FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
SUMITA CHAKRABORTY: I love how practical Seamus Heaney’s take on this question is in “Digging”: “I’ll dig with it.” I feel an affinity with the way “Digging” describes poetry as one of many forms of labor. It is the way I best know how to reshape and explore the world. I realized this while doing my bachelor’s degree at Wellesley College; then, writing and studying poetry became the most important things in my life, and I decided to make them my trade.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
SC: Many poets I have long admired—including some that are in my personal pantheon—have been shortlisted for and recipients of Forward Prizes. I’m humbled, honored, and so profoundly moved.
FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
“And death demands a labor” took about three years to get right. It’s an imagined elegy, and one of the things that was most challenging was figuring out how much of it should be directly in that mode, and how much of it should step outside of the elegiac and through other doors. The funny thing is, after having hassled at it unsuccessfully for years, one evening I walked back into my apartment after a full and ordinary day, sat down on my bed, and rewrote it in a single go. I remember it very clearly. That version ended up near complete, with only a word or two to tweak in revision. So compositionally, it was both very slow going and very swift. The process reminds me of how I imagine a sculptor might feel about their planning sketches and their maquettes in relation to the object that comes from them.
I have recently completed my first collection, O Spirit, which is under consideration—fingers crossed! “And death demands a labor” isn’t actually in it, but it very nearly was, because it’s most certainly preoccupied with similar things. In “Writing Off the Subject,” Richard Hugo writes that each poem has two subjects: a subject that initiated the poem and a subject the poem comes to have through being written. (To me, that’s a conservative estimate!) I think that “And death demands a labor” very much speaks to some of the initiating subjects of O Spirit, which is part of why the last thing I did to the collection was to remove the poem itself from it, but also why they share some very guttural obsessions.
In North America, “And death demands a labor” was published in the online journal Adroit before PN Review in the UK. Beyond this poem: my collection has four long poems, and three of them have been published, one in At Length and two in POETRY. One of the long poems that was published in POETRY, “Dear, beloved,” was also recently published in the UK in New Poetries VII. Most recently, four of my poems have just been published in The Rumpus, just a few weeks ago. All four of the poems in The Rumpus are from O Spirit. My website and Twitter/Facebook feeds are good places to peek for past and new work.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SC: My first three teachers were Frank Bidart, Dan Chiasson, and Lucie Brock-Broido. I met Frank and Dan at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where I did my bachelor’s, and Lucie in the summer workshop she held at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I think that all three of them will always be the poets I admire the most. I respect them and their work beyond belief, and they were my first examples of contemporary poets.
Some of the first poets I felt I really loved were Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Jean Toomer, Sappho, John Berryman, John Milton, John Keats, Robert Lowell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Carson, James Schuyler, Wallace Stevens, and Rainer Maria Rilke (from whom I’ve taken the phrase that gives “And death demands a labor” its title).
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think that influence is aggregate, so I would say all of these remain influences for me today. Contemporary writers to whom I am indebted for all they have taught me include Layli Long Soldier, Carl Phillips, Joshua Bennett, Maggie Nelson, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Alice Oswald, Tracy K. Smith, Terrance Hayes, and Hanif Abdurraqib. Among, of course, many others. I like to remain open to being educated by the world and the writers within it, and many writers teach me things on a daily basis. What I value the most in the work of poets I admire is that they reshape my sense of what is possible.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
SC: I’ve begun some poems that reach toward a second collection. I’m interested in playing even more with personae and voices, and to push myself to engage more with storytelling; I don’t tend to gravitate toward narrative, usually preferring the more lyric or the more elliptical, but I’d like to see what happens if I really set out to write poems that more explicitly tell stories. Terrance Hayes’s visual art has also recently challenged me to think more about the vast range of forms that thought and feeling can take, and I feel that they’re teaching me something about what I want to push my work toward next, although I can’t put a very fine point on what that “something” is quite yet.
On that note, I’ll tell you a secret. Several years ago, I wrote many drafts of a verse play, and I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about playwriting at Kenyon’s Playwright’s Conference. I ended up cannibalizing those drafts for poems, but I want to try again; I’ve lately begun dusting off the notes I took in the lectures and workshops there. One of my likely wildly improbable dreams is to write a play.
My scholarship is also very important to me as a poet. Philosophical, theoretical, and critical texts are huge influences and sources of inspiration for me. So I’m also very excited about my first academic book project, provisionally titled The Poetics of Ethics in the Anthropocene, which is on what lyric rhetoric can teach us about ecological ethics, as well as about ecology’s many sociopolitical entanglements and about ethics more broadly.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SC: I hope that I’ll always feel, one way or another, like I’m “starting out.” There is so much to know, so much to learn, and so much to try. I recently spent a lot of time with Tracy K. Smith’s body of work for an essay, and I keep thinking about how so often she’ll insist on the smallness of human beings, and the even greater smallness of a single human being’s knowledge, like in “Us & Co.” from Life on Mars, in which she writes: “We are here for what amounts to a few hours, // a day at most.” I think one of the fears I hear often from my students is that they are eager and anxious for some moment in the future in which they’ll feel like they finally know enough, are finally good enough, are finally secure enough. I empathize with all of these fears, especially the last one, and especially as lived experiences. But it inspires and excites me to think of how there will always be more to know and more to do than I will ever have known or ever have done. It motivates me to try new things—to always be starting out on something. There’s an interview of Smith’s in the Iowa Review where she describes writing as “moving toward what I don’t know.” I hope that I keep valuing this sensation of being unmoored and having a lot to learn in the cosmos, and I hope that people starting out in poetry might realize that they are not alone in the sensation of “starting out,” and that there is much to value and love in it.