10 Questions for Sumita Chakraborty
- By Franchesca Viaud
When cleaved of their fur, rabbits look like they do not come from our planet.
Perhaps they came to us, bare, from yours.
Perhaps some of you came here with these creatures, their muscle and fat
smooth around their lungs—the size of thumbs—and their eyes
protruding from their faces, like emaciated cats.
—from "Track Eight: 'Alienation of Affection,'" Volume 64, Issue 3 (Fall 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
One of the first poems I ever finished is called “Cabinet of Natural Curiosities,” and it was published at the no-longer-with-us Boxcar Poetry Review. In many ways, I consider this poem a failure; it’s not specific enough in some ways that matter to me, it’s contradictory in a way that I don’t quite jive with, and it feels to me to be scared to say what it wants to say, which it eventually only says via a quotation. As soon as it was accepted I realized how big the gulf was between what it is and what I’d wanted to do. But I don’t say that it’s a failure to be disparaging or overly critical. This poem became more important to me in the years that followed precisely because I came to feel it’d failed. For years, whenever I wanted to try something new or learn something in craft, I’d find myself itching to revise this poem. For such a long time, this poem was the room into which I went to play and to take risks; having this poem to endlessly revise without wanting exactly to make it “better” gave me a space where I could try things. This poem was hugely important to me not as a finished object, which I don’t think it ever was, but for what dwelling within it taught me, and it stayed that way from its initial publication in 2008 until around 2016 or so, through the earliest few years of drafting poems that would eventually make it into my 2020 debut, Arrow.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I like to read widely and I’m a bit of a sponge, so—although I know this is a bit of a cop-out!—the answer is truly that I have been influenced by so many writers that this answer would go on for pages and pages if I tried to give a comprehensive accounting. For The B-Sides of the Golden Records project from which the poems in this issue of Massachusetts Review come, I have been especially reading and rereading the work of Victoria Chang, Monica Ong, Alice Oswald, Franny Choi, Jane Hirschfield, Tracy K. Smith, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Jos Charles, Cathy Park Hong, and Rachel Mennies.
What other professions have you worked in?
I became financially independent quite young, so I’ve worked a lot of jobs and gigs—at farms, in food service, in care homes, in freelance editing, in tutoring, in predatory sales companies that allowed kids to work for them, at call centers, and probably some more that I’m forgetting!
What did you want to be when you were young?
Alive. Truly, I held no other aspiration until my early twenties. My childhood was dangerous, and I didn’t even quite realize I cared for poetry until college.
What inspired you to write this piece?
The five poems in this issue of Massachusetts Review are from a new project titled The B-Sides of the Golden Records. (I thought it was a short series for a long time; then I thought it was a chapbook; more recently, I’ve realized that I think it’s actually my second full-length!)
The entire project is based on NASA’s Golden Records, and the title sequence—from which these poems come—is perhaps the book’s most direct and extended engagement with that source material. NASA’s records were sent to space on the 1977 Voyager launches and were intended as a message-in-a-bottle to extraterrestrials to introduce them to human beings. For a variety of reasons—including a prohibition against explicit content, fears of the record being taken as a sign of aggression, legal and financial restrictions, and the myriad other reasons that one might surmise that a small, limited, insular committee of humans would be rather selective about how they chose to portray humanity—the Golden Records excluded a great deal regarding Earth and its inhabitants. My series inhabits those elisions while exploring the pleasures and tyrannies of the so-called “royal we.”
In this series, I imagine what the B-Sides of the records might look like. I also imagine a persona for my speaker: she is someone who has been tasked with creating those B-Sides, and she is a not-me version of me. In other words, she, like me, is a Brown, bisexual woman, but she, unlike me, has been employed by NASA to create this record, and she’s wrestling with the gap between the “we” she’s been asked to adopt and the “I” who she is. Over the course of the series, she starts to puncture the illusion of that “we” in ways that are increasingly chaotic (that’s what’s happening in “Track Nine: ‘God’” and “Hidden Track” in this issue, which are the first times that she does that in the series), and in ways that are largely motivated by the kinds of experiences she has been adding into the record (like the microaggressions depicted in “Track Six: ‘The Interrogative Mood’”).
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I am pretty obsessed with outer space. I also tend to amalgamate landscapes: I’m from New England, I lived in the Midwest for a little while, and I’ve spent a sizable chunk of my adulthood in the South due to graduate school and to the job I currently have; on top of that, I’ve always been a huge fan of long drives in places like the Badlands and the Smoky Mountains, which are two of my favorite natural parks. I think that when I write, I tend to combine these landscapes into imagined spaces that meld, also, with the traces of memory.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Not exactly, and I think that has to do with how I initially came into writing at a time when I was also working three jobs and attending school full-time. It’s a very new phenomenon in my life that I am able to have a “writing day” without sizable chunks of my time going to other things (I honestly think that this past summer, which was the first summer in which I haven’t had to teach in my entire career, was the first time I actually had “writing days”), and I’m mostly used to just grabbing scraps of time here and there and doing what I can with whatever time I have. I’m more like a scavenging animal than a creature of ritual when it comes to writing; that predilection has lingered, and at this point I’m fairly sure it’s likely to stick.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I was a pianist and a singer ages ago, and those artforms will always be close to my heart, but I wish more than anything that I could be a painter or a sculptor.
What are you working on currently?
This B-Sides of the Golden Records book is really starting to take shape, and in addition to the poems that are part of the series that is represented in this issue, I’m also working on a long sonnet crown for it as well as a series of visual poems. I’m also heavily in the thick of a scholarly book called Grave Dangers: Poetics and the Ethics of Death in the Anthropocene.
What are you reading right now?
My answer to the question of who is influencing how I write now is also an answer to this question, so I will use this space instead to shoutout three debuts that I have recently read and loved: Kweku Abimbola’s Saltwater Demands a Psalm, Ina Cariño’s Feast, and Gabrielle Bates’s Judas Goat. I am also very eagerly anticipating Jane Huffman’s Public Abstract, Ariana Benson’s Black Pastoral, and Sarah Ali’s Theophanies. I had the great good pleasure of reading Black Pastoral and Theophanies in manuscript form, and I cannot wait to see them in print.
SUMITA CHAKRABORTY is a poet and scholar. She is the author of the poetry collection Arrow (Alice James Books [U.S.]/Carcanet Press [U.K.]), which received coverage in the New York Times, NPR, and the Guardian. She is currently writing a scholarly book, Grave Dangers: Poetics and the Ethics of Death in the Anthropocene, which is under an advance contract with the University of Minnesota Press. The recipient of honors from the Poetry Foundation, the Forward Arts Foundation, and Kundiman, she is assistant professor of English and creative writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC.