“Shot Through with Echoes”: A Conversation with Rohan Chhetri – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Rohan Chhetri is a writer and translator. He is the author of SLOW STARTLE (Winner of the Emerging Poets Prize 2015), JURASSIC DESIRE (Winner of the Per Diem Prize 2017) and the forthcoming 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.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your Kundiman Prize winning collection is quite remarkable in its formal range. You gracefully place inherited literary forms in conversation with experimental, postmodern techniques.   Why is it important for writers to cultivate dialogue between tradition and innovation?  

RC: Thank you, Kristina, for pointing out that formal restlessness in the book. It’s something I began to see emerge in the writing of the book over the last five years. I like the idea that you can start out reading a certain kind of book and emerge through the book’s last sequence in a different one. In a way, I suppose my poetic impulse is a baroque one which is well suited to the syncretic, non-linear, anti-neocolonial poetics that can accommodate politics and revolution from the margins, the fabular, folk horror and mythology, the motif of katabatic descent, the marriage of the classical and the local etc. — all of this prismed through the multiple poetic traditions I write out of as a Nepali-Indian Anglophone writer. This baroque impulse is trained simultaneously toward expansion and proliferation as in the longer and wilder poems, as well as turned inward in the more “formal” poems like the variations on the sonnet. As a result, I suppose these poems teeter on the edge of the supposed unity & certainties of the narrative mode (one that was predominant in my first book), which I perhaps remain deeply influenced by, while also now creating conditions of utterance that threaten to rot those certainties to avoid calcification: a condition of inner mutiny.

Not to drag Pound here, but I like the modernist conception of a poet being contemporaneous to every poet of the world living and dead. My book is shot through with echoes, some more overt than others, of poets from Homer to Forrest Gander, the Indian anglophone poets, poets from the Nepali poetic tradition, and in a more embodied way many other vernacular and oral poetic traditions that have come by way of prayer or song throughout my childhood. But the intertextuality and use of allusions is also a way of putting the book in conversation and creating its own “precursors” à la Borges, drawing its own literary bloodline across cultures and traditions. To further answer your last question, I perhaps couldn’t be prescriptive about a singular way to engage as a poet today, particularly in the current cultural, political and environmental state of emergency and human tragedy we find ourselves in, where language itself might have to be put back together again. Who knows what this new emergent poetics will have to look like or who and where the poets have to turn to adequately encapsulate this time. But in this book, it was important to me as a poet formed by a network of influences and traditions to try and be open and curious to study and graft myself into poetic traditions other than the anglophone one in which I write.

KMD:  Your poems frequently take up ambitious philosophical questions, particularly the relationship between language and violence. I’m intrigued, too, by the ways the work’s performative qualities are brought to bear on these pressing philosophical problems.  What does poetic technique make possible when making claims about culture, conscious experience, and the self?  

RC: I suppose postcolonial subjects and oppressed groups know this well about language as a site of violence, and one of the first litmus tests of a healthy democracy. As Brodsky rightly said about fascism, it begins in the language. In my book, as you pointed out, there is always that implicit tension between language and violence but it also plays out more overtly in a poem like “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”, which recounts the events of the last iteration of the Gorkhaland Movement in 2017, a hundred-year-old movement demanding self-determination and a separate Indian state for the Nepali-speaking population in West Bengal. The demand was revived again in 2017 when the Bengal government announced the imposition of the Bengali language as a mandatory subject across schools in Darjeeling. This was seen as a neo-colonial tactic and an attempt at erasure and language oppression by the speakers of an already dominated language that gained official status as one of the scheduled languages of India as late as 1992. This sparked widespread protests followed by militarization of the region, violent clashes, state-sanctioned violence, shootings, internet outage for months, and numerous human rights violations. 

The poem’s performative qualities reflect and depict this period of siege not only through the voice of a poet’s lamentation which itself falters and fails to remain objective but mainly through the antiphonal voices of the women of the town. The antiphonal section illustrates some of the ways the women have mobilized as a force of resistance in the long history of the struggle and draws from the lament tradition in ancient Greek. The poem itself tries to register that “stutter” in the English language, that disequilibrium in the face of unspeakable violence, the sheer unspeakability when language fails and narrative must slant, resort to the fabular, the redacted black silence after a gunshot. As for the English language itself, being a product of a postcolonial education, the irony of writing in a language that I was punished for if I didn’t speak it in the classroom without aberration isn’t lost on me. I think the baroque impulse for proliferation in some senses might have come out of this being stricken in the English language in my most formative years of language forming and learning to express myself, of being forced to experience the world in a language that was not coded into its objects, its materiality. Now I want to bend the English language back toward the service of that materiality, the rhythm and cadences of the world of that “home” to contaminate and decentralize the English language, to unhome myself in it so that I may make new homes.

KMD:  For you as a poet, what is the relationship between stylistic innovation in poetry and activism on a larger scale?  

RC: In this book, my poems are concerned with what it means to give form to the narrative of a small bordertown in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas and center that narrative in the global space of an anglophone poem. To this end, the collective voice, the lyric “we” has been important to me, particularly in the first two sections of the book. It is only in the third section that the lyric I begins to emerge, aptly in a section titled “Erato”, intensifying into the sonic and the aleatoric, where grief is singular and personal toward the fourth section, “Grief Deer”. Hence the phonic movement of the book is from the collective to the individual. I wanted to arrange it in a way where the reader needs to move through the thicket of the collective, to sometimes be comfortable in that opacity, to reach the lyric. I also think, on a fundamental level, the events I’m writing about may be wiped out of the national imagination and replaced by something else, because there is always something more dire happening or about to happen, but as poets it is one of our jobs to remember individual acts of violence clearly regardless of scale, and to uncover and sing the elegy of what the tide of politics and media tries to bury in the wake of another tragedy.

KMD:  Your writing has been published internationally and translated into many languages.  What advice do you have for poets who are looking to build an audience for their work?

RC: I would say I have published very sporadically over the years. I started sending out the poems from Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful to journals a year after the book had won the Kundiman Prize. I took out about thirty percent of the manuscript and rewrote new poems building towards what the book began to show over time about what it needed to be. It’s an old fashioned suggestion and possibly not useful but my advice is to wait a little. Sometimes that’s the kindest thing you can do for your work. The audience will find the work, and vice-versa. The other perhaps more helpful advice would be to read more widely, read anglophone writing outside of the Anglo-American context, and read translated works. They will change your own work in a good way. Finally to find a wider audience, perhaps the way is to first be a wider audience ourselves for poets outside of our own socio-cultural and political contexts. 

As for the translation, it has all been a matter of serendipity. I was at the Sangam House International Residency in Bangalore a few years ago, where I met Eric Auzoux, a French translator of anglophone works from India. Over the years Eric has translated my poems from the first book for French journals including the prestigious Revue Europe, the one started by Romain Rolland in 1923. He is currently at work translating Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful into French. 

KMD:  Relatedly, how did the larger literary and artistic community shape your book?  

RC: The actual writing of this book has been a long, solitary process of doubt and risk and unease and sometimes ecstasy but none of this would have been possible without the support of many individuals and institutions. My idea of an artistic community is a very small one, a group of few people who I call friends, who I can talk to about my work and writing and life in general. I’m very thankful to institutions like Kundiman for supporting an immigrant poet who has always felt a bit like an interloper in the Asian American writing community. Mentors and professors, and finally the poets I read, their ghosts living and dead, they are a vital part of the community that have shaped this book.

KMD:  What are you working on?  What can readers look forward to? 

RC: As of now, I’ve immersed myself headlong into translating the poems of the Nepali poet Avinash Shrestha and into translation studies in general, which has been helpful in the way I’ve started thinking about my own poetry and language. A PEN/Heim grant that I received early this year for the project has given me confidence to continue working on it this summer with undivided attention.