Writing Matters: In conversation with Rohan Chhetri – A review and a conversation


By Jonaki Ray

At the core of Rohan Chhetri’s poems are memories: his own and of moments—based in history or moments turning into history rooted within the intricacies and details of mundane daily lives–that transform into memories.

Reading these poems also strike a chord about the universality of death intertwined with the ways one tries to come to terms with it; of love that, even in its transience, creates something permanent, and of the impermanence of all the things that one wants to be permanent: family, home, country, and finally life.

“Every Thing for Me Is Something Else”, for instance, starts with the wind howling through the night, the tap-tap of it like ‘dragging its dirty fingernails’. The autumn light is gradually fading, ‘shortening like a deer’s eye dimming inside the red cave of a python’s belly…’. The light catches the ordinary scene of an urban landscape, ‘The night windows in city apartments overlooking the flyovers and that one silhouette, backlit by a mustard glow.’ Through the rest of the poem, the typical scenes of a day in a city—a couple arguing, a girl begging at the street-light corners through the rain—are described in a dazzling combinations of words, ‘Rainwater awning over her eyelashes, her hair plastered on her skull, & lips trying to spell something inconsolable’. The poem ends with a sudden, almost violent flashback to a scene from the poet’s childhood:

My mother rushing in through the smoke and the cindering floorboards.
Her screaming as she opens the window
& the cold wind howling in the voice of her firstborn, my stillborn brother.

“Violence Enters a Poem like a Restless Wind Inside a Burning House” starts with the poet’s parents’ end-of-the-day routine,

Tired by the day’s work, my mother
has already fallen asleep in front of the television.
My father is noiselessly setting
the mosquito net above the bed.

It ends with a searing, yet beautiful precis of the troubled history of two countries, which could be any two neighboring countries in these times:

a nation is sending the refugees back
to the country they fled from.
On their way, the stop on the trails
to look for the frostbitten fingers
they lost in the difficult winter of their lives.

In “Landlocked”, Chhetri describes the ephemeral nature of joy—that by its very nature cannot be shared,

Young Chopin
Weeping, listening to his mother play the piano
In the long Polish afternoons. Knowing that
The important joy, in fact, cannot be shared
At all. Is inconceivably private.

and bridging to his own love, momentary and already in the past though it is, ‘He thinks of her body. / Of other bodies beginning to blur against hers. / Because the stubborn heart cannot make love twice.’

Chhetri’s collection, Slow Startle won the Emerging Poets Prize and was published to critical acclaim in 2016. Since then, he has moved to the US to pursue academics. In 2018 his work-in-progress manuscript won the prestigious Kundiman Poetry Prize, and his chapbook, Jurassic Desire, was published by Per Diem Press. An excerpt from a poem, National Grief, from that collection begins as below:

national grief

After L. Cohen
Too many of ours were taken, & we grew
heavier not with grief but numbers, as if we’d
suddenly become aware of the air we stood in.
As if we’d only walked lightly in a dream before.
But we heard on the news a man had trekked seven
hours across the war-torn border into Aleppo
to smuggle toys for the children, so they could play
inside a bomb shelter. Someone heard the mad
sultan’s ghost weeping near the old mausoleum in Delhi
the day an old man died in a stampede outside a bank.

Ultimately, one is struck by the clarity of Chhetri’s writing that is almost painful at times, and intriguingly expressed through images that transform the banal into beauty and his poems leave behind those moments of connection that bind all of us—that it is the imminence of death that leaves something immortal in the shape of the memories left behind.

In a short interview conducted via email, Chhetri answered a few questions about his beginning as a writer, advice for young writers, the craft that goes behind his writing, and his upcoming book:

Jona: Could you describe your earlier writing journey? (I am asking this because I have read your work in several journals and been an admirer of your work even before Slow Startle came out. But, like any other writer I always struggle with self-doubt about whether I should send my work out to the world, and where). What is your advice for a writer who is first starting out? And are there things you would do differently now, given the benefit of hindsight?

Rohan: I wrote for many years “in the cold”, I suppose. Throughout high school and college. Coming to Bombay was a decisive moment, the displacement fractured my sense of syntax and language very literally. Syntax is identity, as Li-Young Lee says.  I could finally understand home, and my own familial and cultural concerns became clearer in contrast to the city and the myth of it. But I had to first grapple with what was in front of me: I wrote for and against and inside the city’s crucible for a long time. Then, as one does, I began building a private mythology turning homeward. The most dear and enduring friendships began in Bombay. When I joined Mumbai University for an MA Hons. in Literature, I met a small circle of friends and the four of us started Nether magazine at a time when there was hardly any literary platform in India to publish young writers. It was a print magazine. Everything serious to do with my own writing and editing began here, with working in the magazine, publishing young writers like ourselves.

I would read more. That’s the only thing I’d do differently and publish very carefully. That’s the same advice I would give others. If you’re lucky enough to be able to write decent poems, you’ve been given a gift (or a curse, depends on how you look at it) and you owe it to yourself to do everything you can to be better at it and know everything there is to know about it, before putting your poems out in the world. I would hold myself back, wait more, if I could do it differently. For example, there are some poems in Slow Startle I wouldn’t have permitted into the book today. There are lines I wouldn’t write today. But you also have to honour your younger self and let it go once it’s out in the world.

Jona: In an earlier interview1 you had mentioned about the struggle between not being aligned to a specific area or institution, and simultaneously trying to write as an insider about a specific site or memory. Can you describe a bit about how the poems in your first collection, Slow Startle, came about in this context?

Rohan: I suppose I still feel a poet’s impulse to write should first and foremost be an unfettered response to what moves him. In an ideal world, no one should have to be told what they can or cannot write about. There is the tribe and there is the individual. A poet must find a way to write across both seamlessly. To be able to meditate on a flower if it so moves him, with the knowledge that they also adorn dead bodies being stacked somewhere. As Neruda writes, poetry should be hard and brutal things ‘worn away, as if by acid, by the labor of hands, impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and of urine’. Any ‘expectations’ (well-meaning ones included) impinging upon a poet’s impulse as to what they should rather write about is bad for their language.

Jona: The other point you had mentioned was about documenting trauma. In fact, there was a beautiful line that ‘writing is an attempt to create machines of empathy’. Yet, writing about violence can be as you mentioned, ‘reckless’. Is this something you still struggle with in your recent work as well?

Rohan: ‘Machines of empathy’, is possibly something my professor at Syracuse, George Saunders once said. I’m still new and learning, I can still get carried away with language. But it’s getting better. If you’re going to write about difficult things, you have to make language go the other direction, make it tender, and accountable.

Jona: Your style is slightly different in the forthcoming collection, and elsewhere, you mention shifting the lenses a bit. Could you elaborate on this?

Rohan: The book is still in progress but what I meant is that there are places I can look into deeper now (time, hindsight). I’m reading, learning and I will hopefully have better tools as a poet to talk about in this book, in new ways, all the things I chose not to talk about in Slow Startle. The poems in the new book are trying to do many things, they are formally restless and I’m trying to let go of a certain mannerism that pervaded my first book.

References:

  1. https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/books/this-side-that-side-3036219/ (accessed December 16th, 2018)

 

Bio:

Jonaki Ray was educated in India (IIT Kanpur) and the USA (UIUC), and is a poet, editor, and writer based in New Delhi, India. Jonaki was nominated by Zoetic Press for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for short fiction and by Oxford Brookes Poetry Center for the 2018 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. She won the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest, ESL, and has been shortlisted for multiple other awards including the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and the 2016 RL Poetry Award.

Her work has been published in Southword Journal, The Four Quarters Magazine, The American Journal of Poetry, Lunch Ticket, Indian Literature, The Lake and elsewhere.