Sumita Chakraborty curates poems that draw our attention to the overlooked: to the body’s cycles, to cruelty, to deep attention, to trauma and what comes after. She introduces Lucille Clifton on accepting change and growth (“to my last period”), Ai on the link between violence and loss (“Cruelty”), and Nora Naranjo Morse on vulnerability as potential blessing (“Sometimes I Am a Sponge”). Chakraborty closes by reading her own exploration of the complexities of PTSD, written to an extraterrestrial audience: “The B-Sides of the Golden Records, Track Five: ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.’”
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Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.43] You're listening to Poetry Centered, the podcast where poetry lives through archival recordings of poets reading their work from the University of Arizona Poetry Center. The poets' voices come to you from Voca, our online audiovisual archive. And the recordings are curated and introduced in each episode by a contemporary poet.
[00:00:23.16] I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson. And as always, I'm here to welcome you and get things started. Our host today is Sumita Chakraborty. A poet, essayist, and scholar. She's the author of the poetry collection Arrow, and she's the Helensvale visiting professor in poetry at the University of Michigan.
[00:00:41.50] Sumita's episode today focuses on odes to the overlooked. To the body’s cycles, to cruelty, to deep attention, to trauma, and what comes after. These odes are by Lucille Clifton, Ai, and Nora Naranjo Morse.
[00:00:57.81] If you heard Adrian Matejka's episode earlier this season, you'll recognize some of these voices. Our hosts picked their recordings independently of one another. So it's a treat, and really no surprise to see that Lucille Clifton and Ai are such favorites.
[00:01:12.69] Sumita, welcome to the show. Thank you for sharing your time with us today.
[00:01:19.48] Hi, my name is Sumita Chakraborty, and I'm recording from Ann Arbor, Michigan. This poem is titled "to my last period" and it's by Lucille Clifton from a reading on Thursday, November 1st, 2007. Clifton has been one of my absolute favorite poets for a long time. I haven't reread this poem in a while and I was struck by it today for a perhaps surprising reason. I have stage four endometriosis, and I had a hysterectomy in 2018.
[00:01:47.43] One of the ways that Clifton is such a revolutionary is that among many other achievements of aesthetics and poetics and politics. She has such a rigorous understanding of what it means to negotiate our relationship to our bodies even when we don't love what they're doing.
[00:02:02.79] I love how candid she is about not having felt all that fondly regarding her period while it was still around. And I love the way she embraces its absence, and allows that absence to open into a love for her period in hindsight.
[00:02:15.24] This isn't entirely a direct parallel for me. My associations with menstruation differ from Clifton's in this poem in many ways, but I love the way it shows that our relationship to our bodies has the capacity for change and for growth. And I love the way it teaches us to hold ourselves open to the possibility and promise of those changes. Whatever they may be.
[00:02:35.31] The concept of self-care has been co-opted in recent years, but I always try to remind myself that to writers like, Clifton and Audre Lorde, self-care is a battle tactic. When you're a person who others don't want to survive at all, as Clifton is famous for having declared in another poem of hers titled "won't you celebrate with me," it's nothing short of revolutionary to insist not only on survival, but on thriving.
[00:02:59.74] So here's one of Lucille Clifton's many, many odes to doing precisely that. Her poem "to my last period."
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[00:03:12.69] I'd like to read this, and then there are poems I would like to read sometimes, this and then a series of poems about September 11th. And then the last four, not a last poem, but another later poem.
[00:03:26.67] I haven't written my last poem yet.
[00:03:30.15] Obviously. This goes to my last period. It's a poem that-- I always wanted to write poems for grown ups. And I have read this in lots of places, and young men have said, what does that mean? I have a girlfriend but I've gone to Catholic churches all my life. And I didn't know that you would be like related things. And the periods, like, aren't they always around somewhere?
[00:03:56.22] Well, yeah. But it's if he didn't know about this, it would be better if he did. So I talked to him about it. And we have been taught that this is the curse. And I remember on "Archie Bunker's" show one time, Edith was saying-- so they said something about the curse. And Edith said, my friend so-and-so who has so many children, she calls it the blessings.
[00:04:19.99] Which I thought was really nice.
[00:04:23.28] Anyway, "to my last period." "well girl, goodbye, after 38 years. 38 years and you never arrived. splendid in your red dress without trouble for me somewhere, somehow. now it is done, and I feel just like the grandmothers who, after the hussy has gone, sit holding her photograph and sighing, wasn't she beautiful? Wasn't she beautiful?"
[00:05:01.89] I didn't think so at the time.
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[00:05:09.69] This poem is titled "Cruelty" and it's by Ai from a reading on September 13, 1972. Lately, I've been pushing myself to write more joyful poems now and again. But to be honest, in my poems I am often very much a bad news bearer.
[00:05:27.84] It's not because I think poetry only should be about difficulty or hardship. I don't believe in any such rules for poetry, and some of the poems I admire most are about joyful things. But it's suffering and all its friends that brought me to the page in the first place, and usually those topics are the ones that most motivate me to keep coming back to it.
[00:05:47.35] I love how forthright and honest Ai is in her comments before she reads this poem about how much cruelty fascinates her. This is the title poem from her debut collection. And it's striking, arresting, difficult, and unsparing. Ai is one of the poets who taught me how uncompromising it was possible to be in a poem.
[00:06:08.37] At the time of its publication many reviewers accused Ai of a gratuitous obsession with sex and with violence. When asked about it, Ai pivoted to talking about loss. Which I think is at the heart of why such topics keep drawing me back to-- Ai said loss is very important to all the characters in cruelty, even if they don't identify it as a loss, it's something they can't get or can't get back.
[00:06:33.39] She said she saw that sense of loss as integral to the violent ways in which we sometimes treat one another, and other creatures, and things. Not all of Ai's work deals with these topics. She later said that her later books had more room for the fullness of someone's life and of love. But I feel like this respect for the things that so many of us have lost due to harm is a constant through line in her work, and you'll certainly hear it in this poem today.
[00:06:59.07] This is "Cruelty" by Ai.
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[00:07:06.29] Cruelty. I'm very obsessed with the cruelty of human beings to others, and to animals, and to themselves. Lots of my poems are about that. And especially the perversion of sex. I never write love poems unless they're about the perversion of love. I can't because be too sentimental if you just wrote about love.
[00:07:33.92] "Cruelty." "The hoof marks on the dead wildcat gleam in the dark you are naked, as you drag it up on the porch. That won't work either. Drinking ice water hasn't, nor having the bed spring snap fingers to help us keep rhythm. Because I've never once felt anything that might get close. Can't you see? The thing I want most is hard, running toward my own teeth and it bites back."
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[00:08:12.67] This poem is titled "Sometimes I Am a Sponge" and it's by Nora Naranjo Morse, who I'm mortified to say, I had not heard of before I searched these magnificent archives. It's from a reading on Monday, April 1992. One of the things I wanted to make sure one of my episodes here did, was pointed to something in the archive that surprised me and taught me something new. This poet is an example of both of those things.
[00:08:39.29] I also deeply identify on a personal level with that fact of being a sponge. I often feel it as a vulnerability although in a good way for sure. For Morse, while it is certainly that, it's also a way in which her speaker leaves herself open to all of the glories of the world. Leaves herself open to its blessings and its potential for rejuvenation.
[00:09:00.31] This poem taught me to see my own sponginess differently. And this archive taught me about Morse. On which note, if you too are new to her work, let me share a little bit more about her biography and background and in case this leaves you eager for more as it certainly did for me.
[00:09:16.06] Morse is a native artist and poet. She's a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo tribe, and she lives in New Mexico. In addition to loving her poems, which have been binging since I found this one, I also love her sculptures very, very much. Fun fact, her mother Rose Naranjo was a potter, and Morse' earliest sculptures were made out of clay.
[00:09:37.27] If you're in Albuquerque, Minneapolis, Phoenix, or DC, you can check out some of her visual art at a museum local to you. And no matter where you are, we can read her poetry collection "Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay." Which combines poetry with photographs of her visual art. And now here's Nora Naranjo Morse reading "Sometimes I Am a Sponge."
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Nora Naranjo Morse:
[00:10:02.95] I hesitated to read this particular poem tonight, the one I'm about to read. Because then everybody would know why I like to wear sunglasses. So I'm taking a chance. Besides I'm leaving town after.
[00:10:23.86] This is called "Sometimes I Am a Sponge."
[00:10:29.19] "Sometimes I am a sponge, pores open wide to receive this liquid called life. And its essence and almost unnoticeable gift for each of us, oftentimes overlooked by fear, apathy, or whatever seems to precede living. I am a sponge who wears prescription sunglasses, shading eyes that just have to stare. Being easily entertained, educated, and quickly intrigued by what we think and how we behave as human beings.
[00:11:12.35] My mother never realized she raised that civil hoe. Someone who's not afraid to stare. From the pastel iridescent and reds, purples, and oranges that wash daily over the skies that when supple, to the arch women easily curve into as they bend to gather cooking wood, or a crying baby.
[00:11:38.05] Finding irony, and women who perch precariously on high heels during icy winter months. Absorbing the tragic desecration of our land as beer cans are thoughtlessly tossed from passing cars. Witnessing children's confusion, their questions hushed by preoccupied adults. As youthful wonder clouds into inhibition.
[00:12:05.17] Yet I see these same children moving grandparents to tears of joy by simply laughing. All of this, all of it gets soaked up, storing in a chamber called my heart. And when the sponge is full, it gets wrung out. Rung out into these clay forms, you see, I offer you. Rung out into these words, you hear, that I offer you."
[00:12:47.47] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:12:55.84] I could have gladly spent another episode talking about another incredible poem from the archive, but I'm very, very grateful to the University of Arizona Poetry Center for asking me to share a poem of my own today. This poem is from a new series I'm writing called "The B-sides of the Golden Records," and this particular poem is subtitled "Track 5: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder."
[00:13:18.67] If you're interested, you can read it on poets.org. It was published in the Academy's Palma de series in January on inauguration day, as a matter of fact. Much of my own work is about trauma, and specifically about living in the aftermath of severe domestic violence.
[00:13:34.12] The primary story in my debut poetry collection, Arrow, which came out with Alice James' books in the US, and Carconet Press in the UK this past September-- is of learning to become someone who values love, and kinship, and community even though those concepts were foreclosed to me in my childhood due to assault.
[00:13:52.20] This new series is inspired by NASA's golden records, which were two phonograph records that were included on NASA's 1977 Voyager spacecraft launches. They were intended as a-message-in-a-bottle to any extraterrestrials the voyagers might encounter. In the words of then-President Jimmy Carter, they were imagined as a present from 'a small distant world. A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings.'
[00:14:21.36] The golden records also left out a great deal. Whether for copyright reasons, for concerns about explicit content, for fear of the record being taken as a sign of aggression-- I kid you not-- and undoubtedly, for a host of other reasons we routinely give or receive as so-called rationales for elisions.
[00:14:38.83] My poems in the series are about what the records leave out. Ranging from the mundane, to the dramatic, and so on and so forth. In this poem in particular, I try to explain PTSD to extraterrestrials. Which as it turns out is not that different from explaining PTSD to anyone.
[00:14:55.50] This is of course, especially true when you're explaining it to someone who is not neurodivergent. But if the person you're speaking with also has PTSD, it can manifest so differently in different people. And any given person's trauma is also very specific to them. So it engenders the same kind of problem.
[00:15:11.94] In terms of my other selections, I think it's an ode of sorts to PTSD, like Lucille Clifton's ode for her last period. It's explicitly interested in the effects of cruelty, like Ai's cruelty. And I hope it shows as Nora Naranjo almost does in "Sometimes I am A sponge." What it feels like to soak in the world, for worse or for better.
[00:15:33.00] Here's my poem "The B-Sides of the Golden Records, Track 5: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." Before you begin, please be aware that this track does not end.
[00:15:48.55] "Find a large, unframed mirror. Or, if you don't have mirrors, find something like one: smooth, flat, and reflective, with superstitions silvered in.
[00:15:59.62] Beat it with the most vulnerable part of your body. If you were having trouble deciding what to use, ask yourself: what would you least want me to touch?
[00:16:09.79] Continue until the mirror breaks. Then, continue until it breaks many times.
[00:16:15.16] Continue until you can tell that your body part is badly hurt. Keep going. When you regain consciousness, resume.
[00:16:24.94] On the sixth day, stop. Search for the brightest, clearest light you can imagine. The light should at first feel welcome, and joyous. Then, as you realize that it is slightly more garish than you would like and Moreover that it never fades, it riddles your body with a ringing.
[00:16:44.51] Carry each fragment, shard, and piece into this light. Do not clean the parts. Arrange them into a shape resembling the original shape of the mirror.
[00:16:55.57] If you are not already naked, become naked now.
[00:17:00.32] Lie on the fragments. Try not to add more injuries to your body.
[00:17:05.61] Feel the light reflect into heat. As you blister, consider the way that on Earth, every night, in the absence of sunlight, tree branches move up and down so that the water inside of the trees keeps moving, creating a kind of heartbeat that is surer than any you will ever know."
[00:17:29.09] Thank you for spending this time with me, and thank you to the University of Arizona's Poetry Center for giving me this chance to spend time with this exhilarating archive. I hope this has found all of you listeners as well, and happy as can be. Please do take the very best of care.
[00:17:42.80] If you want to reach out. I'd love to be in touch and to hear from you. I'm on Twitter @notsumatra, that's Not S-U-M-A-T-R-A, all one word. And my contact information is available on my website, which is just my full name, dot-com. Thank you. Bye, bye.
[00:17:59.60] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:18:07.34] Sumita, thank you so much for your insight and your generosity. Listeners, thank you for sharing this time with us. We've one more episode coming up for you in two weeks. Hosted by Eduardo C. Corral.
[00:18:20.96] Check out the show notes for links to the full recordings that Sumita selected from for today. And we hope you'll explore Voca to find favorites of your own. Thanks again for being with us.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:18:33.23] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English, and English translation.
[00:18:46.71] Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson with support from--
[00:19:03.44] Sarah Gzemski.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:19:04.82] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.