Tender and Tough: Letters as Questions as Letters

Tender and Tough is an epistolary project written by poets, friends and collaborators; Cheena Marie Lo, Tessa Micaela and Brittany Billmeyer-Finn who met in Oakland in 2011. Recently Tessa and Brittany have left the west coast for the east coast. These letters consider a tender and tough poetics and the continuous process of moving towards and away from one another through their books; there are boxes and there is wanting, by Tessa Micaela, A Series of Un/Natural Disasters by Cheena Marie Lo and the meshes by Brittany Billmeyer-Finn.


August 29, 2016


Dear Cheena and Tessa,


Which direction are you facing? I am facing south east. What are you holding in your hands? I am holding nothing in my hands but I am holding. Do you know what I mean? I am trying to focus on my body. I am trying to focus on my body in this room. I am aware of the objects in this room in relation to my body. I am sitting cross legged on my couch in Northampton, Massachusetts so very far from Oakland. I am trying to be aware of my posture. In front of me there is a wobbly coffee table, which is just an upside down crate. I am wearing a dress and a brass necklace that says “Pisces”. This is not surprising to you, I’m sure. Behind me are three windows. I am back lit. I am a silhouette of myself or so I imagine. On this couch, to my left is the Collective Tarot deck. On this couch, to my right our books are stacked up. My own-the meshes, Tessa’s-there are boxes and there is wanting and Cheena’s- A Series of Un/Natural Disasters.


They/We are bound together.


This holding that I am trying to understand is something from A Series of Un/natural Disasters,
“as in, this is the way things are— a system/a system of relations/a social system/ a socialized system/a structure/an institution/a number of overlapping networks/a complicated history/a feedback loop/a nuance/a trace/a complex web of connected services and systems/a problem/a disaster,” or something like this from the meshes, “drawing a circle collectively, invisible threshold,”…yes and also this, “the sky is wild and I watch it,” from there are boxes and there is wanting.


I have pulled The Conductor card from the Collective Tarot deck, which describes the image on the card as, “riding the wave, the warrior is fierce, yet confidant and relaxed. She is riding the wave of her own strength and will, combined with the great strength of the ocean and the orcas. The conductor is harnessing all the powers in the universe to move in the direction she chooses and as time goes on, that control becomes harder and harder to maintain.”


I picture myself swimming toward you both. No orcas and the water is calm. I think about the three of us in the water with just our heads bobbing above the surface. Why this image? Is this too a “harnessing of all the powers in the universe?” How in California the ocean was in view or at least nearby, only temporarily out of sight. In Massachusetts, when I look over the hills it is only land but I am seeking the water. Like I wrote in the meshes, “palpable force the sea. It is not the sea.”


Tessa, you wrote in there are boxes and there is wanting, “to document the warming waters. To document the bodies.” Perhaps, these letters are a document of our various habitations and holdings. How we are held, how we hold each other, how we encapsulate holding in the text, which may just be an extension of our bodies facing in a direction. What can you see from there? What do you lose sight of when you change your direction? How does this loss inform your new understanding?





August 30, 2016


Dear Brittany and Tessa,


I’m sitting in my office at work as I write this, facing north. The room that I am in is small and soft lit by two lamps, rather than the harsh fluorescent overhead lights. Visitors sometimes comment that it is too dark in here, but I prefer it this way. There are posters of past programs on the wall, inherited from the person who held this job last, and likely the person before as well. A mostly empty cork board is on the wall in front of me. I’ve worked here for two years, and I haven’t personalized this office in any way, aside from an illustration of a plant that Taylor gave to me, and a few books of poetry—including ours—that I keep here to read on my lunch breaks.


I am facing both of you. I am thinking about our work in the context of our friendship, and our trajectories, how we move parallel to and intersect with each other. How our three heads are bobbing above the surface. How our books are very different, but hold some of the same threads–the layers of voices, the weaving, the looping. I think we’re all trying to get at something around collectivity and sociality. And the precarity of this as well—Tessa writes “when it is at its most quiet I worry what happens when things are left alone to spin and what happens when we no longer see ourselves as parts of one another.” I write “something about the isolation of groups.” Brittany writes “this is an act of keeping in motion as to not be still for too long. this results in isolation.”


Something about movement too I guess. Does changing direction necessarily mean losing sight of? What if you are moving towards instead of away from? Is there a difference?


When we are in the ocean, I am probably physically holding onto both of you because I never learned how to swim. I panic a little bit anytime I’m more than chest deep in the water, always need to have my feet touching the bottom. I confess that I’ve been having difficulty touching the bottom lately—I’m reaching for something outside of where I am now, and I am floating. I’m looking for something different and I see it there up ahead, not the specifics or anything but the general shape of it, and it’s just a little bit out of reach. Did you feel this too, before you decided to leave? How to write through it?


More soon.





August 31, 2016


Dear Brittany and Cheena,


It’s the last day of August. It’s warm outside the big windows of the café that I’m writing to you from. The people inside are also parked in this laptop parking lot, glazed eyes staring at screens. At some moments, I wish everyone would grow little cartoon thought bubbles so I could see my way into what they are thinking. But then I think that’s a terrible idea, because I might find what all these strangers are thinking unsettling and creepy. I go back to looking at the birds pecking muffin crumbs from the sidewalk and thinking about your letters.


Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about the conundrum of connections; that we are social animals and yet as animals we have so much trouble with sociality. Bad monkeys, who have mostly forgotten how to shake off our bodies when we feel scared or impacted or excited. In somatics (“a path, a methodology, a change theory, by which we can embody transformation, individually and collectively” – generative somatics) the basic idea is that the whole world is in constant cycles of expansion and contraction, and that our bodies are too. Trauma happens when we get stuck in one shape (usually contraction) and the natural rhythms got interrupted; when a body gets stuck and no longer moves easily between curled in and stretched out. I was describing my own patterns of freezing to this friend, describing how I watch others shut down and disconnect, in ways of protection and need, but also in ways of sabotage and isolation. What helps? he asks on the other side of the phone.


I’m thinking about our kindred poetics here. Inquiries into how to swim together and how to swim on our own in the midst of this watery planet and these big machines looming tall on the dry land. Excavated pathways into the places that touch between together and alone. Maybe we are more like ants, burrowing paths through dirt and bricks and plaster to bring back bits of rice and honey to the queen(s). What burrows takes us into contact with our different histories, lives, experiences? What kind of nourishment keeps a community together, and what circumstances of sudden upheaval turn us against each other?


I think that in many ways the three of us seem to be moving in and out of questions related to what helps, but not necessarily because we are not looking for answers (although answers might bring ease). In poetics that call in the quandaries of embodiment/aliveness, structural/historic violences, responsibility/accountability, there is precarity, as you say Cheena, and habitations, as you say Brittany. There is also, I think, an insistence on dreaming and visioning. fathom the mirror. /territories must be bodies. /invasion must be gestural. /to be whole, writes B. unable to find the language/until long after waking/until then, there is this, writes C.


How differently we burrow as we dream, but oh how we dream. Dreaming and visioning into what helps. I think in this dreaming there is also a gesture of refutation to the idea of what, and an insistence on the idea of how. How we swim, how we change direction, how we feel the bottom below our feet, how we experience loss.


I’ve got a dog curled at my feet now, and there are car engines racing down the lamp lit street outside my windows. Calm waters for a moment, where the panic of upheaval or drowning slip away, but without forgetting the moodiness of the seas. I’m turning in a new direction soon, because I think I’ve been looking for the bottom for a long time, and only briefly touch down on it. I get a sense of bottom from you all, from your ways of thinking, and I’m grateful.





September 1st


Dear ones,


This morning I woke up early and it was misty and grey outside. A sweet animal had nestled herself in between us in the middle of the night, and I put my face on her warm, soft chest and waited for my alarm to go off. After the alarm went off, my morning looked like it does every morning: feed the dog, put the water on for coffee, use the bathroom, shower, change, make coffee and lunch, brush my teeth, kiss my love and my animal goodbye, go to work. Sometimes I’ll make breakfast too, but usually I’m too rushed.


It’s the beginning of a new month and almost the end of an exhausting week. It is slow at work, which is sometimes more tiring than the busier, more stressful times–the drop between the two is sharp, and I never expect it. There’s been some tumult at home, with my family. A difficult situation, in the way of what is owed and to whom. It feels difficult to speak about. Your letters, and writing to you in turn, have been a nice respite.


I like the image of us as ants, with our collective mouths and guts. Ants forage food and share equally amongst each other for nourishment to stay alive, but also to communicate, to mark each other as kin, also to stay alive. I’m thinking about what T wrote: orientation is not about north/south or left/right. it is about bodies and space. we don’t notice orientation until we are disoriented. And I’m thinking about what B wrote: fusing together the bodies making them move as one, as if all have become linked on the thread of a single pulse. This kinship and this dreaming together feel crucial–the asking of, the thinking around and through–especially in the world we live in, with the structures that we live under, that are designed to disorient us and keep folks apart from each other. The systems that often keep us apart from ourselves and our own intuitions.


Sometimes when it is quiet at work, I like to make playlists that help the time pass, especially when I feel out of my mind and not quite in my body either. Songs that remind me what it feels like to be expansive and open, after being disconnect. Here’s one of them.





September 2, 2016


My Dear Friends,


Cheena, in your letter on August 30th you asked, “Does changing direction necessarily mean losing sight of? What if you are moving towards instead of away from? Is there a difference?” I think these questions you ask illuminate something for me about what I was trying to get at in my first letter to you both about holding. That holding requires action, a constant engagement with what is being held. It is not static but instead an encapsulation of something transformative, how this comes out of simultaneous collisions of meaning.  I guess to answer your questions Cheena and my own, I think with change, even in moving towards something there is loss, the orientation of what was known or understood, its context changes and becomes more complex in its various and multiple relationships.


Tessa named this epistolary project, “Tender and Tough.” This is an example of what I’m speaking towards, tenderness and toughness as simultaneously informing the meaning of the other and for each of us within our various contexts, which includes that of our friendships and collaborations. I think this is also a description of my poetics and the lens in which I read your books. T writes, “toward the beginnings or the ends, when we might become aware of the light or the dark depending on the time of night, and depending on the sounds that may or may not always be around us, like bottles breaking or highways, we begin to tell a story. i begin to tell a story, because it is mine. i begin to tell a story and stop, because it is not only mine,” I write, “hold now. and this. an image arriving. black out.” C writes, “how what’s dirty is crystal clear.”


Interestingly, when I think of tenderness and toughness I do not think first about the ways in which I am tender and tough but instead about your tenderness and toughness and how this informs my understanding of these terms as they relate to me, you and us. That is to say the ways that I admire you. The gifts you have given me. You should both know that you and your work grounds me. You and your work brings me back into my body. I feel something coming up in our letters here about this tension of dis/embodiment.


I remember arriving in Northampton with Tessa, Zoe and Madison after 2 weeks on the road. Having driven from Oakland, up to the lavish green of the Pacific Northwest, over and through the seemingly endless mountains, into the flatness of the Midwest and continuing east to the forests and then to the cities there, until finally landing in Northampton after weeks of messy goodbyes. I stood in my mostly bare bedroom, with two mirrors and a stripped bed with a bouquet of lavender placed lovingly in the center of the mattress by Rebecca. It was a welcoming gift from an old friend. I was moving towards her, a new chapter in our friendship, that of sharing a town again and a home for the first time.  I stood in the room alone until Tessa entered and you asked, “Are you ok?” I began to cry. You said, “can you feel your feet?” and then you kneeled down and held my feet against the ground until I could feel them again. Tessa you mentioned in your letter on August 31st a conversation you had with a friend about the, “conundrum of connections,” and he asked “what helps?” …I will say that this helps. My body remembers this feeling of balance and connection.


Thinking about context and connections then what about the contexts and connections between our books? Cheena writes about disaster, Tessa writes about families and mental illness and I write through the filmography of Maya Deren, of course these descriptions don’t actually get at the intricacies of the work. What else do you see contained in these books?  How might we think about their relationship to one another?  With this question in mind I consider that there are narratives at work here. Narratives about the complexity of telling the story that is and isn’t ours to tell. These works engage with, as Cheena wrote in their letter on September 1st, “The systems that often keep us apart from ourselves and our own intuitions.” If these systems are systems of oppression, how does our varying positions within them inform our work and ourselves? How does it inform what we have to offer? Our silences? How does and doesn’t it mark our bodies? How is it internalized?


I write, “reaching towards objects/moving across and away/gesture to the face/symbols flash together in midair/rope strung up/light hits an edge/collects beneath/a shape to illuminate it.”


C writes, “something about being maddened by hunger. /something about exuberant life and bird-mountains and new forms. /something about association and consciousness/something about the family and then the group. /something about the isolation of groups. /something about the necessity of communicating. /something about simply feeling proximity.”


T writes, “I haven’t told the story of being in and beside and surrounded and choked by illnesses that have no symptoms but are nonetheless of the body, that have no origins but are nonetheless originating in how and what is eaten, or breathed in, as much as it originates in all the bodies that led down or across or up to us. We can never stop telling this story as much as we try to.”






September 3, 2016


Dear B and C,


It’s two am. I’m facing north. There is a slight whirring from the refrigerator in the next room, but it is otherwise quiet in this small house on a small street in North Oakland. I’ve come from a late dinner of salmon and roasted potatoes and apple gallette for dessert, where I felt keenly aware of the distinctions between the bodies sitting around the table. The fact of our bodies, alive in space and different from the other three bodies, even while breathing in and out the same cells, the anatomy of skin as the external barrier, and the feeling of that fact, skin waving and breathing. The fact of an inside and an outside. Over dinner we talked about home, about where and how we place ourselves. Thinking about home, from my vantage point, makes me immediately think about loss.


I’ve never been good at saying goodbye. When I was young, my parents had to sneak out of preschool when I was playing, because the goodbye upset me so wildly. It wasn’t what was to come or the change in supervision or the new surroundings, but the moment of the separation itself. The fact of distinction. The loneliness I felt of facing into the goodbye. It’s a truth I’ve pretended did not move into adulthood, but really I’ve just learned more socially acceptable ways to shift and fidget and play with objects and turn away, when goodbyes come close. Not to throw myself on the carpet inconsolably weeping. Although it is mostly what I want to do, even when I am the one leaving. Perhaps all we learn as we leave behind childhood is how to hide from what we want.


Even in moving towards something there is loss, B writes. Is what is being lost what we know and are familiar with? We are intimate with what we’ve habituated, for better and worse. And what we are moving towards, which even if we are lucky enough to see it in sharp focus, is unknown, inanimate, unfathomable. To fathom: to measure the depth of, to understand. Moving towards what we cannot measure the depth of, we lose the depth of what we know, lose its quotidian familiarity. It hurts me, renders me small and voiceless. I lose my physical sense of dignity, my length. Loss touches down into those basic wounds in me, into the marrow of things. I know that we are dying all the time, ever since before we are born. But it makes it no less terrifying. And yet, wonder, how do we dis-entwine irretrievability from loss? What are the thru-lines between what is behind and what is ahead?


I’m thinking tonight, also, about truth in relation of loss and the movement, those inevitables of bodies and aliveness. I’m thinking about truth and its relation to intuition and writing. How do we know we are being truthful enough? In our language, relations and to ourselves? Is there a container for truth? Are those containers some of the thru-lines?


I read our letters out loud tonight, and cried. The loss that is simultaneous to the new direction finally hitting me in sudden and sharp moments. I mostly don’t let it in the loss, its discomfort almost intolerable. Tonight, I cried because I remembered that loss does not have to mean dissolution or permanence. It can, and does, mean room for unfolding.





September 4, 2016


Dear T, dear B,


It’s Sunday, which is my favorite day of the week. It is the one day that I reserve for myself, and try to have no obligations or plans with anyone else. My ritual includes waking up slowly, taking the dog on an adventure, going to the farmer’s market for the week’s produce. It’s the best time of year, tomato season, and I’m eating as much of them as I can before they go away again.


There is a tattoo of a key with a ribbon tied to it on my leg. The numbers 2632 are stitched to the ribbon. This is my home tattoo, it represents the home that I grew up in, a home that was foreclosed three years ago. My parents live in a rented apartment now, and are moving back to their home, the Philippines, when they retire in a little over six months. A whole ocean between us, a 15-hour time difference. I’m dreading that goodbye.


This is all to say that when I think of home, I immediately think about loss too, T. When I think of home, I also think of context and relationships, as B touches on in her last letter. My parents are leaving, but I know it is ultimately for the best—They’ll be returning to a place where their entire family is. Where then, is my home? Without my family in Tucson, there is nothing tying me to that place. Is it here, in Oakland? This is the place where I really found myself as a writer, but without the folks that feel closest to me, that is to say the two of you, it’s just the place that I currently live and work. Again, I am floating.


When I think of home I also can’t help but think of the systems that I mentioned in my last letter, that B also pushes upon in her reply—systems of oppression, and our positions within them. I’m thinking of capitalism and the cycles of debt that made it impossible for my parents and countless others achieve the “American Dream.” Witnessing this failure illuminated to me the fraud of this “American Dream.” And so our insistence on dreaming and visioning feels like it is actively working in resistance to these structures that set us up to fail.


It is late now, and tomorrow is a holiday. I’m going to bed thinking about a page I just read in T’s book, one which I think echoes for all of us in this moment in time—there is a house on the horizon / it has roots.





September 6, 2016


B and C –


Last night I dreamt about stealing a tiny lightbulb from a fancy store on Valencia Street and then picking ticks off my sweetheart’s inner thigh. Fragments of the moment in time I live in and the kind of life I have.


It’s morning now, a day after I was supposed to post this. Last night, before dreaming, I crawled into bed, eyes swollen and sun-dazed from a Yuba River adventure. That place, with its hot rocks and cold clear water and marked distance from the noise of places people live, is astounding. To set up a little home on a bank of a river, even for a night, made of only what you’ve carried in on your back and the way your body moves through the days, gives a sense of the possibility of the prolonged sensation of aliveness. Which is some of what I think we are touching at when we talk about loss and dreaming.


The Yuba River is one of my favorite places in the world, I think. I went there to say “goodbye, and…” to California and to a particular relationship, but more than anything to the parts of myself that came to be while living here.


Came to be. I’m thinking about these questions we’ve been asking, about how our experiences and the systems we’ve had them within shape and inform our work, ourselves, our connections, and our intuitions. How we came to be and how we continue to become, in all the intricacies and expressions and claustrophobias of the shapes/structures/systems we do the becoming in. Came to be, affected by – how have we shaped and been shaped by language and thinking in which the outside comes into and changes the inside? Even this phrase – been shaped by – has a passivity intrinsic to it, as if we are not also agents inside of what shapes us. The idea of dreaming, perhaps is shorthand to also ask the question of how we inform ourselves and each other, how we make choices and feel agency inside of the systems of oppression, inside of our positions within them, inside of circumstance and biology and ecology. Maybe it’s a question of resistance and of survival – how have we have held onto our intuitions, made our ant burrows, felt our feet on the ground, while encountering and being affected by the systems that “set us up to fail?” How does the inside also alter and affect the outside? How do our bodies reshape the landscapes and systems in return?


Maybe these poets offer some clarity to my fuzzy thinking this morning, maybe not.


Laura Mullen: Unable to locate the blind spot. “The harmony is found to consist in having our experience meet our expectations.” Susceptible to a multitude of modifications affecting the pitch. This box. A beautiful, rich &c…lived in a country far far away under a curse &c. Their streets paved with gold and so forth. Seen in the cracked glass disjunct or diffracted as though sections of time had been edited out. 


Fanny Howe: We move forward into a past that will be censored. This is the way we follow our friends through the night, no one leading, no one speaking because of the ice forming on our lips and our eyes burning from our freezing lashes. We intuit our best path and sustain our belief in finding warmth by physical touch. 


Falling asleep by the river I watched a shooting star with a long tail trail across the sky.

The instant of contact with the vastness we live in, inside the vastness of the structures we live in, inside the vastness of the communities we live in, inside the vastness of the bodies we live in. And the smallness of it all.





September 7, 2016


Dear T & C,


I am in my bed, curtains drawn, the sound of crickets faintly in the background. I am getting used to the sounds of western Massachusetts. It is nice to have thunder back in my life.  I am facing North with bad posture. I am sleepy and my little pooch is intermittently disrupting my chain of thought to stick her tongue in my nostril and I let her do it a little.


I have so many thoughts, so many considerations and tender feelings brought about in these letters. What a wonderful gift they have been. I feel a calmness as I write to you.


I am holding the various images and ideas we have named; calm water, bobbing heads, layers of voices, something about movement, panic, cartoon thought bubbles, the conundrum of connections, expansion and contraction, our collective mouths and guts, intuition, playlists, loss, transformation, simultaneity, tenderness and toughness, feet on the ground, inconsolably weeping, home, failure, orientation, a tiny light bulb, the instant of contact, wildly.


In this naming, I find a poetics of holding, a poetics of tenderness and toughness, something sincere and a little melancholic. T begins her book, “we are precarious bodies. we are precarious bodies beneath reinforced structures and so we are precarious amongst families and fictions and economies and illnesses.”


C begins, “always already/ another/ an other/ as in, an Other/ as in, “different,”/ as in, one of these things is not like the other/ and used to define “normal”/ as in, status quo/ as in, this is the way things are”


I begin, “3 breaths.


So much about bodies, precarity, instability, the elements, dwelling together in our texts, inside ourselves in relation to the larger systems and narratives that we attempt to pull a part, push up against, arrive at, dig ourselves out of…even if only for a moment.


And in the end, I write, “the coast is clear/any sight or sound/scattering pamphlets/to dwell/ together…/…in unity…/in this text/that marks/and the others emerge/ who profit from flesh/ water on the parched plain/ something above the chaos/file past the corpse/put the dust back in the earth.”


T writes, “and so we begin again. We begin again despite the storms. There is always the choice to swim. There is always the choice to swim with all the rest of the bodies covered in skin and water and skin and water, and it has taken all we had to arrive. And so we arrive swimming toward a shore. Or toward where the shore no longer matters.”


And C writes, “coded markings spray painted in red, blue on pale yellow parallel panels indicate the structural instability of this home.”


What is the relationship our texts have to the personal? Where are we inside of these texts? What is the narrative we are trying to undo in all that undoing’s impermanence…?





September 12, 2016


Dear friends,


The days are moving quickly. The first day of school has come and gone, and the students I see outside of my office window no longer look lost, look like they’ve been here forever. From what I can gather from this vantage point, it looks like they are settled into their new routines and their new friendships. I find myself being in awe of and also slightly skeptical of these new relationships, catch myself thinking things like that can’t possibly last—connecting with others is so difficult sometimes. And maybe these new friendships don’t last, but I forget that sometimes things actually can be that easy. That sometimes it’s possible to meet someone and know that they’ll be in your life for a long time. You two are especially good reminders of that.


My horoscope last week said you don’t need to be all healed in order to do great work in the world, you just have to be willing to get bigger than your fear of failing. I’m holding that while thinking of these questions of resistance and survival that we’ve been circling around.


T, you ask, how do our bodies reshape the landscapes and systems in return? I’m still thinking of us as ants, who burrow the ground to build their nests. In the process of doing so, they stir up the soil, help it breathe and circulate water and nutrients. This helps with germination, seed survival and production, and plant growth. Creating sites of possibility that remain even after the ant colony has moved on to a different place. This is part of our kindred poetics of holding, of tenderness and toughness that B names. Possibility.


It ripples out, too, into how one moves through the world, the work that is done outside of the writing, outside of the nest. This work relies on the insistence of dreaming, as T named earlier, to make these changed landscapes possible. It’s all connected, and our connection and commitment to these sites of possibility illuminates our work, and in that way our texts become personal.


B writes “means to oppose. to resist. to be resisted. personal powers. creating an intensity of experience. the prejudice of distance. the entire landscape and other people. . . things that count. or does it begin. recombined. action. angles. lenses. filters. lighting. thus to create. briefly and then leave.”


T writes, “the body is made up of millions of smaller structures that carry on a host of different activities. but, and this being an important point, together all of these diverse activities accomplish the one big, all-encompassing function of the body – survival.”


It’s cold and grey here today and I’m am inside of myself and feeling a little blue. I think we are at the edge of shifting—what will it look like after?




September 21, 2016


My dear friends,


T, you are on the road heading east. Heading toward a return, a new chapter in a familiar place.  I cannot wait for you to be nearer to me. Cheena, you will be visiting Northampton soon! How nice it will be to reach out and touch you both. My spaces with be reshaped by your presence. This place will resemble home a little more closely with both of you in it, even just temporarily or from time to time. I think this is true.


Tessa in one of your letters you asked, “I’m also thinking about truth and its relation to intuition and writing. How do we know we are being truthful enough? In our language, relations and to ourselves? Is there a container for truth?”


I feel compelled by these questions you offer. What is the shape and embodiment of truth? How does it change in its various context? Is it ever stable or able to be contained? I wonder then the relationship of truth to sincerity or accountability and how this shows up in our various telling. How truth travels between individuals, through time and back into the body. Something like this from the meshes, “to grasp a fleeting moment. Little time to write history. Little time to survive it.” How is one’s perception of self, related to their survival?


there are boxes and there is wanting speaks to this, “all the characters who arrive have something to do with this fire and these groves, even if they have never been to the place or have no memory of having arrived.”


…something about memory, something about perspective, something about performativity and authenticity, something about all these reflections of ourselves, something about the power and force of the way we internalize the systems we navigate and are marked by, the way this becomes part of our power and the precariousness of this power, something about self-consciousness something about becoming in the stories we tell, a part of the relationships we make, the way we love and write.


This line of questioning is curious in relationship to each of our books where C pulls various headlines from the media regarding Hurricane Katrina to illuminate truths about racism in the wake of disaster/racism is the disaster.


Tessa both tells and blurs the telling of a story about a family member with mental illness, creates characters to develop the nuances of this story, the feelings, the facts, the embodiment, the desires attributed to this telling and knowing…untelling and unknowing…That both of these books are about humanity about one’s humanness being institutionally erased.


Just as Cheena writes in a Series of Un/Natural Disasters, “houses filled with water. / how struggle is replaced by cooperation. how to be human. /how there is a difference between refugee and evacuee. /how one is marked as an other. how to be human.”





September 26, 2016


Dear B and C,


I drove all day, the last of the long drives from one coast to the other. A week of movement, rumbling engine and sun burning through the half opened window. Oakland to LA, across Route 40 to Durham, North Carolina, then up the eastern seaboard. All my belongings were packed into the back of a tiny red truck that, like me, seemed to suggest it would barely make it, but has found itself, now, in a quiet cabin beside a pond in Bridgton, Maine.


As with most travels, it was both grueling and gorgeous, spattered with the unexpected and the assumed. The moment in history we are in touching every corner of the journey across – from the white supremacist make america great again signs along the corn fields to the hotel clerk’s you girls want two beds now, don’t you? to the private North Carolina billboard flashing between images of replacement china and NO TO HB2 to the folks in the streets of Charlotte demanding accountability for the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. This moment in history in which things are being uprooted, in which, as Adrienne Maree Brown says, things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil. As something as powerful as white supremacy is being uncovered and starting to crack, it goes to desperate measures to keep its foot on power. This moment in which 50 indigenous tribes and First Nations signed a continent-wide “Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion” ban pipelines across sacred water and sacred land. This moment in Amerikkkan history in which my friend Danni writes #ibelievethatwewillwin. And I do to.


Winning. That this might look like some of the questions we’ve been chewing over. That this might look like wild redistribution of power and resources and the wild (re)imagining of community care and that it might also look like the many generations of epigenetic, somatic and spiritual healing that so many of our peers, our elders, ours-to-come dedicate themselves.


Tomorrow, I return to the classroom portion of my midwifery education. It’s so early on in this process I can’t entirely get a hold on what it will be. There’s the technical work of reproductive health, and preventing and identifying health complications in pregnancy and birth and postpartum, and fertility care, and insemination, and out-of-hospital well-person care. There’s the political work of advocacy for autonomy over bodies and access to health care and choices and information for individuals, families and communities. And there’s also the thing that feels less formed, for me, at this moment – where I am in all of this; what my roles will be; how I will embody them. How will I midwife in the moments that are not birth or reproduction related, but are of the body, of the politics, of the collective vision of care that I understand the roots of midwifery to be about? And the questions of poet-ing: How will I poet the moments I am inside of, personally and collectively? How might we poet the tethers between and amongst us, while we are always poets and also many other things?


The first text I read about providing midwifery care included a distilled Sufi philosophy that is (should be) the base for all ways of working as a practitioner. These four questions, according to the classic Varney’s Midwifery text, are the guiding questions to developing a relationship and caring for clients: Is it kind? Is it truthful? Is it necessary? Is it appropriate? Imagine if all the healthcare, education, community spaces, interpersonal relationships were founded and sprung from these questions. Can we even imagine it?


Driving across the country, I kept thinking about how healing is not a complete, or terminal thing. That end points are fictions, but getting bigger than our fears of failing seems a task as impossible as Sisyphus’. And yet. And yet we do, despite the blue days, the systems and oppressions we are encoded and encased by. How truthfully and sincerely do our bodies move, what integrity do we find here? By whose definitions are we marking our integrity, our sincerity, our language, our survival?


Might winning be something like what Ocean Vuong writes Turn back & find the book I left/for us, filled/with all the colors of the sky/forgotten by gravediggers./Use it./Use it to prove how stars/were always what we knew/they were: the exit wounds/of every/misfired word.


Might winning be a holding of wholeness – all the wounds and injustices and deaths as well as all the survivals and thrivings and cracking so as to let what always grows anyway grow outside imposed borders. A commitment to abundance as a political and cultural practice that does not deny the reality of scarcity. Writing things that, as B says, are about humanity about one’s humanness being institutionally erased. Toughly and tenderly, with so many curling questions.


Grateful to be thinking with you all, so have you all as touchstones.



Cheena Marie Lo is the author of the full length title A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters (Commune Editions, 2016). They currently coordinate a youth art program at California College of the Arts, and co-edit the literary journal, HOLD.
Tessa Micaela is a poet, student midwife, community herbalist, and quiet firecracker. Tessa is the author of there are boxes and there is wanting (Trembling Pillow Press, 2016) and the chapbook Crude Matter (ypolita press, 2016). Other writing has appeared in Make/shift, Dusie, Open House, Sink Review, and various other jars and corners. Tessa is a co-editor of HOLD: a journal. 
Brittany Billmeyer-Finn is a queer poet and playwright living in Northampton, MA where she is an aspiring social worker in the Smith MSW program. Her full length book, the meshes, written through the filmography of Maya Deren is out from Black Radish Books. In 2015, she directed her first play,the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts at SAFEhouse Arts in SF. She continues to investigate a queer poetics through an occult lens on various blogs. Her Tract Slabs forthcoming from Timeless Infinite Light is set in pockets, in containers, near water, in the body and is about queer love.

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