Rohan Chhetri is a writer and translator. He is the author of Slow Startle (Winner of the Emerging Poets Prize 2015), the chapbook Jurassic Desire (Winner of the Per Diem Prize 2017) and Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful (Tupelo Press/ HarperCollinsIN, 2021). A UK edition of the book is coming out from Platypus Press, 2022. He has co-edited Shreela Ray: On the Life and Work of an American Master (Unsung Masters Series, 2021) along with Kazim Ali. A recipient of a 2021 PEN/Heim Grant for translation, his poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Revue Europe, AGNI and New England Review, and have been translated into Greek and French.
In Rohan Chhetri’s much-awaited second collection, inherited literary forms-the ode, the lyric, and pristine tercets-are juxtaposed with gorgeously fractured and stylistically daring hybrid pieces. Winner of the prestigious Kundiman Prize for Poetry, Lost, Hurt, Or in Transit Beautiful is a luminous and haunting book.
Tiffany Troy: Can you introduce yourself to your readers of the world?
Rohan Chhetri: I’m a Nepali Indian poet currently based in Houston, TX. I grew up in the Dooars region of West Bengal, in a tea estate town between Bhutan and India. A place of great beauty, turmoil, and cultural, linguistic and religious syncretism. I wanted to bring some of this into Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. This book, my second, in some senses, is a love poem to this Indian border town on the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, a land I carry with me wherever I go. I immigrated to the US in 2015 for my MFA at Syracuse University, but long before that I had been living in the cities of India—Bombay for my Masters degree and then Delhi where I worked as an editor for the Indian arm of Hachette Publishing for a little more than three years. Hence, living in the US is a kind of double displacement because the mainstream Indian imagination itself is still very distant from the bordertown I come from.
Currently, I’m finishing my PhD at the University of Houston with a focus on Commonwealth Poetry and the epic. Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful won the Kundiman Poetry Prize in 2018. I wrote this book over five years, and the arc and the formal restlessness of the book—beginning from a kind of a collective voice, where the reader is invited to move through the thicket of the polyphony, moving progressively toward an emerging lyric—hopefully reflects this. I like the idea that you could start out reading a certain kind of book and emerge from the book’s last sequence in a different one.
Tiffany Troy: Drawing back to what you said about the fabulist collective voice, I felt your poems are coming from a specific place that also felt mythological. How does the first section, “Katabasis,” and particularly, your first poem “King’s Feedery” attune your readers’ eyes to the collection?
Rohan Chhetri: As I said, I wanted readers to move through the thicket of the collective, the polyphony, to feel through the texture of the landscape without the need to be grounded. To trust that opacity for a bit. Isn’t that the quintessential experience of an immigrant in a new country? As Alberto Rios writes of border towns, “The places in between places / they are like little countries / themselves…”.
“King’s Feedery”, I suppose, sets up that palette of the fabular and the hauntological, the political undertones of dissent/descent, the epic motifs of death, madness and savagery juxtaposed with local legends, folklore, family history and the documented history of the land. The movement of the first section is modeled as a katabasis, as a kind of descent. As I was visualizing the idea of returning home while writing some of these poems in the first section, notions of the chthonic began to crop up in my poems everywhere. I was reading and re-acquainting myself with the epics. Versions of the Ramayana, adaptations of Homer by poets like Alice Oswald, Christopher Logue. At the time, I was also reading Pound’s Cantos. Pound, too, works with the organizing principle of katabasis with his writing-through of the 11th Book from the Odyssey as the first Canto. Finally, I was thinking of the Neo-Baroque impulse—the syncretic and the expansive, the pushing up of dormant cultural influences—as a particularly immigrant aesthetic, something that possibly comes out of the constant externalizing that an immigrant body is put through and what that impulse looks like when sublimated into artistic will.
Tiffany Troy: I agree that “King’s Feedery” definitely sets the scene as to how the collection is to be read. The collection features a lot of repetition. How does your retellings of the revolution help readers see the speaker’s nation “by way of matricide, murder, and incest”?
Rohan Chhetri: I draw a lot from postmemory, familial history, and sometimes local legends retelling the various iterations of the Gorkhaland revolution, a 100-year old movement demanding self-determination and a separate state for the Nepali-speaking population from the Indian state of West Bengal. My grandfather was involved in arguably the bloodiest iteration of the movement in the 80s. I used some of these details and the history and politics of the border town to frame something of an epic narrative which mixes the fabular and the personal and the historical, taking minor characters and recasting them in a mythical space. Ancestors become “giants walking the earth” and ordinary people and their lives are shot through with a mythic resonance. This singing of “the tale of the tribe” is a singing back to the history of colonization, immigration, and finally, against neocolonialism and the cultural claim that the state of Bengal exerts on the land and its ecology. The retelling is important because they also become placeholders of remembrance like songs and elegies of witness. On a fundamental level, it is also written in a hope against erasure from the national imagination.
Tiffany Troy: Your second section is “Locus Amoenus.” Is there an ultimate Eden that the speaker or the characters in the collection try to approach or gesture toward?
Rohan Chhetri: “Locus Amoenus” is “pleasant place” in Latin, and is a trope identified in Homer, and Ovid, and later in Renaissance poetry denoting an idyllic place of pleasure and safety. Ovid frequently inverts this trope, turning the idyllic and charming place into a setting for unspeakable violence. I wanted to envision the bordertown in this Ovidian sense of abundant beauty which is always shadowed by the anticipation of violence—not just as a marginal place ravaged by political turmoil as the “center” and the media see the region. I wanted “Locus Amoenus” to weave a mythology of a place with a permeable border which brings competing elements together of the land’s ecology, beauty, multiplicity, and the horrors of state machinery and neocolonial oppression. In a tea garden plantation, once run by the British and now inherited by the native masters, these elements become particularly resonant.
Tiffany Troy: There’s a lot of family trauma brought out in the second section which bear witness to the vacuum left by colonialism and in your third section, “Erato,” the grandfather transforms from this epic hero and revolutionary to an old man who dies too embarrassed to pass on his tin box of money to his children. What is the shift that happens?
Rohan Chhetri: Thank you for that observation. What happens, I suppose, is that the lyric movement beginning in “Erato” unshackles the grandfather figure from that of a revolutionary and a pioneer and from the epic mode itself, exploring the very late aftermath of torture, trauma and oppression. In a way, the epic mode exhausts itself around this section gradually. By the time we come to the third section, the collective voice has fallen off and the lyrical “I” has emerged fully. “Toward Some Dark,” the last poem in the section, is clearly set in America. The lyrical voice takes stock of the arc of the grandfather’s particular story and gives it a possible movement toward closure.
Tiffany Troy: How does the pronounced alienation of the speaker in the fourth and final section “Grief Deer” help the reader take stock of the aftermath of trauma?
Rohan Chhetri: “Grief Deer” is pitched in a high lyric mode and speaks to the theme of unspeakable grief. It is the last circle, the darkest one, before the emerging out into light begins in the last poem of the book. It has chthonic tones, but also harkens back to the first section in terms of ritual and folklore. There’s something about giving a sonic and formal constraint to grief and to harnessing that cry in language.
Thus, “Mezza Voce,” the last sonnet, is as much a poem about not writing, about resting in the aftermath of song as it is about singing. The speaker is on his way back out, but coming back up is difficult because you are rattled by the knowledge gleaned from the descent. There’s also the killing of the deer in the end which brings to mind Maricha/Actaeon but it is also the traditional symbol for “the hidden secret of the self”. The killing of the deer thus becomes the death of this lyric self, this music “conjured” in the book to sing the particular grief. Thus, the lyric self is provisional and this conjured music is the distance between the poet and the speaker of these poems. I wrote this poem towards the end and knew immediately the book had found its coda.
Tiffany Troy: What are you working on today? Do you have any thoughts you would like to share to your readers of the world?
Rohan Chhetri: Today, I am translating the Nepali poet Avinash Shrestha’s poems. I’m excited to share his poems to the Anglophone world soon, and, above all, to see how my language is going to be changed on the other side of finishing this project. I translate with the same desire with which I write, a desire for transformation.