The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Sumita Chakraborty about her debut collection Arrow (Alice James Books, September 2020), how poems find their own form, the challenges of maintaining energy in long poems, online learning in a pandemic, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Vijay Seshadri, Molly Spencer, Kimberly Grey, torrin a. greathouse, Erin Belieu, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Since I fanboyed over form in the piece I wrote about why we selected Arrow for the Poetry Book Club, I feel like I have to ask you—is the sestina a great form to work in, or the greatest form?
Sumita Chakraborty: Ha, I love that! With no disrespect to the sestina, I would have to just go with “great,” though, since I’ve never met a form (or an unformed form) that I don’t adore in some way, whether or not I’ve managed to write one.
Your piece was so kind, by the way. Thank you so much.
Time and attention are no small things to give by far, and I’m grateful to yours and for that of everyone in the Poetry Book Club.
Brian S: Oh it was my pleasure. I was really confused by part of it at first because the review copy I received had maybe four pages printed upside down, and I had to convince myself that that wasn’t you playing with the form as well.
Sumita Chakraborty: Oh my god! Ha. I hope the digital version clarified that. And no. I can’t promise I won’t do that in the future, but I can promise I haven’t done it yet.
Annata Tempinski: I’ll dive in with an observation/question for you, Sumita. As I read Arrow, I wondered if your dreams had/have an influence on your poems?
Sumita Chakraborty: Thanks for that question, Annata. I think that on rare occasions, they might—but more often than not, maybe .01% of a dream ends up actually useful, if that makes sense. For the most part, I don’t think they do, but I’d love to hear more about what led you to ask!
Annata Tempinski: Thank you. I think it’s the mystical quality I felt in the images and choice of words, and the way they are put together.
Brian S: What drove the decision to write that multi-sestina? I’m interested in how that came together.
Sumita Chakraborty: Sometimes, the shape of a particular poem will occur to me before any syntactic decisions do, and then it’s a matter of figuring out what exactly in language is making me think of any particular shape. That was the case there: I thought of circles and I thought of a three-part braid, and from there I decided that I was going to write a braided triple sestina. I didn’t quite know what that meant yet, but that was the notion, and I just kept stubbornly banging at it until it existed.
As I was working on it, it turned out to be really useful, because I did want the kind of revolving through-lines that a sestina affords, but I didn’t want it to only have one through-line, and I wanted to have more versatility with the number of end words—but I wasn’t willing to let myself deviate too far from the actual sestina form (with one big exception: each has two envois). What affords three times more end words than a sestina? Three sestinas!
Brian S: And the symbols that started each section, they signaled which sestina the section “belonged” to—though the poem really worked as a single poem—but they also resembled phases of the moon. Was there something going on with that as well?
Sumita Chakraborty: So, yes and no! When I originally wrote the poem, I just used dots (“.” “..” “…”). When I had my copyediting chat with the amazing crew at Alice James, I said I wasn’t wed to the dots but wanted something that showed which each one belonged to, and I asked them to roll with it! [The symbols in the finished book] are the brainchild of genius designer Tiani Kennedy.
Brian S: Nice! They’re appropriate, given how often moons appear in the rest of the book. That’s great attention to detail from your team.
Sumita Chakraborty: In retrospect, they do now have meaning for me, particularly the way they cut against the poem’s insistence on obsession with diurnal and attempt to reject its general fascination with the nocturnal. It’s like the moons, thanks to Tiani, are saying “Um, not so much.”
Brian S: Alice James is really an excellent publisher.
Sumita Chakraborty: Oh my god, I couldn’t sing their praises more highly. They are an absolute dream. Carcanet Press, over in the UK, has been wonderful as well. I feel terribly fortunate.
Brian S: I usually wait until later in the chat to ask this, but since you posted your schedule for events on Twitter earlier today, and it’s lengthy, what’s it like trying to launch a poetry collection in the middle of a pandemic.
(I’m assuming we’re now in the middle and not still in the early stages. Hope springs eternal?)
Sumita Chakraborty: Oh god, that’s the dream. Well, beginning, middle, and end really do collapse on themselves sometimes.
Brian S: Time stopped having meaning in March.
Annata Tempinski: Yes, all of us waiting and wanting to cross over from the alternate universe.
Sumita Chakraborty: Yeah, it’s strange! The thing is that I don’t have much to compare it with since I’m a debut author. That said, I was honestly genuinely looking forward to traveling, to meeting and connecting with audiences, etc., and there are definite sadnesses involved in the shift. At the same time, I’m grateful for the ways in which this has prompted me to reimagine what a tour could even look like.
As one example: I reached out to the Boston-based organization Asian Domestic Violence Taskforce, which allowed me to run a workshop with their staff members who are doing amazing work advocating for people suffering from or escaping domestic abuse, which as any reader of Arrow would know, is pretty close to my heart. As is Boston, where I’m from!
I would likely not have been able to afford to take the extra travel and lodging time to do that in a traditional tour. So, I’m moved by the opportunities this new landscape affords to take stock of what I am now able to do with my time and comparatively limited resources.
Brian S: That’s amazing, and that sort of thing is something I hope author events will continue doing once we’re back to doing in-person events, putting on online events alongside in-person event.
Sumita Chakraborty: I hope so, too! It’s certainly something I’m going to make sure to keep prioritizing.
Annata Tempinski: Tell us more about the Eurydice, Icarus, and some of the other mythological references in your writing.
Sumita Chakraborty: Sure! Since there are so many, I’ll start by saying something rather general, and then if there’s something more specific you have in mind I’m happy to speak to it.
I think for me the mythological or myth-adjacent references in the book come from two main wellsprings. The first is that my own coming-into-self really did take place through—as nerdy as this sounds—philosophy and the arts, especially though not exclusively the language arts. My own sense of self-worth was contemporaneous with my own realization that I was pretty fond of these materials. So as I think about any way in which I can write anything adjacent to a “bildungsroman” or even more broadly an autobiography, there’s no version of me that doesn’t entwine that with those sorts of referents.
The other main thing is that an ongoing preoccupation of mine is the fact that individual griefs feel massive to individual people, and often, I firmly believe they should be honored as such. My own experience with domestic violence, my own sister’s death, and so on, are huge to me. At the same time, I’m often haunted by the problem of scale. On a macro scale—or even on the scale of anyone else’s life—they don’t matter.
So when I think about my sister’s death, for example, I think about Nyx, the Greek Titan of night! But what would Nyx think about me? Nothing, as I imply in a persona poem near the end of the book! Probably absolutely nothing at all. (Possibly “Why are you talking to me?”) The mythic becomes one way in which I walk on and interrogate that line and those simultaneous disjunctions.
Did that help at all?
Annata Tempinski: Yes, thank you for sharing the personal aspects of your work, and how those manifest. It is enlightening to recognize and be aware of a world view of beliefs.
Brian S: And that’s so different from the way Christianity in particular asks believers to define their relationships to God.
Sumita Chakraborty: Right, absolutely!
Brian S: Christians are supposed to see God as Father, who has His eye on not just you, but even the sparrow, and He cares about what happens to you. So to be faced with a god (or a universe) who probably doesn’t even notice you is a very different experience
Sumita Chakraborty: I have a student here at U-M who does brilliant work around some of those questions you’re asking about Christianity, Brian.
Brian S: I read Greek and Roman mythology a ton as a kid, something my Jehovah’s Witness parents didn’t know about because they wouldn’t have approved, and I was always struck by the sense that most humans in those stories would have done damn near anything to avoid contact with a god, because it never ended well for them.
Sumita Chakraborty: Ha, that’s awesome. Yeah, I was raised around Hinduism, but I was not and am not religious. I’m just someone who likes thinking a lot about how the stars don’t give a crap about me even though I give a whole lot of a crap about them.
Brian S: I haven’t been religious in a very long while but the stuff that gets into you when you’re a kid is kind of hard to shake sometimes
Sumita Chakraborty: Ain’t that the truth! I could have just written that single line and replaced the entire book with it!
Annata Tempinski: I like how you put that, about the stars, Sumita!
Brian S: The triple sestina isn’t the only long poem in this book to say the least. I was really impressed by the way you’re able to maintain so much energy though seven, eight or more pages. Is that the length you prefer, or did that just happen for this book?
Sumita Chakraborty: Thanks so much for that. It’s kind of hilarious—I used to swear I’d never write long. In part this is because one of my earliest teachers was Lucie Brock-Broido, who used to hilariously tease and more or less ban poems that “required a staple.” Sorry, LB2.
I won’t say that long is necessarily my favorite; I do love long poems, but I don’t really have a preferred length. This is likely an unsatisfactory answer, but it’s the only one I’ve been able to summon whenever asked something like this: the poem tells you how long it needs to be. Mine did! Some of the poems in there are two lines long.
Brian S: I was in a workshop once where the professor limited us to one page, double-spaced. I don’t even write all that long and wow, that was some bullshit.
Sumita Chakraborty: Oof, that sounds rough. I should say that Lucie’s approach wasn’t limiting in the least! In her poems, she can make searing cathedrals out of three words and an em-dash. But she never expected anyone to write like her, either (and thank god—who could?). Just something funny I laugh about now.
Brian S: Is it just one of those things where you get going in a draft and at some point you’re like, “welp, this one’s going to be long”?
Sumita Chakraborty: “Marigolds” was supposed to be a bad sonnet that I kept in a drawer addressed to Robert Lowell. I was actually trying to write some critical scholarship about him at the time and I had some other thoughts that weren’t helping with that, so I was like, okay, I’m going to put these thoughts down and get them out of my pipes. Oops.
“Dear, beloved” was a bit different in that I had a sense that I wanted it to be massive; I was picturing a huge monument to my sister. But even then, I didn’t know how massive that would be. It would have been plenty of a big rectangle just at three pages. But it did not feel like being three pages.
Brian S: I noticed when I revisited the book this afternoon that it runs in fourteen-line segments, four tercets and a couplet, repeating. But it wasn’t a crown, and there were some internal repetitions that made me wonder if I should dust off my Princeton and see if it’s a form I hadn’t heard of before (which would not be unusual).
Sumita Chakraborty: Thank you for noticing! No, it isn’t a crown, and it isn’t a niche form. It’s just written in a pattern of sonnets over and over until it gasps to an end. 🙂
Brian S: That’s a form I think Merrill would have appreciated.
Sumita Chakraborty: Thanks for saying so, not least because I rag on him lightly, albeit lovingly, in that poem! I do think he would have liked that I just put a smiley face next to the phrase “gasps to an end” when describing it.
Annata Tempinski: There’s an image of a piano in more than one of the poems in the book. Can you speak to that for us?
Sumita Chakraborty: Yes! It’s a rare moment of pretty direct referentiality. I played classical piano for many, many years.
I stopped when I moved, out of a lack of resources and time. Essentially I made a bit of a choice about whether I’d use what little time I had for literature or what little time I had for music. I picked literature, and while I do sometimes miss music, I think I got to have my cake and eat it too that way.
Annata Tempinski: Ah! That is a talent to be missed for sure. I played violin through elementary and high school, and abandoned playing for college. So, I share in missing making music.
Sumita Chakraborty: Annata, no joke, I had plans to learn the violin this past spring.
It was the first time since then that I anticipated having the resources, space, time, etc. to be able to learn a new instrument, which made more sense to me than going back to piano.
Annata Tempinski: Wow! Keep the plan open.
Sumita Chakraborty: Thanks, ‘rona. These are champagne problems—or small violin problems (pun intended!)—to be sure, but it’s a small sadness of mine. Plan is definitely still open!
Brian S: What poems do you tend to favor when you’re doing readings? Do you have like a set list yet?
Sumita Chakraborty: Brian, it really depends on the length of the reading, as I’m sure you can imagine!
The amazing Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham, UK brought me out there last year and I did one short reading and then one full reading of “Dear, beloved,” which remains one of my favorite experiences to this day. In pre-virtual times I’ve also done a full reading of “Marigolds,” which I love. Virtually, the only long poem I’ve been able to sneak in is “Windows,” which actually reads faster aloud than it appears on the page due to how fragmented it is.
I usually let my mood tell me where to go, but in the first couple of specifically book readings what I’ve often been doing is taking one from the beginning (“Quiver,” an “O Spirit” or two), one from the middle, and the persona poem “Arrow” (not the long poem) and “O.”
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Anything we should have our eyes out for in the future?
Sumita Chakraborty: Some new releases that I’m loving are: Aricka Foreman’s Salt Body Shimmer, Craig Santos Perez’s Habitat Threshold, Eduardo Corral’s Guillotine, Nate Marshall’s Finna, francine j. harris’s Here Is the Sweet Hand, and Shane McCrae’s Sometimes I Never Suffered. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just the most recent passel, every one of them a gem. I’m also working on some critical scholarship about Lucille Clifton, so it’s a joy to have her in my ears and mind as ever.
Brian S: I’ve read Finna and Here Is the Sweet Hand and Deluge, and the others are on my list, though I need to recover a little from the Sealey Challenge. And there’s even less time for reading now, with classes back in session for everyone in the house.
Sumita Chakraborty: Next year, Rachel Mennies and Cortney Lamar Charleston have new books out and I couldn’t possibly be more excited.
Brian S: Can’t wait for those books. My kids start virtual school next Tuesday, and they’re six, so that’s going to be a lot.
Sumita Chakraborty: Oh my god, I’ve been reading the tweets in horror. I would have been a meme if I was being virtually schooled as a child.
Brian S: I have a strict rule against posting pictures of my kids online, but that could certainly happen to mine otherwise. Or me, for that matter.
Sumita Chakraborty: I just moved last Sunday and our semester started Monday, so I wasn’t able to do the Sealey Challenge this year!
I keep thinking about one where the teacher locked herself out of her Zoom and all the kids took turns yelling I’M THE TEACHER NOW. Admirable chaotic good energy over there.
Brian S: I’m so glad I’m not teaching synchronously. My wife is, and it’s a lot already.
Sumita Chakraborty: Yeah, I’m doing a combo synchronous/asynchronous, because both of my classes are supposed to be three-hour meetings once per week and a three-hour Zoom sounds hideous. So, I’m doing a shorter synchronous time and then asynchronous stuff. We will all definitely merge with our computers and become a sci-fi cautionary tale, but at least we won’t go gently into that Zoom night.
Brian S: I’m thinking about all the years I’ve been listening to “parenting experts” talk about limiting screen time for your kids and now my first-grade twins are going to be online for six-plus hours a day!
Sumita Chakraborty: Hell, according to the scolding alerts my phone gave me before I turned them right off, even for adults our screen use is up to a probably problematic 257% more than before.
Brian S: Turning them off is good. I just swap between multiple devices so none of them seem too terrible individually.
Thanks so much for joining us this late on a Friday. Best of luck with the book and with your semester!
Sumita Chakraborty: My great pleasure, Brian, truly! Thanks so much for this, and thanks to everyone in the book club for spending time with Arrow; I’m genuinely moved and grateful. Same to you!
Photograph of Sumita Chakraborty by Ashley Chupp.