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Two poets chronicle their friendship and isolation during the pandemic

Karthika Nair (left) and Marilyn Hacker (right)
Koen Broos/Julie Fay
Karthika Nair (left) and Marilyn Hacker (right)

Like many of us, Marilyn Hacker and Karthika Nair were two friends separated from each other by the pandemic last March.

They live in Paris and are both poets. Before the pandemic, they spent a lot of time on the road. Hacker was meant to be teaching in Lebanon and had to return home suddenly when COVID cases started rising. And Nair, who is also a dancer and frequently on tour, was diagnosed with breast cancer just as France announced a lockdown.

"I had gone through chemotherapy myself some years ago, so it was not an experience that was entirely strange to me," Hacker says, adding that they both also live alone. "I wanted to reach out and [connect] with somebody with whom I had something in common."

The two poets wrote a book together, out this month, called A Different Distance. It includes almost daily poems from March 2020 to March 2021.

/ Milkweed Editions
Milkweed Editions

Hacker says she approached Nair with the idea of writing the book in the form of a renga.

"A renga is a Japanese form of syllabic poetry," Hacker says. "The second poet picks up a word in the last line of the preceding [stanza] and starts with a line that includes that word."

As the poets responded to each other through poetry over email, Nair says, the project strengthened her friendship with Hacker.

Even though we met perhaps three times across the 367 days of the renga, we were so present in each other's mind homes.

"I was very apprehensive of my brain shutting down because chemo was very heavy on me, and the possibility of maintaining a creative collaboration was just so precious."

In ordinary circumstances, Hacker says, she'd liked to have accompanied Nair to her hospital appointments and taken her to lunch afterward, but under lockdown, they had to settle for meeting each other on the page.

"Even though we met perhaps three times across the 367 days of the renga, we were so present in each other's mind homes," Nair says.

The poems chronicle details not only of Nair's illness but of what the poets were eating, reading, or listening to when isolated. They write of friends and family they lost along the year, and protests they were hearing about across the world. In many ways, their poems also convey just how different their lives were, even though they were living just 5 miles from each other.

Consider this excerpt from a poem exchange in May of last year:

Her sixth-floor dormer,

a cigarette, the much-loved

view of our skyline:

Claire –critical-care intern–

sighs for one, after twenty

hours on breathless feet.

Evening applause is sweet, but

she'd choose PPE

over the President's praise–

and eggs on grocery shelves.

– KN, 1 May 2020

Shelves in the G20

are still filled with coffee, cheese,

brown eggs, garriguettes,

Greek yogurt, milk, wine– but I

hurry, forget tomatoes,

get out of harm's way

(masked, gloved) as fast as I can.

Food shopping once was

community, communion.

Poison is the chalice now.

– MH, 2 May 2020

It's by writing to each other about these differences that Nair and Hacker stayed connected even though they were physically isolated. And as a time capsule for the pandemic, A Different Distance captures how healing it can be to hold each other close in times of distress.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.