2018 Kundiman Poetry Prize winner Rohan Chhetri: A book-length poem is something I want to do

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2018 Kundiman Poetry Prize winner Rohan Chhetri A book-length poem is something I want to do

Nepali-Indian poet Rohan Chhetri’s in-progress manuscript lost hurt or in transit beautiful has won the prestigious Kundiman Poetry Prize for 2018 in the US. Chhetri spoke to Firstpost about moving to the States to work on his craft, his idea of poetry and its transformation, what it means to a poet to win awards, and why it is unlikely he would shout about it on social media.

What do awards do for a poet, and what do they not – especially for those who pine for them? 

What they do: give you some validation to continue working. A little money, in case of poetry. Visibility and readership; your work is vetted and hopefully it may open some other doors.

What they also do: distract you from the actual writing. The actual writing, and the preening that an author has to do, so to say, after the publishing of a book or after winning an award, belong to two different moral worlds.

What they don’t do for sure: make your writing stronger.

You have been on an academic journey – right since childhood – that has probably been just as long and varied in geography. Your poetry also seems abreast of the politics that one assumes would have been picked up on the way. Is that a conscious choice? How do you address the idea of your ‘roots’, your childhood, and your community?

I see academia, specially now that I’m in a PhD program, as one way of doing the “adequate preparation” for the writing of my future poems. Does my poetry seem abreast of concurrent politics? I don’t know, sometimes maybe. I respond to history and cultural memory more, I suppose. But those, too, are words I use often and the more I use them, the less they mean. What’s interesting to me perhaps is the particular as a resonance of the larger political. As a poet, however, especially in the new book, I want to be doing various things formally and aesthetically while making private inquiries about language and the way we use it to tell the stories we choose to tell. The language of my home and familial imagination, and the language I write in, the possible appropriation of certain sensibilities through it and the necessary subversion that is inherent in my use of it.

I’m working with form, poetic traditions, allegory, translation, elements of folk horror and many other things that currently interest me. A long poem from the book which recently won a second prize in the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize 2018, chosen by Camille T Dungy, for example, uses elements of the lament tradition in ancient Greek to examine the Gorkhaland agitation that resurfaced last year in the wake of the Bengal Government trying to make Bengali a compulsory subject in schools across the Darjeeling region. Would it be too far from the truth now to say my work is in service of poetry, the art, and probably nothing else, not even community or the self as such, but the larger project any self-respecting poet is hacking towards alone in the blind? I don’t know yet, but I feel most comfortable with that idea for now.

What has changed since you shifted base from India to the US? What were your first impressions of the ecology of poetry there? What can we learn in terms of approaching the craft?

Nothing has changed in terms of writing or the famous anxiety of the blank page. The way my work has evolved since the first book has been a process of coming in contact with various memorable people, teachers, and writers on the page and in real life, experiences, and my readings. My first impression about the scene here was something I already knew, that there’s just too much happening here. I still think that, but there’s a way of navigating I’ve learned slowly. And it’s mostly to do with doing my own thing and slowly plodding on with educating myself on the craft, reading as much and as variedly as possible, exploring my own aesthetic and evolving. Publishing less and allowing other areas and influences to bleed into my work: films, art, ethnography etc. There are too many schools peddling their own aesthetic but to a great extent it’s healthy because the polyphony allows for immense syncretism, co-existence of ideas and styles, and deep understanding that there is, maybe, a place for everyone.

I don’t really know what we can learn. We have our own reality in India and some advantages and severe limitations, but we’re seeing a revival in the last few years and that can only be good. My own feeling is there needs to be more interbreeding between the regional poetry scenes and English perhaps, there is an untapped potential there to make our poems new, and not just in the form of translations, but that’s a good and important place to begin.

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Your first collection, Slow Startle, despite not being on e-retail sites or popular bookstores, made quite an impression. What do you put it down to? Can a poet define success as easily as maybe a novelist can?

You’re kind to say that. I don’t know, honestly, how much of an impression it has made. I really wish I could’ve done more to make it available, but at least with the second book I will be able to do that since I have the Indian rights. Can a poet actually define success as easily as a novelist? For obvious reasons, maybe not. And it’s better that way. Being a little out of depth about one’s own success is especially productive for a poet.

You’ve hardly put yourself out there, unlike the local poetry scene here which is brimming with noise. How do you tackle the animal of social media and marketing? Crucially, does poetry even have to sell to be of worth? If not, why do we publish — on paper — at all?

I see it in the same way as the answer to your first question: none of it actually helps my writing and I see no point to it. The instantaneous self-revelation and validation cycle is almost painful; because I’m only human I have a tendency to get into it too and I see how insidiously it works. But I’ve signed a contract and I will post updates on my book as and when it is required of me during certain periods and I’m happy to do it. Other times I try to stay away from it. Poetry definitely does not need to sell to be of worth but it definitely needs to be read and understood in its time and context.

I’ve noted – from the handful of poems that I’ve read from your latest manuscript – you’ve become a lot more personal – and spontaneous – as if familiarizing yourself with places and people all over again. What might that be down to? Do you think you might even be homesick?

It’s probably approaching the personal in a slightly different way in this book, shifting the lenses a little bit. I haven’t really finished the manuscript to talk about it with any authority right now. But after the first book, I thought, some of these things I will never have to write about now. I thought I was done. But turns out, some things you cannot escape from writing about. In the second book, my focus is on pressuring the language and form a little to see how that thumbing might give shape to the memory and politics of what I actually want to say. In this book, I’m probably trying to avoid anything closed and certain and singular.

What do you constantly remind yourself not to do? What is that you absolutely want to, but haven’t been able? Can writing verse accord itself to structure, as novelists say they write so-many-ever words a day? Is a poet ever ‘off work’, even if not writing?

I remind myself to never write something that only sounds like a poem but has nothing of my own design and soul-print in it.

A good long poem, stuttering and Heraclitean and baroque, something forged out of wildness by design not excess: a book-length poem is something I absolutely want to do.

I think it’s good for a poet to sit down every day and work for a few hours, preferably around the same time. I say it from experience because that’s how I wrote the second half of this new manuscript and it only lasted for about three months — the discipline. And of course you’re not going to have anything to say 28 out of the 30 days in a month, if you’re lucky. But that is when you actually begin to be inventive.

How does a poet answer the ‘what next’ question? Is it the novel? Is it something else? Is there a natural end to all of this?

The what next question is simple for a poet: the next poem. I leave Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s poem “Where Will the Next One Come From” to answer the rest:

“The next one will come from the air
It will be an overripe pumpkin
It will be the missing shoe

The next one will climb down
From the tree
When I’m asleep

The next one I will have to sow
For the next one I will have
To walk in the rain

The next one I shall not write
It will rise like bread

It will be the curse coming home.”