Sunday, April 9, 2023

Interview With Award-Winning Poet Sunu P. Chandy

1. What inspired you to write this book? 

I have to separate writing the poems from writing the book, and also separate writing poems from publishing poems. Each of these steps is its own journey in the process. I am inspired to write poems often from difficult or confusing experiences as a way to grapple with the issues at stake. Other times I am inspired to write poems after encountering interesting uses of language, or the absurdity of most surveys, even though I know data collection is so important for a range of social justice reasons. After writing poems, sometimes I am invited to open mics, or to share poetry at various events. When I have done that for many years now, folks often ask me for books. For several years, I would say I have some poems on-line that you can find, but that was it.. During the start of the pandemic, I was encouraged to join an on-line writing community, and they encouraged me to push past my many fears and submit my book to publishing contests, And so here I am now. I am so grateful to have my first book of poems out in the world.  

2. What exactly is it about and who is it written for?  

This book is for all of you. More specifically, My Dear Comrades has three sections. The first is about a range of peace and social justice concerns, including ethical questions many of us face on a daily basis of how we go about making decisions in our lives. The second section focuses mostly on my long journey to becoming a parent including both years of fertility treatment and then years of creating a family through adoption. That section also touches on acceptance by family as that relates to my being a member of the LGBTQ+ community. The third section includes more recent poems that include a mix of themes including parenting during a pandemic, and related social justice concerns including the current attack on affirmative action, for example. The book is written for anyone who is going through these experiences, and it may also serve to give folks who aren’t familiar with these areas a window into these experiences.   

3. What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book?  

I was mostly moved to write so that anyone going through these experiences would know they are not alone. Additionally, this might also serve to give folks from a range of other communities a window into these experiences as this might create empathy and connection, which is to say greater community building.I believe this is one way that social change happens, through learning more about people who are not like you, as this can sometimes relate to pushing for more structural changes which are sorely needed on a range of fronts in our society.  

4. How did you decide on your book’s title and cover design?  

I have to give my friend, Jeffery Perkins, credit for the title. This title comes from one of my longer poems in the collection. I think he was reviewing the manuscript and that idea must have jumped out. I think he suggested it, and I immediately loved it. As for the cover art, I first saw the art of Ragni Agarwal through an email from an organization, SAADA, South Asian American Digital Archives. I reached out to Ragni even though I didn’t know her, and after she reviewed my work, she was open to collaborating. I was so happy that my publisher agreed to use this piece, and their team worked creating the design itself with her digital piece. The cover art is gorgeous and remarkable, and fits the themes in the book so beautifully.  

5. What advice or words of wisdom do you have for fellow writers – other than run!? 

Lol, I understand the impulse to discourage folks. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. I have a new poem about all the people who will be mad, mad, mad about this book. Given that reality, it is hard to keep pushing forward. People keep quoting Anne Lamott to me as she says something like if you didn’t want me to write these things about you, then you should have been nicer, lol. When one writes about things like fertility treatments,  sexual assault or family acceptance (or not), it’s bound to make people uncomfortable, and even though some of these areas are passing points in a larger collection it’s important to name the risks. And so my only suggestion is to take each concern in turn because if you sit with the entire bundle of thorns and think they all have to be resolved first, you will never push forward with writing what you need to write or seeking to have it published.  

6. What trends in the book world do you see -- and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading?  

Oh goodness, I think poetry may be different from other genres, but I can say overall that it’s heartening to see more writers of color and LGBTQ+ writers and folks at the intersections of these identities on the shelves in bookstores. As was shared at the Poets and Writers Gala recently by a range of speakers, it’s not enough to have these writers though but we need people from a range of diverse backgrounds as agents and publishers too. That way, the work has a chance to land with someone who may recognize its full depth. I was so heartened to be in conversation at my publication day event at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, with someone who understood my work on a deep level, Kierra Johnson, who leads up the National LGBTQ Task Force. As a fellow parent, woman of color, and advocate, she gets my work on an emotional level, on all of these fronts. At the same time, it’s important to name that my collection was selected for publication by someone who does not share these identities. I love that she found so much meaning in these poems too. On another note, I think we also have to be transparent about the work of publicizing one’s book as this varies so greatly between types of  publishers. That’s not something I realized when I started submitting work to contests, as I was basing it solely on the contest deadlines and the overall vibe and aesthetics that I understood solely from the websites. This is something important to ask about and research when making decisions about which publishers to pursue with your work.   

7. Were there experiences in your personal life or career that came in handy when writing this 


My Dear Comrades centers on many experiences that I have encountered in my roles as a civil rights attorney, parent, daughter of South Asian immigrants, LGBTQ person, and so on. Given that, I would say my personal life and career are deeply intertwined in this book.  

8. How would you describe your writing style? Which writers or books is your writing similar to? 

My writing style is quite “lucid,” according to one of my favorite poets, Aracelis Girmay, who provided a lovely blurb for me. That’s a nice way of saying the poems are accessible, or easy to “understand.” I put that word, understand, in quotes because my poems often work on multiple levels. I use lots of metaphors and extended metaphors, and so while I am referencing a handout from school,  I am also making a pointed critique of educational inequity in our country. While I am talking about a form of weather, I am also dealing with dynamics around family acceptance, and so on. So, while often the language may be less flowery than some may expect in a poem, there is a depth of meaning that others have said they appreciate. Another one of my poetry comrades who blurbed my book, JP Howard, wrote that my work “evokes the powerful political poetry of Margaret Walker and Pat Parker.” And Aracelis included this in her blurb regarding My Dear Comrades: “At the heart of her refusal is a poetics and an ethics of discipline, tenderness, and attention that reminds me of the work of Martín Espada and Audre Lorde.” To these stunning comparisons I would add that I would love to have my work compared to the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye and June Jordan. These are two poets I deeply admire. I appreciate their sometimes plain-spoken, but incredibly intense truth-telling, and also their lovely senses of  humor.   

9. What challenges did you overcome in the writing of this book?  

As noted above, the main challenge was fear. Fear of what people would say, fear that people would not like the work, fear of retaliation in whatever forms that might take. In addition to fear, I would say not having time or making time.. I work as a civil rights/gender justice attorney, and we also have a kid in middle school, and those are each more than enough things to take up my time. That said, thankfully I am a morning person and try to use the early hours to get some of my creative work accomplished. Additionally, with structures like writing groups or workshops, I can more easily motivate myself to meet a deadline. Additionally, friends have continually invited me to present poems.  I am so grateful for that because this is often a motivation to write new work or edit draft poems.   

10. If people can buy or read one book this week or month, why should it be yours?  

That’s an interesting way to frame the question as I strive to consider the ways that sharing our work is a more community minded endeavor, and a way to bring us together for the collective good. I would absolutely say read lots of different poets, especially since April is poetry month.  Poetry can help remind us of our shared humanity and that we are all facing similar highs and lows, and more highs and lows, as we traverse the few days we have together on this Earth. My Dear Comrades is one such book of poems that you might enjoy.  I am inviting people to check out my work if they are interested in social justice advocacy, gender justice, family building including in LGBTQ+ families, the experiences of immigrant families, life during the pandemic, and parenting a tween. A reader might be intrigued with My Dear Comrades because they are going through any one of these experiences, or because they want to learn about others as one small way to increase a sense of greater connection between people in our society. Also, I have been told that some of the poems are funny, and most of us could use a laugh given all of the many attacks coming for many of us at this moment.  On a more serious note, a board member of the Transgender Law Center, and as a civil rights attorney with the National Women’s Law Center,, I encourage others to join together to help advocate for greater inclusion in our society including through an important new coalition, Greater Than Hate


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