Editors Talk Poetry Rejections: Sumita Chakraborty, Agni
As a platform for emerging poets, our mission is to provide practical help for serious writers. The community lifts itself up together or not at all. In that light, we’ve been asking some great editors from around the literary community for their frank thoughts on why poems may get rejected from their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Sumita Chakraborty, the Poetry Editor of Agni.
From a craft standpoint, what causes you to reject a poem?
Sumita Chakraborty: I honestly prefer to think about what causes me to accept a poem rather than what causes me to reject it. Practically, the volume of submissions we receive is massive, and thinking in terms of rejection makes the inbox seem more enormous, I think. More importantly, though: reading submissions involves close reading (even if done quickly), and I like to think of close reading as an act of generosity. I prefer to approach the task from the position of someone who wants to inhabit the work, wants it to inhabit me.
And when that doesn’t pan out, the causes for it are often at the intersection of the linguistic and the political. I don’t mean that a poem must be political in subject matter; rather, I think one of the most remarkable political strengths of language is that words do stuff, to steal one of my favorite phrases from the field of literary theory (it’s J. L. Austin’s). If the language is not working particularly hard, if the poem isn’t doing something, I’m ultimately left without something to inhabit or with something that can’t inhabit me.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Sumita Chakraborty: Try to think of finding a journal for your work as a process in which you have agency. Truly, carefully read the journals you’re submitting to as though you’re picking them. The close reading I think of as so important for reading submissions is also so important for sending submissions; think about places where your work could find a home, and think about what kinds of homes your poems dream of. Also, while I think there’s much good to be said about how much candid conversation we’re having online about the numbers of submissions people have out at one time, and about how many rejections people stack up in the process of publishing their work, it’s never helped me personally to think of publishing as a numbers game. Publications are—increasingly!—forever. You need to make sure you’re ready and each individual poem is ready, and if that involves quite literally only submitting two poems one particular year, so be it. Your craft and development are your craft and development.
If there were one craft technique that you wish poets would focus on, what would it be?
Sumita Chakraborty: It’s slightly askance of your question since many of my favorite poets do focus on this, but I love when you can tell that all the way down to the level of the phrase and the line, the poem simply could not have been crafted any other way. I’m a sucker for the idea of the line—it’s a Virgilian fascination—and I think you learn a lot about a poet from the way they wield them, shake them up, pace them, break them.
How many rejections have you faced and how do you deal with them?
Sumita Chakraborty: Oh, god, so many! I don’t keep track, really. I’ve had years where I’m submitting a lot and years where I’m not; I’ve had years when I’m simultaneously submitting a passel to a number of places and years where I have simply sent two pieces to specific places. My favorite rejection story is my poem “Spring” in Boston Review, which was rejected approximately 35 times before Timothy Donnelly picked it up.
As for how to deal with them: well, I take my work very personally. Speaking for myself, I don’t know how to do any of the work I do without feeling very personally about it; both creatively and academically, I spend every day grateful to be reading, writing, and thinking, and pouring so much of myself into those things. So of course, rejection hurts! To my mind there’s no balancing scale on which a certain amount of acceptance would inure me to rejection. If you recognize yourself in what I’m saying, then my advice to you is to avoid trying to force yourself not to be hurt. Recognize that it’s painful and that’s okay. And recognize that it’s inevitable; it’s a part of the job, by definition and design. Which means you have to try again, which likely means it’ll hurt again, which is also okay.
Does your publication seek out specific styles or aesthetics of poetry that writers submitters should know about?
Sumita Chakraborty: No! I don’t like to exclude based on style or aesthetic; in fact, one of my favorite things to come across is when a poem challenges me to reconsider something I didn’t even know I needed to reconsider, and I do also mean that on the level of style. I look for poems that could not possibly have been written by anyone else, and for poems that are necessary. Beyond that, the way to do both of those things is up to the poet, and I love when poets stretch my sense of how things can be done; some of my favorite moments are ones in which I’ve just felt so profoundly schooled and loved it.
What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets?
Sumita Chakraborty: Such a delightfully tough question for which there could be millions of exactly correct answers. I love recommending and teaching Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. I love the amount of work it encourages its reader to do. It’s not didactic; its elliptical and figurative tendencies not only make it a beautiful and stimulating read, but also comprise one of its main pedagogical strengths. I think that spending time with it encourages readers to learn more about how they like to read, which of course goes hand-in-hand with learning more about how they write.
Sumita Chakraborty is poetry editor of AGNI, art editor of At Length, and a PhD candidate in English at Emory University, where she is currently a fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry magazine, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Witness, Adroit, BOAAT, The Journal, and others. Her literary criticism and academic work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cultural Critique and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In 2017, Chakraborty was a recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. She hails from Boston and currently lives in Atlanta.