Rapid-Fire With

Sumita Chakraborty

November, 2017


Can you tell us your favorite
With the sole exception of sports teams, I am hideous at picking favorites. I apologize in
advance for what is about to happen.

Any kind of nut, all kinds of cheese, lamb vindaloo, fish tacos, dark beers (do liquids count?), bagels, coffee (sure hope they do), zucchini bread, every possible kind of hot sauce or spicy condiment, black beans with yellow rice, lentils, pistachio pastries, everything that could possibly be done with a sea creature (especially things to do with oysters, or any kind of sushi), tartare, beets, eggplants, mustard greens, turnips, waffles—

—oh, no. I thought food was tough. (Although they may not be dissimilar: my friend Melissa Green once described color to me as a vitamin.) All of the blues, the greens, the pinks, lavender, black; I think mauve gets an unfairly bad reputation; of the yellows and oranges I prefer the brassier over the neon or the faded; most reds are good; gray (especially charcoal); I haven’t even gotten into subcategories and strange combinations, and now I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s phrase from “The Fish”: “everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”

Fictional character:
I thought I’d be pithier here because so much of my reading life is non-narratively based, and although I love movies and TV, I have a strangely difficult time recalling them when asked for recommendations. But: No-Face from Spirited Away, Bishop’s version of Robinson Crusoe, Omar from The Wire, Moby-Dick, Alice Oswald’s version of Tithonus, Ai’s Salomé, Calvino’s Marco Polo and Kubla Khan, Issa Rae and Molly in Insecure,  Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder, Milton’s Satan, all of Lucille Clifton’s speakers, Faith from Buffy, Freddie Mercury and Bjork and Prince (no one knew or knows personae like Freddie Mercury and Bjork and Prince), and, and, and . . .

The thing about movies (and TV) is that what I want to see and what I remember having seen are so dependent on the mood and tone of any given moment in which I am asked, and how that lines up with the mood and tone of the moment in which I saw the movie or show. It’s more like craving than preference. The first “serious movies” I ever saw were Casablanca and Psycho, and they’ll always mean a lot to me—not only are they fabulous, but they also made me feel for the first time like I understood what people meant when they spoke about film with reverence. I once wrote about Melancholia, so I watched it four times in about a twelve-hour period; that memory will be impossible to shake. The previous two sentences, though, are ones that I may have written entirely differently if I were responding to this on another day or in another time. In the last year or so, standouts for me have been Get Out, Moonlight, Fences, and The Big Sick. 

I’m so sorry, I can’t answer this one at all.
What I can say is that I’ve been reading the Words That Matter feature on Medium—which is a series in which people pick and write about a word that defines 2017. (One of the things I like about it is that each writer has to pick only one word, but the huge number of arrayed and assembled voices underscore the importance of plurality.) I’ve so far especially loved Eve Ewing on violence, Hanif Abdurraqib on resilience, and Michael Harriot on whiteness. I think for me, the word for 2017—in the full range of its benefits and its challenges—would be vulnerability.

If you had to have a one-word bio, what would it be for you?

Earliest poetic influences, and current poetic influences?
My first three teachers were Frank Bidart, Dan Chiasson, and Lucie Brock-Broido; I met Frank and Dan at Wellesley College, where I did my BA, and Lucie in the workshop she holds in the summers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. All three of them were my earliest influences, both because I admire them and their work, and also in no small part because they were my first living—breathing, talking, laughing, chatting, joking, despairing, etc., etc.—examples of poets in the flesh and in the present day. And, unlike the poets whose readings I attended when I first began to know that such a thing existed, they were also in proximity.

Some of the first poets I felt I really loved were Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Jean Toomer, Sappho, John Berryman, John Milton, Robert Lowell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Carson, James Schuyler, Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke. 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, Joshua Bennett, Maggie Nelson, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Alice Oswald. I think the other arts (especially painting and sculpture, and music—as a child I trained in classical piano and voice, and hip hop, R&B, rap, soul, and pop are parts of my everyday soundtrack) and other modes of writing (especially philosophy and theory) are really important to me, too.

Honestly, I’m a bit of a sponge. I like to be open to the influence of any kind of thing. The plus side to vulnerability.

What are you currently reading?
I recently dwelt with Frank Bidart’s Half-Light for a long time, which is a book that means a lot to me; I spoke about it here. I’ve just gotten and begun Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. I’m slowly re-reading Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (by—spoiler alert—Roland Barthes) and Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our responsibilities—what it means to be a responsible reader or writer. In everything you do, as a poet, an editor, a reader—what do you feel most responsible for in your work?
The feminist philosopher Kelly Oliver describes “responsibility” as “response-ability”: “Ethics requires,” she writes, “that we open up response . . . in the face of our ignorance.” I’m torn. I think she’s quite right, but I also think that there are scenarios in which response is impossible, and that’s what poetry is about for me. Guilty as charged: poets are always talking about war, about myth, about grief, about tangled knots of feeling and about huge problems that haven’t been solved; poets are always talking to the dead, to ideas, to the imagined, to the sun and the moon and to trees and birds. These are things that cannot quite be responded to and things that will not themselves respond—at least not in mortal human language. How else to explain poetic impulses like elegy or tropes like apostrophe and metaphor? Poetry makes utterances out of a profound lack of response. My responsibility is to do justice to the failures of response-ability.

Which is complicated, because I do also think we have responsibilities—huge ones—and they do weigh heavily on me in all of those areas of work you ask about. Lately, I have especially been thinking about editorial responsibility, but all of the following applies to writing and reading, too. I think we have responsibilities to one another, on a personal level as well as on the macro-scale considerations of inclusivity and community; responsibility to thought, to innovation, to the great and capacious forms of art with which we work, to language, to our political and social visions, to commitments to ethics. To vulnerability. To love and to those we love. To facing our ignorance. To thinking carefully about which voices we amplify, and in what ways and for what reasons; to interrogating our own flaws, unflinchingly; to the planet; to awareness, to thoughtfulness, to rigor, to perception. To finding new ways to practice the verb to live.

I can typically be found on the tenuous and shifting tight-rope between those two paragraphs.



Sumita Chakraborty is poetry editor of AGNI, art editor of At Length, and a doctoral candidate in English at Emory University, where she is currently a fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Her poems, essays, and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, the Los Angeles Review of BooksCultural Critique, and elsewhere. In 2017, she was a recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation.