Two poets and friends in Paris use the renga form to exchange poems from March 2020 to March 2021 on the impact of COVID-19

Two friends, poets living in Paris and isolated by the pandemic, create a sequence of poems in which they recount the times – the isolation, the illness, the impact on the community and the world, the pleasure of connection by the words. Covering 2020 and beginning with the March closings, these poets use the renga form, in which two writers exchange poems and each responds to a word in the conclusion of the other’s verse. The result, a collection called A different distance looks like a long conversation, a volley of words, a linguistic dance. The collection begins March 29, 2020 and continues through March 31, 2021, with poems swapped several times a week.

The collection begins with each locally-focused poet; for Hacker a view of ‘the source of the plague’ of flowers blooming in an abandoned square, and for Naïr a view of ‘human blooms outside/outside the gates of the bakers-butchers-grocers’. The poems grow to encompass wider and wider circles of people and places.

Poets write about family and friends in different countries. For Nair, it’s his parents and their life in quarantine in a COVID-ravaged India, the desperation of migrant workers forced to travel miles when the Indian government abruptly goes into lockdown. Hacker writes that she covers her face in front of her head when entering a mosque, and it culminates at her “atheist solo iftar” in Paris as she imagines her friends in Algiers and London that she might join next year.

Intertwined with these stories of friends and families separated by quarantine – the world strangely brought together by the virus and its devastating power – the poets also recount the impact of the disease on their bodies. Nair, who suffers from a genetic disease that weakens her skin, is also battling cancer and spending time in isolation in hospitals while undergoing chemotherapy. She writes about the triple threat to her body from genetic disease, cancer and COVID-19 and the compassion and care of her doctors and nurses that keep her alive and sane. Hacker recounts past chemo, medical students and interns protesting conditions on the streets of Paris, and worries about a child who is an emergency doctor in another country. These poems range from the ordinary – rare walks in the city, cooking eggplant, connecting with people virtually – to the extraordinary – deadly disease, doctors taking to the streets to protest safely, disasters like the explosion in Beirut .

The renga form emphasizes the plasticity of language and how we can use the same words differently. Naïr writes about “first touch of drink/ (organic) out of the house and/ hospital since March” at the end of a July 4, 2020 poem. On July 6, 2020, Hacker responds with a poem that begins: “Since we want to walk/from the hospital to/BDL and set up/pitch our tent…” The use of “walk/walk” highlights how the word resonates differently in each poem – from a time marker for a private stage in a political act to protest working conditions.

These poems will resonate with every reader as we can all relate to isolation, anxiety, fear, illness and loss. They also remind us of the joys of community and the ability of words to document, clarify and acknowledge our collective humanity. The pandemic has started to generate many literary works and this one stands out for its shape and beauty.

Poets will read virtually at Elliott Bay Book Company on January 15, 2022 at 1 p.m. More information: https://www.elliottbaybook.com

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