We conducted this interview via email. I’ve known Sumita for about six years now, ever since a poem she sent me for At Length — “Marigolds” — turned into a friendship and then, for a while, a partnership: Sumita signed on as art editor for At Length in late 2016 and ran it until the spring of 2019, when she stepped away from both that role and her role as poetry editor at AGNI. But in spite of that, we’ve only met in person once, and so our friendship has always been written, which seems to suit us.
In our conversation, Sumita talked about the “miracle of speaking and being heard,” which she feels keenly as someone who has been muted by violence and who has a high regard for language’s power — the “live wires” it allows us to grasp. We dug into the ways she imagined and honed the book’s arrowed arc, as well as candor, formality, violence, precision, power, literary kinship, and the lifelong work of trying to become a better person.
Sumita Chakraborty is Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and she’s currently working on her first scholarly book, tentatively titled Grave Dangers: Death, Ethics, and Poetics in the Anthropocene, while also writing new poems, too. It took us almost four months to finish our conversation, as life and death intervened in between quick bursts of back and forth. And yet, as has always been my experience of her, Sumita’s presence, from wherever she was, always seemed immediate and total the moment we resumed.
JONATHAN FARMER: You once told me that “we’re holding live wires” when it comes to language. Would you mind talking a little about what that means for you — and how that awareness affects you (if at all) when you’re working on your poems?
SUMITA CHAKRABORTY: Language is the farthest thing from “inert” in the world. We use language to make laws, to tell stories that become parts of our cultural consciousnesses, to structure relationships between things (and, in doing so, codify or disturb those relations). Language can conceive nation-states and can unravel them; language is how we start conflicts and create cease fires; language is how we pronounce people married or deceased. As writers, our materials are objects that make things happen, and their potential to do so never disappears.
As for what this means for me when I’m writing: my answer will maybe sound quite small potatoes, but where it may well disappoint due to its modesty I hope it makes up for in accuracy! I like to start from a place of recognizing that I’m as imbricated in the war games of language as anyone else, which means that my reflexive, instinctive ways of rendering any one thing might involve having reached for something harmful, even inadvertently. So especially when I’m revising, what I’m often doing is staging a conversation with every single word and phrase. The goal here isn’t to try to purify myself of the harms of each morsel of language (there’s plenty in Arrow, especially in the first section, that wrestles directly with ways of thinking that are at odds with where my own ethics presently reside) but to gently investigate, on a cellular level, what wires are sparking and whether the fires I’ve made are the ones that I mean. And to ask myself: is a certain word or a phrase in use here because of how I’ve been taught — whether by hegemonic structures or otherwise — to portray that thing, or is it there because it sparks a connection that hits close to the emotional core of what I’m going for, whether savory or not?
You frequently mess with words. Arrow has alternate definitions, false etymologies, flawed syllogisms … But it doesn’t read as a retreat from language’s power or potentials. The poems are sometimes elusive, but never — to my mind — evasive. And they don’t, at least not apparently, hesitate in constructing their own power and authority. Does that have any connection (assuming you agree with what I’ve said; if not, I’d love to hear about your disagreement) to what you described above?
Yes, absolutely. And it’s something I always wrestle with, too — for example, in “Marigolds,” the speaker’s furious desire to build a space for herself in the world ends up warped through a version of “power” and “authority” that I don’t stand by in my present life, what with her metaphors of colonization and her language of ownership. The same is true at the end of “Quiver.” Some of the subsequent short “O Spirit” poems express a livid desire to inflict damage as a way to compensate for the damage that the speaker has experienced. I went back and forth and back and forth on whether I’d try to revise those moments out. But it’s like I said earlier: the goal isn’t to try to purify myself of the harms of each morsel of language. I’m not trying to pretend I am a static, virtuous creature. I don’t entirely like the fires I spark in those lines, but they are the fires that hit close to the ones my mind and heart felt. In Arrow, it was important to me — as a writer a survivor of violence — to admit that I haven’t always lit the fires that I’d light now. Being responsible to the way that language does things also means, for me, taking accountability for the things I have done with it, and telling the story of how those impulses have (hopefully) grown and transformed. And those constant shifts are also a part of what I’m aiming for with those alternate definitions, false etymologies, and flawed syllogisms. (Which makes me all the happier that you don’t perceive them as evasive!)
I’d like to talk some more about that speaker. I’m assuming, both from your answer above and from my experience of the book, that she’s a version of you (but let me know if that’s unwarranted or unwelcome). That matters to me for a variety of reasons. Some have to do with my own idiosyncrasies, but it also helps me to think about the speaker’s tendencies. The book is relentless in its figuration — maybe “transfiguration” is a better word. A relentless blossoming, an inability or unwillingness to let things sit, so that even the hunger for beauty can feel reckless and wild. Could you talk about that restlessness, about what you see driving it for you/her?
I’m a huge fan of that etymological link between figuration and transfiguration, so I love that you brought it up! Yes, the speaker is absolutely a version of me, although probably a better way to put it would be that the speaker is a composite creation of specific aspects of my biography, my intertexts, my kinships, my psychology, and my patterns of thought and feeling. I mention that because it speaks to your question: in this book in particular, what’s most prominently driving that restlessness is precisely that desire to move from being someone who can say something like “To help myself rise in the morning, I make a promise. / Someday, I will cause as much pain as I feel” to being someone who can say, “O, world, you have me, and I do love you, and I do feel devotion toward you.”
As a survivor (I hate that word) of abuse and domestic violence, I know intimately how deeply both can reshape someone in ways that make what should be the most gorgeous things in the world — love, community, care — into zones of treachery, into things that seem frankly mythological or inaccessible, and into weapons. But part of the reason I hate the word “survivor” is because I insist on more than it. And to move toward what I insist upon, I had to transfigure myself and to watch how much relentless transfiguration structures the world around me, what possibilities it can offer.
I insist on being a better person than I was slated to be by what was done to me. I insist on having a fuller, more vibrant, more capacious sense of the universe and everything in it than what I was beaten and tormented into accepting for so long. I insist on demanding more from and for myself. I insist, to put it simply, on being able to say, “O, world.” And that is, in a way, so reckless and so wild. I’m 33 now. I was around 25 when I wrote some of the first semi-decent poems that would eventually lead toward this book. I lived in an abusive household until my mid-teens. That means that when I started conceptualizing what would later become this book, I had been severely abused for more than half of my life. Somewhere in there, I had to make the decision to look at what had only caused me agony and its siblings — and to look at myself, who had truly only felt agony and its siblings — and think: I can reimagine this. I can reimagine me.
That’s extraordinary. Were you aware of that potential arc when you wrote the earlier poems? Was the aspiration already there? And if not, did you try to revise toward it later on, once it had become apparent to you?
My instinctive answer to you is Oh, god no. I think that’s a bit disingenuous in the end because I didn’t ever try to send out the versions of the book (and there were many) that did not have that arc; I knew there was something that the manuscript was missing, something that I was missing. But I think the reason my instinctive answer is Oh, god no is that I don’t want to give off the impression that I had this whole journey under control the entire time. Learning my way toward the arc was a long, wobbly, nonlinear journey riddled with discarded things, because no, I didn’t quite try to revise the earlier poems into something that would fit the arc either — I left a lot on the cutting-room floor instead.
Is there a place in there — the writing, revising, arranging — where you’re thinking about an audience and what this might do to or for someone who might read it? Maybe something you’ve gotten from poems that you hope these poems might give to someone else? Or is the reaching after what seems to be missing too large and confounding for that?
I’ve thought for a long time about this question. When I was a child, it was very clear to me — and in fact, it was precisely and demonstrably true — that if I shared anything about my experience of domestic violence, either I or someone I loved would be badly hurt and their lives threatened. There’s a line early in Arrow about how my earliest interests in abstraction came from this real-world material knowledge that there was, literally, more safety in obscurity. Accordingly, for a long time I couldn’t think of “audience” without thinking of this threat, and for me to write anything that felt even remotely emotionally precise, I had to not think about readers at all. Over time, that shifted substantially (although I don’t imagine readers when I’m freely drafting ever, because it really feels like that dream where you show up to school in your underwear, and then drafting feels more like running around trying to find pants than actually making anything at all) and I did come to think about readers quite a bit. In part that’s because that material danger had decreased, but, more importantly, it is because I was very fortunate to find friendships and communities that helped me radically rewrite what I thought an “audience” could be beyond adversarial violence, and to have my work encounter readers.
Still, I think it’s important for every writer to have a nuanced and careful understanding of what “audience” means for them, and to make sure that relationship is one that they imagine as fulfilling and significant. I recently attended a conversation between Alice Oswald and Teju Cole, and Oswald (whose work, as you know, I absolutely adore) spoke about how we have an obligation to think of what we owe to our readers. I do think this is incredibly important — after all, we’re holding live wires! But I think that for many writers of color, for example, an amorphous sense of “readers” can be harmful, particularly when defined by white supremacist thought. Similarly, I think of subjects like domestic violence or PTSD or hysterectomies, which misogynistic and ableist thought would have us believe that no one wants to hear about. So I consider, instead, the lessons I’ve learned from, say, Danez Smith’s work, which is brilliant on the question of who is the “we” and the “you” of any particular poem or book, and is a glorious example of the colossal power and value of saying: You may be here, but you’re not my “you.”
But we do have kinships, as both Oswald’s and Smith’s work also shows. I feel dizzyingly lucky to have people who I consider kin, and those people — whether they read me or not! — are the people I feel I owe something to. And what I hope I might be able to give them boils down to Audre Lorde’s argument that there are “no new ideas,” only “new ways of making them felt.” I hope that someone who has shared any of the ideas or the feelings in the book might find here a new (or a newly resonant) way to inhabit them, or an arrangement of feeling that resonates with something they had only privately sensed before and didn’t know they had company in.
This doesn’t really mean I necessarily try to make things readily comprehensible (for example, a single stanza 12-page elegy isn’t exactly “easy reading,” and I knew that and went for it anyway because I wanted to share something about the experience of grief through the form of that poem), but it does mean that I care about what I am offering and trust that care will be offered back to it. And yes, sometimes it also means I withhold a poem from publication until it can circulate in a specific way — like that “O Spirit” poem I mentioned earlier? “To help myself rise in the morning, I make a promise. / Someday, I will cause as much pain as I feel”? I never sent that poem out for consideration to literary magazines, because I didn’t feel right about it circulating without the book to offer context! So the shape and the praxis of the care also takes as much nuanced intentionality as the consideration of the audience does.
I wonder how those moments when you explicitly address and imagine an audience fit into this. There’s something about the way you seem to be shifting away from that impulse toward transfiguration, and into a kind of candor, that feels especially charged. I realize that, in one sense, it’s all imaginary: you don’t know the actual reader you imagine in those places; the move toward apparent candor is another transformation; etc. But I also find them very persuasive. I’m convinced of your presence there, and of your desire to explain something to someone else. Do you remember where those came from?
I think those came from exactly the impulse you describe. Despite — or rather, in addition to! — all of my own personal and sociopolitical experiences and beliefs about readers and the dangers and blessings they carry, I’m also invested in the idea that a book is a public document. A social document, as you’d say — and you know much more about that subject than I do! (Reader: please check out Jonathan’s amazing book of criticism, That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems.) Maybe every public document is to some extent, which is why I thought of the reader there, in that parenthetical, in the middle of this conversation between you and me. A poem, and a book of poems, opens a door for readers to come on in and nestle up, and there are often moments, both when I wrote the poems individually and when I put together the collection, where I felt an overwhelming need to get the visitor a chair, or ask them not to sit in a particular place (not a thing I would ever do when actually hosting anyone — you can sit on the counter if it suits you for all I care — but pretty relevant to a book!), or get them a drink or a snack. A moment of acknowledging their presence and trying to level with them one-on-one, even if I have no real sense of who their “one” might be.
Even as you play with definitions, even as you roll through these wild transformations, even as you level with the reader, there’s a persistent formality in the language of these poems: a kind of propriety, or authority — a tendency to avoid contractions, for example. Do you have a sense of how that fits in with these other impulses?
Yeah, that’s something I’m really playing with in my new work; in my “Image” series of hysterectomy visual poems, for example, or my “B-Sides of the Golden Records” poems, I’m playing with new tones that have more of a capacity for informality, contractions and slang included. I think for Arrow, the tone has a lot to do with my persistent obsession with Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” On the one hand this is always an idea that lingers with me, usually when I think about form proper (as in shape and structure). But for Arrow, the idea resonated not only with form but with a version of formality in the sense that I felt a certain solemnity when I thought about these particular “aftermaths.” I’m not sure about propriety and authority, which aren’t very much my jam (although I can see how they’d reverberate in a particular way!). Rather, it was more the cadence of epics and of ancient dramas of war that resonated with how I felt that particular version of solemnity. And those cadences resonated with the syntax and the diction of the poems as much as they resonated with their tropes and themes. When I listened for the voice in which these particular poems in Arrow spoke, those are the sounds I heard.
As for how this solemnity fits into these obsessions with redefining, with transforming, and with leveling with readers, I think that what I’d have to say is this: when writing this particular arc — this particular story — I felt my own language redefined and transformed by the experiences and the pain of which I spoke, and the truest way I could share that with readers was to ensure that my efforts to be emotionally precise extended all the way down into every cell and molecule of what I gave them.
I’d love to end with that idea of precision. The second of the two title poems opens with, among other things, a concern about falseness, which it associates with loneliness. It’s a poem that pays a lot of attention to wonder, to the marvel of even the worst that can happen, but one that continues to play with meanings, too. And my sense is that all of that is deeply connected here — that those risks and opportunities, the potential overlaps between wonder, figuration, accuracy, and connection, are at the many-chambered heart of this book. And so: At least within the context of Arrow, how do you understand what it means to be precise? In a realm of relentless figuration, how do you distinguish true from false?
I think I’m drawn to precision over truth (at least in an analytical or a critical context) because the rhetoric of “truth” has been mobilized as ineffectively and at times as harmfully as the rhetoric of falseness. And because truth feels singular to me, in contrast to the plurality and capaciousness I hear in precision (although obviously that’s just a deeply personal relationship I have to both words; I can see the exact opposite being true for someone else). Being able to be specific in a way in which I can share myself — what I think about, what I’ve been through, what I want to see and do and feel — with another person and, even more, to be heard: that’s such a marvel to me. I grew up not even being safe enough to scream. And now I can say: I feel like this string of moths. I think about love all the time. When I was here, I was scared. When I left, I was furious. Here’s what it felt like for me to grieve. It’s an actual miracle to me. It’s not where I thought my life would lead me for a very long time.
And in my newer work, along with that more conversational tone I’m playing with at times, I feel finally free to be able to say things that are also mundane in a way that didn’t feel precise for the subject matter of Arrow at all, even though the subject matter of the new poems is also not really any “lighter.” I drank apple juice on this log once. I had a crush on Brigitte Bardot. Animal crackers are kind of weird. They suit the topics and the feelings for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on yet but feels entirely right. And that’s what I mean about the word “precision”: it’s not about some abstract sense of what one should or has to say, but about getting really to the bone of what words feel like the only ones that could possibly suit any given feeling or topic, whether those words are “apple juice” or “visio.” In precision I feel in the presence of a door to that miracle of speaking and being heard, and of listening and absorbing both what I have to say and what others have to say. A door to be able to walk right to the heart of something that matters to me and then hand it to someone else.
Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the poetry editor and editor in chief of At Length. He teaches middle and high school English, and he lives in Durham, North Carolina.