Audio

Su Cho in Conversation with Gabrielle Bates and Jennifer S. Cheng

November 30, 2021

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Su Cho: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m Su Cho. It’s been an honor to host the podcast for the last few months. It’s bittersweet that this is the last episode I’ll be hosting. But I’m super excited to be handing the mic over, so to speak, to the new guest editor of the magazine, Suzi Garcia. But before I do, I have the immense pleasure of introducing this week’s show, a conversation between two poets who sound like they know each other really, really well. But who, in a strange way, don’t. Or at least not in the usual sense. Gabrielle Bates and Jennifer Cheng met once a year at a poetry conference. I like to think of them as poetry camp friends. I mention this only because reading the letters they wrote to each other, which are published in the current issue of the magazine, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t already extremely close. Speaking to them, I learned a lot about friendship, and how distance can create even more possibilities for love.

Jennifer S. Cheng:

(READS POEM)

August 21, 2018

Dear G,

( You spoke once of boundaries, of your fear about where you find yourself making them. Do you remember? I was trying to listen closely. I have been thinking about how I relate to people. It isn’t as easy as saying that I hold people at a distance, but more so that I am always sensing the insurmountable swimming between us, and sometimes this feels like an overwhelming failure. Rilke says love between two people is loving that very expanse, even considering it sacred, and I wonder if there is something transcendent here—a definition for community…

(FADES OUT)

Gabrielle Bates:

(READS POEM)

August 21, 2018

Dear J,

I am glad you brought up the topic of marriage.

Tonight, at the house where everyone eventually gathers, the only light was made by battery-powered pucks with pointy-tipped orange bulbs programmed to flicker along the porch railing. In this light, two violinists faced each other…

(FADES OUT)

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Su Cho: I was extremely fascinated by this epistolary project, and the way you wrote letters to each other. But they weren’t really letters because you didn’t exchange them immediately. Instead, you waited till the very end and exchanged them all at once. And I was wondering if you could just talk more about that process? And I mean, out of curiosity, do you all write letters regularly to each other? Was this something new? And I guess the burning question on my end is, why did you wait to send the letters?

Gabrielle Bates: Yeah, I can take this one, because I had the wacky idea in the first place. So, back in June 2018, I was on a long run, on one of those thinky runs where I was just thinking about a lot of things. And one of them was “Envelopes of Air,” which was a collaboration between the poets Ada Limón and Natalie Diaz, where they wrote epistolary poems to each other. And I was thinking about some frustrations with my own work and my own thinking, and wondering if there were ways to engage people whose writing and thinking I admired, that I thought might push me in directions I wanted to go. Or if not push me, at least point me in the directions I wanted to go. And Jennifer came to mind at the intersection of all of these things. And I’m not sure exactly how I got the idea to exchange them at the very end rather than as we went along. But I was interested in ideas of imagination and a different kind of listening. Something that felt a little more, like I don’t know if spiritual is the right word, but intuitive kind of listening, and just embracing a kind of surprise too. I’ll let Jennifer, I’ll let you speak now. (LAUGHS)

Jennifer S. Cheng: Yeah, I love, I love that idea of intuitive listening. The language around that really resonates with me. I don’t think she would have known this. But when the invitation came to me, I was in the middle of or just starting to undergo infertility treatments. And infertility had been something I had been struggling with for a couple years. You know, there’s a lot that that we don’t talk about in relation to that, and we certainly don’t talk about, you know, the darker details of it. And I wasn’t prepared for how the hormone treatments would mess, obviously, with my hormone levels, and hormones regulate our emotions, right? So I was in a really crushing sort of depression and brain fog and feeling just really alone and isolated. And then I got this email from Gabby and, you know, we have, I think a really, to me a really special connection. I don’t think I quite like, fully knew what was going to happen to these letters that we were writing kind of uncertainly (LAUGHS) in the dark, but I trusted her for sure, you know, as a person, and also very much as a poet. Already, I think I could sense these sort of ideas that she talked about, like intuitive listening, and this sort of like spirit and sacredness of, of that kind of absence and presence that, that meets up in that space. You know, something that was really interesting to me after, as we sort of went along in the process was how the process of the experiment in some ways really mirrors what I find most compelling, but also most anxious about human connection, and about interpersonal communication, because you’re sending these words, these gestures out into the void, and you’re not sure of, you know, are they going to reach the other person? Are they going to entangle with the other person’s being? And there’s such a surrender that feels so vulnerable, but also so potent. Yeah.

Su Cho: And now I have to ask, just listening to you both, I feel like this epistolary project came at the right time, because I feel like both of you are grappling with a lot of uncertainty, right, and hesitation in life. And both of you keep saying a version of this, that you’re both fascinated by—I can’t remember what you just said, but by the mystery or haunting of human relation, and I feel like everyone’s skirting around it. But yeah, can you talk more about that? Like, what does that mean? And you keep referring to like, as poets, or in relation to each other. And I sense such a deep bond here. And I would just love to know what you mean by that. Or we can go in a lyric circle, it doesn’t matter. (LAUGHS)

Jennifer S. Cheng: I mean, I just, immediately, I think of Rilke, which I also invoke in the collaborative piece. But he has this quote about how, you know, he’s talking about marriage and that kind of really intimate relationship, but there’s, it’s not a, he says it’s not this, this merging this whole, you know, yoking of two individuals. It’s really more of a side by side thing. And in between, there’s this huge expanse. And I think so often that expanse to me feels like a, like a failure, or an insecurity, an anxiety. You know, we all want to be seen and heard, and we all want to see and hear. But you never fully can. And yet, you have this, this like, really primal desire for it. But he talks, Rilke talks about that expanse as instead of something, you know, distressing, it’s something that’s almost really sacred and beautiful, that we become actually guardians of, you know, each other’s solitude. And I don’t know exactly what that means, but it feels so right to me. In the way that I think there’s an echo of that with poetry, with writing poetry, reading poetry, and other things, I’m realizing too, like motherhood and all sorts of things.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Jennifer S. Cheng:

(READS POEM)

August 23, 2018

Dear G,

(

Yesterday I found out by way of a blood test that the embryo inside me no longer exists. I looked at a screen, and there was a number, and the number did not fall in a specified range.

When they executed the procedure where they scoop up the cells with a long eye dropper and inject them into a corner of my uterus, the doctor handed me a photograph of the embryo and said beautiful. What he meant was that it was the picture-perfect image of an embryo at this stage. Did I already feel discomfort then? For a year I have been trying to perfect this process, to pin all the moths in place, even the ones as thin as ghosts.

In the doctor’s office today, I kept trying to discern where in my body I was feeling the loss, and the doctor kept pointing to the photograph, calling this part baby and that part placenta, over and over—

)

Gabrielle Bates:

(READS POEM)

August 23, 2018

Dear J,

I do not find my birthstone particularly beautiful. Today I told a man this, and he claimed it interesting. It’s just like with your posture, he said. You misname it “bad” because it is yours.

Back straight as a stack of coins, I nodded my head, but it did not make sense.

He thought he had unlocked something about me.

You are throwing plastic over it, he said. An ugly plastic.

Yes, I said, not because I agreed, but because I could visualize the act. Me, throwing a dirty milky tarp over something invisible, to see the form. How else but to ugly it?

But I did not say this.

We have been told certain colors are colors, he said, beautiful colors. You are uncomfortable with adornment.

Yes, I said, uncomfortable.

How so are you stone? I asked my forearm silently.

We just are, it said.

What should I adorn you with, if not yourself? I asked.

Su Cho: When you are both talking about these relations and feeling that expanse and distance between two people, for some reason that didn’t make sense in my head, like for a few minutes, because for me when I think about relationships, if I love someone, I just like, want to be in their body and just like, be in their skeleton and like, be that close. Right? Or I want them draped around me. I’ve been really thinking about that lately. But I feel like then I’m just responding to the distance you’re both talking about. And that’s my way of coping with it. Huh. Anyway, I had to get that in there.

Gabrielle Bates: I think when I say lots of poets are interested in this or haunted by this, I’m maybe just thinking about how poets, more than most, perhaps, are aware of the failures of language with, you know, this tool that we have that we love and rely on to try and articulate experience or questions. And it’s what we have, but we know it doesn’t even come close so much of the time. It’s a necessary failure, language.

Jennifer S. Cheng: When thinking about these letters, I really, I mean, also just during the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about correspondence and shared spaces that are, you know, abstract and invisible. I recently read a book called In the Field Between Us, and it’s a collaborative project made up of epistolary poems. That language really resonated, I think, with this project, this collaboration between me and Gabby, the idea of, of this third space that, you know, is an actual, you know, it’s sort of like the meeting place, right, but it’s a really liminal place. And it’s fluid. And it’s in flux. And it’s mysterious. But that’s where we go to, to meet each other, to listen to each other, to reach out to each other.

Gabrielle Bates: To go back to one of your much earlier questions, Su, about like, have we been writing letters, like are epistles a part of our lives and practice generally, for me, it really hasn’t been a big part of my artistic life. Like letter writing isn’t something I do a lot of. And collaboration on the page isn’t something that I’ve done a lot of. It requires a level of surrender and vulnerability that I’m not naturally drawn to. I’m a very private person. And I, I like to have control over the language. And it takes a special person to even make me willing to consider such a thing. And so, in a way, this whole project was really outside of my norm in a beautiful way.

Su Cho: This reminds me of what you said in the beginning, you proposed this to Jennifer. And in that moment, I was like, that’s such a funny word for like, applications and suggesting someone. I’m like, oh, it’s like marriage, you’re literally proposing.

Gabrielle Bates: (LAUGHS) Yeah, it’s romantic. Yeah, friendship is something I’ve been thinking a lot about too. Absolutely.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Su Cho: These epistolary exchanges, it feels like a trust fall. And you two have already alluded to that, right? There’s so much vulnerability and risk and intimacy. And I see this exchange as an exercise in like, writerly friendship. And I’m really fascinated by the individual people in all of these poems. While these are exchanges between you two, I feel like they’re so populated with other people. And I would love to know if, you know, participating in this exchange felt like a performance, and how, and if it shifted the way you saw the world around you during this time, when you knew you were going to come back and write. And I guess my ultimate question is, did it change the way you lived to be narrating your own life to somebody else?

Jennifer S. Cheng: So, during that period, I felt so—I mean, I think I mentioned this, I felt really alone and isolated. And in that space, you know, all I sort of had around me was, you know, I use this word in the letters, the marginalia of my life, you know, just even on a very concrete level, like all the artifacts and objects of domesticity that don’t really garner your focus, but they’re there around you. And usually, I mean, I am normally I think, drawn to, like small things and debris, and how that accumulates into meaning. But in this period, there was like, no pleasure in all that. It was just sort of all threaded with, you know, something oddly and strangely and all-consumingly empty. And yeah, and I think that what writing these letters did was it sort of changed—I’m just thinking that if I hadn’t been writing those letters, that’s all I would have had, right? In some ways, it just would have been the marginalia there, just empty and not pleasurable. But in addressing Gabby, addressing the specter of Gabby’s presence, you know, it made me, at the very least, concretely it made me think about, you know, what does it mean to share the intimacy of this marginalia with somebody else, you know, across a distance? And how does that then change, influence, or reshape my experience of those things?

Gabrielle Bates: You asked, Su, about performativity. And I think there are a couple of things that made this experiment feel actually less performative than other writing I’ve done, and one of them is just the intimate direct address, like writing it truly, towards Jennifer, and not even thinking about publication. Like, I think this is one of the first writing endeavors I’ve ever set out on from the presumption that like, it probably won’t be shared with any sort of wider audience. I was always open to it being published if it happened to surprise us, and we wanted to move in that direction. But, you know, it’s rare for me to not fairly early on be starting to think about how it might live in the world, among strangers. And that’s a different kind of performance, right? That’s being seen from a lot more angles. And so, that actually made it feel less performative. Although performance is always going to be a part of, of any communication.

Su Cho: Yeah, I kind of want to push on this question of audience. Like, Jennifer, you were saying that you were imagining the specter of Gabby at least, right? As an audience? Gabby, you’re saying you didn’t really think about the wider audience, and so you didn’t feel performative? How did you feel yourself shifting as you were writing these letters when you were or when you were not thinking about audience? Or maybe you’ve all achieved that, like, subliminal, right, achievement of, you know, only thinking about your own writing, and no one else, which I think is, I would like to achieve that one day.

Jennifer S. Cheng: I know this isn’t true for everyone, but I will say that, that for me, writing has always been the one space where I could be completely alone. Where I could be—I mean, I guess it really is, I never thought about in terms of this, but the one place where I didn’t have to perform for somebody else. You know, if someone else is in the room, I’m always cognizant, my body is really alert. If someone is even, you know, in the next room, my body is really alert. But writing has always felt like the one space that’s just mine. So I think I’m, as I’ve, you know, gotten older, I’ve found that I need to protect that because, you know, as I’ve gotten older and become more aware of, you know, gaze in publications and being seen, or being observed, and social media, (LAUGHS) just that, that really makes me feel the importance of protecting that space that’s away from everyone else and first for myself, and then, after that I can think about, you know, sharing it if it feels like something I want to share. But with these, I mean with this process, with these letters, you know, there is something really ambiguous about the direct address, especially in an experiment like this, because you’re not quite writing to yourself, it’s not like a diary or journal but it is a little bit because, right, what does it mean when you, when I’m writing to Gabby, knowing that she’s not getting the letter in the next, you know, few moments, or in the next week. And it is, it does, I think that’s why I use that word specter, there’s an even greater distance. But I think what’s interesting about the experiment is that it amplifies, you know, the distance that’s already there. And in contrast, the intimacy then becomes that much more, I think, vibrant, because it’s surprising, because it’s mysterious, because it’s unexpected maybe.

Gabrielle Bates: Oh! Your brilliance as it just unspools off the cuff.

Jennifer S. Cheng: (LAUGHS)

Gabrielle Bates: Wow, I just wanna like, bathe in that for a minute.

Su Cho: I feel like there’s so much unmasking that letters do.

Gabrielle Bates: Yeah!

Jennifer S. Cheng: Mm.

Su Cho: I never thought of it like that. I’m a very impatient person. So the idea of writing a letter, and not just sending it via email, or texts, really stresses me out.

Gabrielle Bates: (LAUGHS)

Su Cho: I can’t handle that kind of anticipation. For me, intimacy, and that space, I’m like, I would rather just close the gap.

Gabrielle Bates: Yeah! Yeah, it’s allowing those gaps to stay, yeah, really open for once.

Su Cho: (LAUGHS) And then you get through it.

Jennifer S. Cheng: But there’s, I mean, I think that’s what’s so interesting, though, is because, with poetry too, right, there’s a way that the gap itself becomes something, almost a carrier or a portal to another kind of intimacy. You know, like I think of Rosemarie Waldrop, gardening the gap, and how that applies to this project. And, I mean, when I think of, when I think of poetry, and the gap, I think of, you know, the unsayable that’s always sort of at the center of something. And there’s a way in which that also becomes manifested in tangible and visible ways in a poem, right, in lineation, you know, juxtaposition, the leaps that happen, the way that a rhyme, you know, which could mean a rhyme in an idea or in, you know, shape or texture, is never quite exactly, right. There’s, there’s a kind of askewness to it. And that’s a distance, that’s a gap. But the way that when we, when we look aside a little bit, when we come at it at a slant, I don’t know, something magical kind of happens, where some kind of truth becomes recovered in a weird way.

Gabrielle Bates: I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last few weeks with the book Of Cities and Women by Etel Adnan, which is a book of letters that she wrote to an editor in lieu of writing this essay she was supposed to be writing about—

Su Cho: (LAUGHING) Oh really?

Gabrielle Bates: —oh, you know, what, what does it mean to be a woman? What is womanhood? And I was actually in New York just this weekend, spending time with some poetry beloveds old and new, and we went to the Guggenheim and saw Etel Adnan’s paintings, and several of us had been reading this book, Of Cities and Women, and we were reading her words over meals. And then on Sunday morning, we got the news that she had died. And it was this very … I don’t have the language for it. It was eerie. It was beautiful. It felt at once profoundly right and profoundly wrong that like, she was just so alive with us in so many ways as she passed on. And, you know, thinking now, just about epistles, about letters, and, you know, womanhood, because that’s also something that this, you know, experiment between Jennifer and myself ended up, you know, focusing a lot on or grappling with, you know, this idea of what is woman as a notion, as an experience. And I just find it very interesting that letters, that sort of intimate direct address seems to be a form that’s drawn to that kind of material. I’m not sure if I have yet anything more intelligent to say about it. It’s just something I’m attending to right now in this moment.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Jennifer S. Cheng:

August 24, 2018

Dear G,

 

(

When I was a child, a playmate once showed me how to put socks inside my undershirt to emulate my mother’s body. I was shocked because I had grown up believing we ought to bury our softest parts.

Once I took a shower with my mother after swimming in the public pool, and I couldn’t stop staring, couldn’t stop looking away.

My mother had warned me: the body does not always give you what you ask of it. When I married my husband, she told me over the phone that never mind what I feel, sometimes my body must lie there to serve another’s needs.

In the corner of my childhood bedroom, by the window light, my mother told me, if anyone ever touches me here or here.

So later I was confused, when, in the doctor’s office, she simply stood by as he touched me here, and here.

(

 

Throughout this whole year, I have been asking my doctor, a man who touches my innermost parts and never looks me in the eyes, Is this normal? Is this normal? Like so many things, it feels like a question I ought to be able to answer by myself, for myself.

(

I have womanhood on the mind, that is, I have tenderness, though by that I think I mean something else.

I am learning new ways to be empty.

(

To have spent my life holding my hands in tightly hidden fists. To try to understand what it would mean, now, to hold them open. I have always felt ashamed at being witnessed in the act of wanting something I could not have.

 

(

 

How does a gathering of cells disappear? Does it dissolve slowly? In an instant? Does it lose a piece here, and then another piece there, like a continent dispersing its coastline?

Gabrielle Bates:

(READS POEM)

August 24, 2018

Dear J,

Today, this was all I wrote into my pocket notebook:
 

So We must meet apart (Emily Dickinson)

Su Cho: I loved hearing that. And I refuse to believe that you all exchanged the letters at the end,—

Gabrielle Bates: I know!

Su Cho: —because the resonances are so clear, I feel like they’re in direct conversation in a very compelling way. There’s so many audience members in the exchange, the doctor, the man, about the birthstone, and the posture, and there’s all this looking, this endless looking, and you all decided to write about it. For me, listening, right, it’s tied to this idea of what is perfect and imperfect. And what is beautiful, right? And I would love to hear more about that. And you are observing being watched.

Jennifer S. Cheng: I was just thinking about, you know, if you asked me what my relationship to perfection and imperfection is, I would say that all my life in very exterior spaces, I have felt circumscribed by this, this need and this urgency and this desperation to be perfect and do things perfectly, you know, as if everything, you know, all my sense of safety and stability depended on that. And there’s a way in which that is a really debilitating thing in my life. And, in the interior space, I love the beauty of imperfection. Right? And that’s probably why I love poetry. Um, yeah.

Gabrielle Bates: I too have been described across my entire life as a perfectionist (LAUGHING) in various ways. And I mean, I relate to that in a way that just makes me feel deeply achy in my chest. Like, you know, it’s impossible for a human being to be perfect at anything. And so what is this bizarre, yeah, ravenous need to somehow come as close as possible, you know? And that goes back to these ideas of performance too, which then, you know, leaves me feeling like some sort of phony or some sort of fake too, because, if I manage to trick anyone into thinking I’ve come close to, you know, some marker of quote-unquote “perfection,” then I, I know, deep in my heart that, you know, this huge messiness, and, you know, these failures, and yeah, so how to grapple with that in art, with language, in communication with other people, in relationship, I think is going to be a lifelong endeavor for me. And it’s good to do it, yeah, with others, who also share those impulses.

Su Cho: Yeah, I feel like those sections resonated so well with me, because, the only time I see myself clearly is when I feel someone looking at me and judging me. And you know when you register that, you feel that in your body, and for me, everything goes in slow motion, and every time I just like, move a little, it feels like a great weight that I’m like, I’m not in control of my body when you’re being looked at. So yeah, that really resonated with me.

Gabrielle Bates: There’s this quote I was thinking of from Etel Adnan’s Of Cities and Women that I actually jotted down in my journal that I have beside me. It says, “Isn’t a woman all that has been said about her, all that has been seen in her, all that has been done to her?” And just thinking about that moment of awareness and recognition, of being seen and how, whether we want it to or not, that does have some bearing on who we are. It’s relational in terrifying and violent and yet also very nourishing and necessary ways.

Su Cho: And both of you write about the body in different ways, right. Jennifer during fertility treatments, and Gabby just being looked at by a man and he remarks on your posture. There’s all this very precise naming that, in a sense, you disembody yourself. I was wondering, looking back, right, how does this make you feel about your body, and like, that way of seeing versus now? I’m so curious. I feel like there’s—speaking of distance, there’s a three-, four-year distance now, right? Like, this is from 2018. And there’s already a distance in that moment. I hope that made sense. I don’t know.

Gabrielle Bates: Yeah! Yeah, I’m thinking, I was, I feel like, over the course of my life, I’ve been very aware of, yeah, how my body is perceived by others. I felt too much like a body and not enough like a mind in regards to how I’m perceived. And part of this experiment for me, which is funny that I ended up, you know, writing a lot about surfaces and exteriors and the body was, I was hoping to get more of my mind out. Because I feel like, just like going through the world on a day to day basis, I feel over much like a visual image, and not quite enough of the interior or of thought.

Jennifer S. Cheng: Interestingly, I feel, I feel like my relationship with embodiment and disembodiedness, (LAUGHS) that’s not a word, but, is almost the opposite in that, I feel most of the time in my head, and very much not in my body. I’m never aware of like, I mean, I’m really cognizant of, you know, my movements and space I’m taking up, etcetera, etcetera. But I never feel in possession of my body, I don’t know if that makes sense. I never feel like my body is me. Or that I get to have control over, you know, how much space I get to take up or something, or, I can’t make large movements with my body, right? It’s too, even when I’m alone, it feels really strange. I’ve always had a really complicated relationship with body, right, like, as a person, and then as a woman, and then as a person of color. I think in the context of infertility, there’s a way in which every, everything becomes about the body. Everything becomes about the failure of the body that you can’t see, and you can’t control, but you’re trying so hard to measure all these things and take all these medications. And, you know, I was at the doctor, like, every other day some weeks, where somebody is doing something to my body, that I can’t see, that I can only feel. And so getting from there, I guess, thinking about the question, okay, where does, where now, right? So I did eventually get implanted with an embryo that grew into a child.

Gabrielle Bates: Beautiful, beautiful child.

Jennifer S. Cheng: (LAUGHS) And I gave birth. And that experience, I mean, just, I can’t even say like, pregnancy, and then birth, and then everything we ignore about the weeks after birth, you know, in relation to a woman and the broken body, the traumatized body. I don’t know what to say. I’m still processing that, I really am. And I have like, no conclusions about all that, just to say, what a wild, what a wild relationship to the body where it’s very much not just yours. I mean, in pregnancy, right, your, all of your nutrients, if you’re not getting enough nutrients, they’re going to go to the baby first. That’s just what your body does. And so, your hair will fall out, you will lose your fingernails. Right, your body will deteriorate, because it is a parasite living inside of you. And then the parasite is outside of you.

Su Cho: (LAUGHS)

Jennifer S. Cheng: I don’t know what to say about it all. Just that, you know, it brings up this huge, unwieldy question about what is the relationship? What is a woman’s relationship to her body?

Gabrielle Bates: No, I love that though. Yeah. Oh my gosh, it’s making me think, I do have a physical tic disorder. And it’s very subtle now, and I’m grateful for that. It was much more pronounced as I was growing up, when I was a kid. And it roamed throughout my body. So it started with like, picking my lip. It went to pulling my hair. There was like a very pronounced shoulder jerk. And it just sort of roamed through my body and now it ping pongs back and forth through like, I don’t even really know how to describe the motion. I’ve tried before, but it’s in my abdominal muscles, sort of like a quick shifting of weight. And that’s, I think, colored the way that I feel about my body my whole life. I think, yeah, just being socialized, you know, a woman and, you know, growing up a white woman in the Deep South, there were ways that I felt my worth as a person was like, very tied to being pleasing visually to other people. And yeah, not disturbing anyone in that way and to, you know, bringing, bringing beauty to the spaces I was in. You know, not that people were saying things directly to me, like, “Your worth is, you know, connected to this,” but I felt it, you know, I grew up in that water, that was the ocean I was swimming in. And I think poetry has been a crucial space for me to be an uglier, more disturbing self. Because that is, you know, the true me that I didn’t feel I had permission or methods for being in conversation with in other forms of my life. So, those are some ways I’m thinking about the body, you know. And even just, you know, getting older, I just had a birthday and those sorts of markers of time often make me reflect on things like the body and about whether I want to have a child or not, and things like beauty, and yeah, there’s just, you know, questions swirling, swirling all around.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Su Cho: I love that. I kind of like ending on the note of just questions swirling around. What a poet thing to say.

(ALL LAUGH)

Gabrielle Bates: What is a conversation among poets but questions swirling around?

Jennifer S. Cheng:

(READS POEM)

August 25, 2018

Dear G,

(
 

Maybe what I’ve been trying to say all this time, as an explanation and apology, is that I sense a mass of white noise in front of my face wherever I go. It stands between me and the world, between me and other people. More and more I am finding myself lost in it, unable to make it through to the other side.


(
 

I went toward the water today,


(
 

I got out of the car by the sand, and walked, falling through the dunes.

Gabrielle Bates:

(READS POEM)

August 25, 2018

Dear J,
 

Today I drove over this country’s borders for the first time. Three lanes, a brick building, concertina wire. Someone took my passport through the window and asked what I do for a living. I said, preparing my throat: “I’m a writer.” How stupid I felt when he didn’t laugh, my lips already coiled to laugh along.

 

I am composing this to you in my head as he hands me my passport, as I carefully avoid touching his hand, as I reach into the warm, humid air of an almost-storm.

 

Soon one country will end and another will begin. Or, maybe this has already happened. He waves me on, and I’m moving forward unable to read the signs.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Su Cho: A big thanks to Gabrielle Bates and Jennifer S. Cheng. Bates’s debut collection, Judas Goat, is forthcoming from Tin House in 2023. She cohosts the podcast The Poet Salon. Cheng is the author of Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems and House A. You can read “So We Must Meet Apart” in the November 2021 issue of Poetry, in print and online. If you’re not yet a subscriber to the magazine, there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer to subscribe. That’s poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer. This show is produced by Rachel James. The music in this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and as always, thanks for listening.

This week, Gabrielle Bates and Jennifer Cheng read from their epistolary exchange, “So We Must Meet Apart,” published in the November 2021 issue of Poetry. Hosted by Su Cho, this conversation unabashedly feels through infertility, what no one tells you about giving birth, our fraught relationships to perfection, the experience of being in a body, and how distance can create even more possibilities for love.

More Episodes from The Poetry Magazine Podcast