In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Prageeta Sharma
The featured image is by Barnett Newman, Untitled (1945)
In your poem “The Restoration” in Volume 24, the speaker questions why they continue to “lurch into the structures of emotional hand-me-downs,” yet at the end there is a shift as the speaker describes “becoming an olive tree— / twice removed—supplanted and toughened.” I enjoyed the broad spectrum of emotion in this piece. What was your inspiration for this poem?
Thank you for reading the poem the way you describe it here. I think in this poem I wanted to examine a speaker who is trying to exorcize conflicted feelings; particularly a primary feeling of being haunted by the death of a spouse who was a complicated person and to examine the family (a stepdaughter) she helped raise. In this case, the speaker is me and I am trying to be accountable to how these stirrings impact my new partner. But I also wanted the poem to open up to the theme of hope in the present moment: where we live, walk and witness the landscape around us in real time. Ultimately, the poem “The Restoration” is trying to grapple with new metaphors immersed with old ones.
What was the process like for you with “The Restoration” from first draft to publish-ready. Do you have a particular go-to process, or does it differ poem to poem?
I think my process really differs from poem to poem, but I think in early drafts I’m just trying to locate an emotional or intellectual center of the poem. For me, poems are sketches of thinking and feeling in abstraction. Then I carve them into more rounded entities, into poems. Early drafts reveal conflicts or themes built with a base articulation that I need to get on the page and then I start to fiddle with it and shape it into a kind of a landscape that can hold description, emotion, and form in ways that surprise me. I think this might be an oversimplification, but I guess I’m saying that I don’t really build a poem from images to start it. I build my poems from feelings and theories in my head.
Your poetry book Grief Sequence explores the loss of your husband to cancer. Did you find writing these poems to be cathartic? Of course loss is very difficult to process, what types of responses did you get from your readers?
I did find this book cathartic to write because I didn’t know what these poems were going to be like when I was finished with them but while I was writing them I needed them to function like documentation. I wanted to track a period of grieving and recovery that felt incomprehensible. People did reach out to me that first year of grieving; particularly those who had lost spouses or grieved a complicated or unresolved loss. After many years I now realize that I was grieving a layered loss. Grief Sequence processes Dale’s quick death from a two month diagnosis of esophageal cancer, my journey finding myself and finding a new partner. I am grateful for the new friendships I gained in helping people to process similar circumstances.
As you mature as a poet, do you approach the page differently? What are the new explorations, or intrigues that guide you? Has your process or technique changed over the years?
I’m interested in the theme of maturity and poetry as it relates to style and form. I like to think that my ideas about lyric poetry were always changing and growing deeper. I know with Grief Sequence I became committed to prose poetry for the first time and I had to think about the differing relationships I have to the prose poem and the lyric.
I would say that my earlier books relied on a kind of unconscious conversation with my poetry community (or poetry tradition.) With Grief Sequence I wasn’t thinking about a larger world or speaking about literary forms or culture through a lyric voice. I was thinking about surviving and documenting feelings that felt slippery, complicated, and painful but that also taught me to think about what poetry could solve with its emotional registers and attitudes.
When you look back at the younger version of yourself, the poet just starting out, is there any advice you’d like to give her, perhaps advice that might pertain to other emerging writers?
I wish I could tell the younger version of myself as a poet just starting out to believe that what I want to say or describe or think about is of value. It’s just as simple as that. I think I have gotten so caught up in the past about what someone thinks of my work rather than what is the most enjoyable to write. Writing poetry is believing in the work as I’m writing it and not being too self-conscious about who thinks what. Don’t read your poems over your own shoulder!
You founded the conference Thinking Its Presence: an interdisciplinary conference on race, creative writing, and artistic and aesthetic practices. I understand that there will be an upcoming conference in 2023. Could you provide our readers with some information about the purpose of the conference?
Yes, I will have a website up in September which will have registration and the schedule. It’s going to be a pretty exciting lineup of writers, poets, scholars, and artists. I’m collaborating with the Benton Museum of Art and have tremendous support from the English department, Pomona College, and the Claremont Colleges. We hope that our various communities will register, attend, and enjoy the discussion. I would say that the mission of the conference is to host work, discussions, and innovations that might be too risky at more mainstream conferences and to celebrate the innovations in our BIPOC communities.
This year’s conference is called Thinking Its Presence: Racial Vertigo, BlackBrown Feelings and Significantly Problematic Objects, which will take place at Pomona College March 30 to April 2, 2023. We are looking at a very exciting list of writers. Several confirmed are Billy-Ray Belcourt, Myriam J.A. Chancy,Percival Everett, Ruth-Ellen Kocher, James Kyung-Jin Lee, Ishmael Reed, Danzy Senna, Sandy Soto, Brooke Pepion Swaney, Valorie Thomas, and Wardell Milan among many additional stellar people who I’m adding to the roster very soon. I can tell you that the programming is coming together nicely.
Thank you so much for your time, what projects are in your future that we can look forward to?
I’ve been working on a manuscript titled “Onement Won,” which explores ideas of abstraction in the Abstract Expressionist movement (particularly the art of Barnett Newman), racial grief, and the problem of the aphorism in Hinduism. Some are lyric poems that are more direct and function like “The Restoration” where I write with a new sense of purpose. There are some new poems which grapple with my current partner’s stage four cancer diagnosis (which we have been devastated by but are doing our best to negotiate).
The new poems are a place for me to articulate the pain of detaching from my past and being immersed in living fully in my present moment (especially now that we are facing such an aggressive cancer). I am finally registering that I have brought more healing into my life, and this has been activated through my love of poetry and consciously committing to deep reciprocity with those who can share it in love and friendship.
PRAGEETA SHARMA’s recent poetry collection, Grief Sequence, was published by Wave Books. She is the founder of the conference Thinking Its Presence, an interdisciplinary conference on race, creative writing, and artistic and aesthetic practices. She was a recipient of the 2010 Howard Foundation Award and a finalist for the 2020 Four Quartets Prize. She taught at the University of Montana and now teaches at Pomona College.