In vulnerability there is strength and truth. I remember the words of Muriel Rukeyser: ““What would happen if one woman told the truth about / her life? / The world would split open.” When I first read Arrow (Alice James Books / Carcanet Press), I connected with the transitions, movements within structure and form, and the association of family history as both; a continuum and an inextricable part of ourselves. Sumita Chakraborty brings force and precision on the page in her debut poetry collection. We conversed about memory, our love for longer poems, academia, and publishing.
Sneha Subramanian Kanta
Congratulations on your debut full-length, Sumita. How have you been?
Thank you so much! 2021 has been rough going for me so far, to be perfectly frank, so I’ve been better. But I’m writing these answers on a sunny Saturday afternoon, so today, at the very least, is looking very, very bright.
This is a time of uncertainty but also a time of reckoning and looking within ourselves. When I first picked up Arrow, I noticed the acknowledgments and was reminded of how it takes a village to build a book. I was particularly drawn towards the phrase you attribute with reverence to your sister (I hope I’m right?) “whose blood and ashes respectively I share.” What a magnificent way to honor our loved— do you want to speak about how memory influences this book; both, as a source and creation?
I’m really glad you feel reverence in that sentence. It’s a rather fraught one for me. One of the women referenced in that sentence was my sister, yes; she died in 2014, and she is the dead sister who is all over Arrow; when she was alive, our relationship was deeply hampered by domestic violence, which placed limitations on how much I could communicate with her once I’d moved out and the extent to which our relationship was always triangulated by our father’s abuse. The other woman referenced is my mother, and in many ways our relationship is a challenging one due to that same domestic abuse, particularly due to its reverberations in the forms of trauma, of role reversals in my childhood (and beyond), of differing approaches and beliefs regarding mental illness, and much more than I can fully go into here. (Or, truth be told, than I have fully delved into just broadly—I’m writing into it now for the poems in the next collection, and I’ve come to realize in doing so how very little I’ve grappled with the complexities, the pain, and the distance in that relationship.) But I truly believe that acknowledgment is a powerful thing, and for me it is tinged with exactly that sense that it is important to remember and that there is revery in remembrance.
Acknowledging their existence, acknowledging their significance, acknowledging that we share blood and ash—it’s as important to me to acknowledge those truths as it is to acknowledge the truth of the fractures in those relationships. Let me make this concrete with an example. I’ve recently learned that my father remarried after my mother. His second marriage is to a white woman, and I won’t get into how I found out, but it’s come to my attention that he never references my mother at all, and sometimes refers to Priya, my sister, as the daughter of him and this white woman. (I wrote several bad poems after I found out titled “Do You Also Beat Your White Wife?” Maybe one of them will turn out good some day!) In a way, this isn’t all that different from the way that, as a domestic abuser, he would frequently reshape the narrative of our domestic life to evade detection and perpetuate the more sinister stages in his cycle of violence. I mention all this because while I don’t often feel as though sheer visibility is the “cure” for erasure, I have long been keenly aware of the way a speaking subject who is granted authority can claim the ability to rewrite entire narratives in ways that bend to their needs and their fantasies—and I have long been invested in claiming that authority for myself, not in the interests of that kind of manipulation, but in the service of what I know to be true.
As someone inclined in that direction in my craft, I’m intrigued by poems which are lengthier. Would you please speak more about your process with reference to how you incorporate form and lineation in your poems? I’m especially looking towards how your poems play with interconnectedness, and then loop to disparate subjects with equal finesse.
It’s great to meet a fellow long poem fan! Absolutely. In the case of poems like “Marigolds” and “Dear, beloved,” which aren’t in sections, I drafted them fairly linearly. I’d add a line or two every so often, a sentence or two every so often, and so on, until I felt I’d hit the end of the story. That’s when the reshuffling came in. I’d read back through each one and kind of reverse outline them to see what was coming up when, if the transitions were there between movements (they very often weren’t—transitions, in both poetry and prose, are the things that come last for me!), if the parts were in the right place, if a figure was sustained as much as I wanted it to be or, conversely, if I’d over-flogged something. That’s where a lot of the balance between interconnectedness and difference comes into view. As for form, which I tend to prefer to think of as “shape,” and lineation—I think this is the same for me with long poems as it is with short poems. I’ll often start with an idea of a shape in mind and write my way into what I think that shape is doing (or write my way into realizing that the initial vision doesn’t ultimately serve where I’m going) and play extensively with lineation to make sure that each line is a meaning-making agent in its own right; where those steps come in the process has a lot to do with each individual poem and what it seems to need, and when.
Your poem “Basic Questions” inhabits an almost hermit crab essay structure in its entirety. I adore how you render form as fluid. When reading the poem, I had to pause, reengage, and arrive at it again as it were a letter to which I was returning. While Arrow is a book of myriad intersections, it is also a book which encapsulates a gamut of innovative multitudes. You work in academia, which may lean towards the more linear, and in my opinion, colonial prototypes. In what ways does the practice of how you liquefy form influence your work?
Thanks so much for those very kind reflections. I’m very moved by your sense of how I approach form as well as your kind words about that poem. But I need to gently push back on a few things in this question!
First of all, there’s absolutely no doubt that academia, like pretty much every other industry that I can think of in America, is built on racist, anti-Black, misogynistic, ableist, colonialist, and many, many other discriminatory and hegemonic ideologies and structures. (I’m going to speak here particularly of the United States because I believe it’s the context I’m best equipped to speak to, but my belief is that a good bit of this is more broadly relevant, especially to other Western nations that are, similarly, essentially genocidal and colonial projects.) That inescapable fact acknowledged—with gratitude for your having foregrounded it in your question itself—I’m still not sure what you mean here by “prototypes,” because even if I were to put aside my poetry writing for a moment and think only about the scholarship and philosophy that I read and am indebted to, I feel that they are far from linear and far from prototypical. There’s nothing linear or prototypical about Foucault’s History of Madness or Lorde’s Sister Outsider or Barthes’s Image-Music-Text or hooks’s Killing Rage. There’s nothing linear or prototypical about Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake or Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments or Lynne Huffer’s (a former teacher of mine, so I’m biased, but I’m also right!) Are the Lips a Grave? or José Muñoz’s Disidentifications. And to pivot back to my poetry writing, “Basic Questions” in particular is a poem that comes directly out of my more scholarly academic life—it’s based both on my experience of having a hysterectomy and on a questionnaire I found in Lucille Clifton’s spirit writing archives at Emory University (where I did my doctorate). I’m writing about the exact same materials right now for my academic book.
There is absolutely a tension in what I’m saying here that academia lays bare and asks its thoughtful participants to consider and reconsider repeatedly: is there a place in the grid-work of an industry like academia for the bits of transgressive magic that happen in some work created within it? What does it take to make those transgressive bits in such a context? Does it mean anything to have made them in such a context? But it happens that that’s a question I’m genuinely committed to considering and re-interrogating (I feel like those are exactly the questions I’d be invested in as a citizen of the United States more broadly, even if I did not work in academia), so I don’t mind living that process of interrogation in my daily life as much as I do on the page.
I guess what I’m saying is this, and it’s something I always stress to my own students (teaching being another part of working in academia, and another source, for me, of the precise opposite of the linear or the prototypical): yes, there is a lot in academia to rightfully critique, protest, and—if it’s something you don’t want at all yourself—renounce altogether. I’m not someone who thinks everyone should love academia; I fully respect that stance. But thinking of “academia” as one monolithic thing doesn’t help anyone either, and for me, the best work that happens here is the work that both critiques these entanglements and opens up new ways of thinking and feeling about them. In a way, that’s also a liquefication of form: it’s a liquefication of the deepest, most ingrained, and most brutal forms on which America relies and which the nation ceaselessly perpetuates.
There are instinctive leaps in your poems, and I particularly imagine ways in which this addition works in the prose poems “Essay on the Order of Time”, “Essay on Devotion”, “Essay on Thunder”, and “Essay on Joy”. Consider “Essay on Thunder” and the lines: “When I first copied down those sentences from Stendhal, I wrote instead of upheaval the nonword unheaval, which I now think of as upheaval’s uncompromised sibling. On the ceiling of my gynecologist’s exam room is a watercolor of a lurid hummingbird with a few centimeters of beak inside a flower.” There is a paradigm shift in tonality and image. Would you share how the idea of these leaps form the crux of a poem for you?
(The “Essay” poems are also poems that I think of as very indebted to what I find most exciting in my scholarly and academic life, by the way!) I think I’m consistently obsessed with that feeling of a leap—that exhilarating feeling that happens when you follow one train of thought for a while and it leads you to the edge of what you thought you knew, and then, suddenly, you realize you have to jump over that edge into something else you did not at all anticipate. Probably this relates to the way that transitions are always the last thing to come when I’m writing in any genre! And while I hope that feeling of surprise is present in everything I write in one way or another, for the “Essay” poems in particular, I wanted to retain those leaps without building in any of the transitions, the bridges, and so on in between those jumps; I wanted to make the jump itself as plainly evident as possible. That shift in “Essay on Thunder” happens over a break between verse paragraphs, for example. You’re following the first line of thought for a bit, and then boom: white space. When you jump over it, there’s no neat sense of how on earth you got there, or why you’re there at all. As a reader and as a writer, I get excited, confused, and excitedly confused when I find that a thought has leapt somewhere I didn’t anticipate, and I wanted to share that feeling and hopefully evoke it.
The titular poems “Arrow” embody pluralities. There is a mathematics infused in the verse, and I believe the best scientists and mathematicians are also artists. Could you speak about the usage of language here? For instance, the lines: “If X is an obstruction, / and if the poetry of X was music, / then this poem is a musical obstruction, and if this poem is a musical obstruction, / then this poem is a lullaby.” I’d love to know more about your inspirations for these stylistics in language?
Thank you! There are actually two poems titled “Arrow,” so there’s plurality baked all the way into the idea of the title poem in this book. Honestly, in part I think it’s because I legitimately get tickled when I get to play with things like that. It’s brain catnip for me.
The “Arrow” you’re referring to here is a persona poem in the voice of Nyx, the titan with whom my primary speaker often speaks when in great distress, and it’s intended as a diss track of sorts to the book’s primary speaker. See, one of the main premises of this book is that something like domestic violence within one individual family, or the death of one single girl, are monumental and seismic topics, even if they are not typically afforded the kind of attention that the monumental and the seismic receive. But another one of the main premises is that our lives consist of hundreds of scales of various sizes: “violence” doesn’t mean just one thing, and the book aims to negotiate between those various scales of pain. There are scales of pain and of violence in which my individual story of domestic violence is not monumental or seismic. So it was important to me to balance out the claiming of space with the ceding of space, and that’s where Nyx’s rebuke comes in: “Did you truly hail me / for a dim-witted conversation about love?” She’s a Titan! She doesn’t care about me. It might hurt for me to admit it, but she doesn’t care about my sister, either. And I believe that dressing-down, in turn, sets the stage for the second title poem, which returns to the voice of the primary speaker to perform what I hope(!) is one of the book’s most explicit and nuanced exploration of this problem: “Barthes called ‘I’ the pronoun of the imaginary: what is an ‘I’ to an eclipse?”
When we speak of publishing, and especially the process for writers at the helm of varied systemic prejudices, what advice would you offer? I’m aware that you operate from a path without an MFA, and I’m speaking about these experiences. I’d like more insights from you about what advice you’d have for our contributors and readers with a manuscript ready for submission?
This is a great question that’s hardly discussed enough. First, though, I should flag that I had ample privilege despite my lack of an MFA. I have a PhD, and while credentialing at a scholar while writing a book in a different genre definitely comes with its own ample challenges, I do think that my immersion in academic networks positioned me differently than someone who, for example, does not have access to or is not interested in academia. I also worked for 13 years on the editorial side of the lit world, beginning in college where I started as an intern at AGNI Magazine, where I eventually became poetry editor; I also worked for a while as art editor of At Length. It’s important for me to flag these things because these things absolutely contributed to both my profile’s legibility for potential publishers and my access to resources and to people, and I think that transparency about these kinds of privileges is of utmost importance when someone’s giving advice.
With that stated: for contributors and readers with a manuscript ready for submission, the most important thing I’d like to say is that it’s okay to query presses. I queried! I did not have the money for the contest circuit. To be honest, I also didn’t have the stomach for it. I also didn’t have the time for it; I bought myself a little time after I received my doctorate with a one-year Visiting Assistant Professorship in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department of my then-home institution, but that was not a renewable position, and I intended to go on the job market in creative writing, in literary studies, and in WGSS at the end of that year. One of the most frequent job requirements in creative writing positions—which was also a requirement for the position I have now, in which I teach both creative writing and literary studies—is a book or, at the very least, a book contract. My earliest application of that cycle (that was 2018-2019, for positions that began in September 2019) was due in September. Therefore, I needed a contract by late August 2018 or a substantial chunk of my anticipated job search would have been DOA, and I finished the book in early 2018, so I didn’t have a lot of time.
So I pitched! I came up with a list of presses I greatly admired and I inquired about whether they would be willing to review my manuscript, which I described briefly in the email, alongside a sense of why I admired them in particular (things like good experiences I’d heard from various friends who published with them, titles in their lists that I loved). I did not attach the manuscript to that first query (do not do that!), but I did make sure my website was in my signature, where I had links to the things I’d published if they were interested, and I also included a (brief!) bio. A few places declined, telling me that they only read through their contests and their open reading periods, but a surprising number of folks said yes! From there, some folks didn’t take to it and others did, and I went with Alice James because they had been on pretty much the tippy-top of my dream list for a long time. I had to withdraw the book from consideration at that time from a few other places that are also wonderful, and that felt difficult to do because I’d already asked for a favor—but no one had any ill will, and I don’t regret the decision I made in the least.
I’ve since spoken very candidly with Alice James’s editor Carey Salerno about this, because I think that I personally felt I had to have a certain amount of “cred” to pitch; I was emboldened by a string of publications in venues with large readerships and a few prizes. But Carey said that didn’t really make a difference one way or another. Yes, publications matter so that an editor can take a look around and peek at your work before committing to reading the manuscript. But you don’t need to wait for any massive signs in order to query. I believe her, in no small part because I’ve since also heard her say this to graduate students in our MFA program here at the University of Michigan—and I’ve heard many other editors say the exact same thing. And you know what, it really is a win/win scenario. Either they say yes and you get to send them your work, or they say no and you reply thanking them for their time and their courtesy and the incredible work they do at their press. Even in the case of a no, you’ve basically just taken time out of your day to compliment someone who has made books that you love—that’s unequivocally a good thing. And you can still submit to their future contests or reading periods if you want to in the future.
Thank you for sharing your fascinating insights with us, Sumita. It has been an honor to be gifted the opportunity of conversing with you.
Thank you! I’m very grateful for your close engagement with Arrow and for your interest in speaking with me.
Sumita Chakraborty is a poet, essayist, and scholar. She is the author of the poetry collection Arrow (Alice James Books (U.S.)/Carcanet Press (U.K.), 2020), which received coverage in the New York Times, NPR, and the Guardian. Sumita is Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, where she teaches in literary studies and creative writing.