here to tell you the prize is well-deserved.

In spring 2020, Haupt, a Bellevue journalist and novelist who’s taught in Port Townsend many times, embarked on the project: bringing together a large, varied flock of writers. She simply asked if they would contribute a piece — free — to an anthology, proceeds from which would benefit independent booksellers struggling amid the pandemic.

Haupt herself had just had her livelihood pulled from under her feet: the contract for her second novel was canceled when the nation’s economy crashed.

As she contacted more and more authors, a groundswell happened. Yes. Yes, they said. And so “Alone Together” took shape. It offers five sections: “What Now?,” “Grief,” “Comfort,” “Connect,” “And Do Not Stop.”

Haupt wrote me to ask if I might do an article about the book; email a sample, I said. In fact, she already had done so. In my state of distress amid the lockdown, I hadn’t looked carefully at her message and attachment.

Feeling like an idiot, I apologized in another email.

“Absolutely not a problem,” she immediately wrote back.

My first reading of “Alone Together” had me looking for my favorite writers, who share the pages: Pam Houston, Jean Kwok, Port Townsend’s own Anna Quinn.

Amid the sadness and anger of that summer, their contributions provided sweet relief.

Oh, and the book raised more than $40,000 for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

Yet when I paged through the hard copy that later arrived in the mail, I was afraid to read the poetry. Too intense.

A year later, I reopened “Alone Together” and read Richard Blanco and Peter Quinn’s poems. They had an unexpected effect: more relief. Quinn, the Port Townsend poet and teacher, titled his piece “Confine.” But in its final four lines, he describes the freedom of a red-breasted finch, singing in “softer, lighter air.”

All I can say is thank you.

Haupt, with her signature grace, sidesteps the spotlight when asked about the award. It’s “really for all of us, as a community, rallying to do something positive during a time when many of us felt helpless,” she told me.

How is this book relevant in 2021 and beyond?

It’s assembled like a novel about a three-month period in 2020, Haupt said. The tumult started with our isolation because of the pandemic. It progressed to emergence in the protests following George Floyd’s murder.

“There’s grief and pain in the pages, but there’s also comfort and hope,” she added.

“The overarching theme is connection — and that’s always relevant.”

So is inspiration. In “Alone Together,” it comes from Blanco’s poem about still wanting to sing. And in one of the book’s final pieces, Haupt interviews the towering Luis Alberto Urrea about who we might become in the wake of all that has happened.

“It’s time,” he says, “to get your ass outside and live for each other. Sing and do not stop. March and do not stop. Work and do not stop. Write your story across the sky and don’t despair because despair is the most powerful weapon of the dominant. It will only make you weary and afraid to stand in the light.”

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Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] peninsuladailynews.com. Her column runs the first and third Wednesday of the month; the next one will appear Oct. 6.