Emory PhD candidate Sumita Chakraborty wins prestigious award for young poets

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sept. 6, 2017

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Sumita Chakraborty, a PhD student in English, is one of five recipients of the 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, one of the top honors offered to young poets in the United States. Emory Photo/Video

Sumita Chakraborty, a doctoral candidate in English through Emory’s Laney Graduate School, has been named a recipient of the 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship — one of the most prestigious awards offered to young U.S. poets.

Chakraborty is among five recipients of this year’s fellowship, which brings an award of $25,800, intended “to encourage the further study and writing of poetry," according to an announcement released this month by The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine, which selects the winners. The fellowship is open to all U.S. poets between 21 and 31 years of age.

“The Poetry Foundation does such amazing work bringing contemporary poetry into the center of everyday consciousness,” she says. “It’s been an incredible honor to receive this from an organization that does so much. And I admire the work of all the winners and finalists so deeply.”

Chakraborty, who began her doctoral studies at Emory in 2012, will graduate in 2018 with a PhD in English and a graduate certificate in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. This semester, she is engaged as a dissertation completion fellow at Emory’s Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.

Her poems, articles and essays have appeared in Cultural Critique, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Gulf Coast, Boston Review and POETRY, among others. She is also poetry editor of AGNI literary magazine and art editor of At Length.

The award marks the second time an Emory student has received the esteemed poetry fellowship in the past five years, according to Benjamin Reiss, professor and chair of Emory's Department of English and co-director of the university’s Disability Studies Initiative.

In 2012, Emory PhD candidate Richie Hofmann was one of five young poets to receive what was then called the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, which was established in 1989 and expanded in 2012 through a gift from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund.

“This is big — one of two or three major awards that I’m aware of specifically for younger poets that marks them as emerging major talents,” Reiss says. “We’re thrilled for her.”

“In addition to the cash award, it tends to provide a higher visibility on the poetry reading circuit and the publishing world,” he explains. “Rather than sending out poems, those who win this award are asked to submit them. It’s an award that definitely targets them as someone to watch.”

An intellectual community mobilized by the arts

A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Chakraborty attended Wellesley College before arriving at Emory, where she was drawn by the strength of the university’s intellectual community and resources, such as the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

“Poetry is taken very seriously at Emory — not just in the English Department, but broadly,” she says. “It’s a campus that really thrives on and promotes the study of and engagement with poetry, literature and the arts.”

“It’s very exciting to see an intellectual community so mobilized by that,” she adds. “For someone working on a scholarly degree, it was important to have academic mentors who were really excited by creative writing.”

And Chakraborty says that’s what she’s found here, from teaching mentor Deborah Elise White, an associate professor of English and comparative literature, to a dissertation committee comprised of English professors Walter Kalaidjian, John Johnston and Laura Otis; Lynne Huffer, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies; and Katherine Hayles, an external committee member at Duke University.

“I think word has gotten out that graduate students here will find opportunities to hone their craft and work with our extraordinary creative writers even in the context of a program that emphasizes scholarship,” Reiss concurs. “It’s no accident that we’re attracting the talents of fantastically gifted young poets and scholars like Sumita.”

Chakraborty recalls that a love of language and poetry claimed her from a very young age. “It’s a little like asking, ‘At what point did you start drinking water?’” she laughs. “There is a point in time that you take it more seriously, but you’ve always been doing it.”

About halfway through her undergraduate years at Wellesley College, she recalls suddenly “becoming serious about studying the scholarship about poetry and learning how to write it.”

How poetry helps untangle the world around us

While at Emory, Chakraborty has valued the opportunity to work as both a poet and a scholar.

She has taught classes ranging from first-year English and composition to poetry courses “designed loosely around the idea of the environment and the natural world and how writers and poets have dealt with those and represented them,” which aligns with her research interests.

“The research I’m mostly interested in is the natural world and how that is often entangled with other socio-political issues,” she says. “My sense is that poetry, in which all these concerns are interlocking and dealt with, can help us think through ways in which we can conceive of present-day issues of the natural world and help us think about them differently and deal with them differently."

Case-in-point: Hurricane Harvey offers an example of how modern ecological concerns “are tied up in many interlocking issues — climate change, evacuation patterns, or lack thereof, resources people did or didn’t have access to, race, class and ecological concerns all tied into one, big mass,” she says.

“In contemporary political discourse, when we try to tackle something of intellectual complexity, it’s often popular to focus on one thing or the other. Poetry can teach us how to contend with many things at once that don’t always line up neatly,” she notes.

Her dissertation argues that lyric poetry after about 1850 “can serve as a surprising resource to think about present-day environmental ethics,” she adds.

Her work explores "how thinking about poetry as a mode of thought and feeling and looking at those modes that are connected to everyday experiences and concerns — arranging them differently, coming at them differently, and playing with them differently — can shed light and help us contend with contemporary realities," Chakraborty says.

View the full list of this year’s winners of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships.