Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week we’ve chatted with poet and educator Sumita Chakraborty about ecology, Alice Oswald’s work, and poetic inspirations. We hope you enjoy it, and, as always, thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: Why did you choose Oswald? What was your first experience reading their work?
Sumita Chakraborty: I chose Oswald because I’ve been learning from her work for a long time, and the way she thinks about language and poetics (among other thematic obsessions like death and ecology) really resonates with me. Technically, the first time I encountered her work was when I still worked for AGNI, where I was on the editorial staff for 13 years—at the beginning of that stretch of time I was an intern, and her poem “Dunt” (which is now in her fairly recent collection Falling Awake) was initially published in the very first issue of AGNI on which I worked, back in 2006. My real sustained engagement with her work came with her excavation of the Iliad, Memorial, which I read when it first came out and then became even more significant to me after my sister died in 2014. I read it multiple times a day for a few months and then started digging through all of her work.
AH: How has Oswald’s work inspired your writing?
SC: Countless ways, to be honest! One thing that’s lately been on my mind, especially post-Arrow, is that I think Oswald has a remarkable way of dissolving the imagined boundary between the “experimental” and the “lyric.” I think that boundary is one that we often internalize or are taught to internalize, whereas Oswald reminds me that they are both very much two sides of the same coin—or, probably, basically the same side of something much more complex than a coin. I also love the way she honors and follows language, as well as the way she fluidly balances and re-balances each poem’s investment in ambiguity and concreteness alike. To be honest, I could go on for ages about her work and its importance to me; I wrote about some other things I’m drawn to some years back for LARB, and I do go on for ages there! I completely trampled the initial word limit I was given and I am very appreciative that the editors there let me run with it.
AH: There seems to be an intersection between Oswald and you: you both have a tendency to dabble in the discussion of the environment. Where did your interest in this begin?
SC: That’s kind of you to say and to notice! Ecology studies is a huge part of my scholarly life, so I’ve been thinking about it fairly actively at least since I began my PhD in 2012. I think where I especially resonate with Oswald’s approach to it is best captured in a remark she made in, I believe, an interview with Granta. She says that the nature poets that she likes the most are Homer, Ovid, and Shakespeare, specifically “because they include the human and the non-human in the same picture”; of ecosystems, she says, “How can you categorize that?” A similar approach guides my interest in the environment.
AH: What have you been up to lately? Got any news to share (life, writing, small achievements—anything!)?
SC: I’ve got something environment-related, actually! My academic book—which is one of my main preoccupations at the moment, and is called Grave Dangers: Poetics and the Ethics of Death in the Anthropocene—is newly under an advance contract with the University of Minnesota Press. On the poetry side, I’m playing with some new forms of visual and multimedia poetry that I’m really enjoying, and my second collection is shaping up to be rather obsessed with questions of interiority.
Alice Oswald is a British poet; although she is not as well-known outside of her native country, her work is widely circulated. She is the author of The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile and six other poetry collections. Her poems delve into the topic of nature, history, and environment. She was the first woman to serve as the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.
Read her poem “Flies” at Poetry.
Read a profile about Oswald in The New Yorker.
Find her award-winning collection Falling Awake here.
Sumita Chakraborty is the author of the poetry collection Arrow, which was published by Alice James Books in the U.S. and Carcanet Press in the U.K. in 2020 and has received coverage in the New York Times, NPR, and the Guardian. Her work in progress includes a scholarly monograph, Grave Dangers: Poetics and the Ethics of Death in the Anthropocene, under contract with the University of Minnesota Press. She lives in Ann Arbor, where she teaches in literary studies and creative writing at the University of Michigan.
Find her on Twitter @notsumatra.
Learn more about Sumita on her website.
Read her poem “Dear, Beloved” at Poetry.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear in Barren Magazine, Hobart, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com