'Write from memory': What a young poet has to do to win a prize with his first book

'The way we remember, what’s left out and what’s transformed in the recapitulation.'

Rohan Chhetri, a Nepali-Indian poet from New Delhi, has made a notable debut in poetry with his first collection, Slow Startle, the winner of the (Great) Indian Poetry Collective's Emerging Poets Prize. A selection of his poems, punctuated by excerpts from an interview:

There are two recurring themes in the collection: memory and self-actualisation. The former has to do with nostalgia of things seen, felt, heard, while the latter is about you growing up, coping and understanding the world as you know it through poetry. Would you agree?
It’s interesting that those are the themes you see recurring. Memory, yes. The entire project of this book has to do with memory. The way we remember, what’s left out and what’s transformed in the recapitulation. The two threads in the book…the shorter poems mostly deal with a specific memory and work within it, while the extended narrative of the longer poems tries to play with the act of remembering itself.

What I strive for, I think, and if the poems were placed chronologically in the book this would be apparent, is to begin with the brighter nodes of memory – things that haven’t been flushed out through passing years – and use them to move into the interstices. That’s what I’m more interested in moving towards. I guess self-actualisation, the way I think you mean it here, eventually, is one of the unheeded offshoots of the act of making a poem, as is healing.

Your grandfather, to whom this book has been dedicated, has clearly played a big part in your life and writing. Are our memories of him first-hand experiences or stories passed down to you?
A lot of my early pursuits in writing went into working out my grandfather’s death. The first death in the family, this event, it later occurred to me, had had a deeper impact than I could’ve even made sense of as a child. So naturally, when I began to write poetry, I gravitated towards him, his legacy, his famed kindness, his stranglehold over the family, his flaws as a human being, and then, finally, his death.

He was a complicated man. Most of the things mentioned here are things that people remembered about him, rather than my own memory. A lot of it is also me piecing together these things from eavesdropping on adult conversations as a child.

Did you start writing poems when you were very young?
I started writing poems around the age of fourteen, I think, regurgitating a lot of what I studied in the English classes. I was in love with words first, making poems out of important-sounding words more than images.

Did you make notes of incidents growing up that were used in your poems or were they all written from memory?
No, I never made notes. I don’t know if that is even possible. What gets written about is what has lasted over the years. I really depend on it: the endurance of memories that filter and age into significance. For things unresolved to turn up in new and interesting ways by association. There’s a degree of accident and play without which it wouldn’t be poetry at all.

Beauty & Dread

Five am, a muezzin grips the cold neck
of a microphone

The land peels its shrivelled red back
and crouches into prayer

This hour before birdsong,
you woke up gasping

with the distinct sensation of inhaling ash

& listened to the enormous swishing
of trees outside

as if all night the land sighed its grievance
to the mute heavens

& the one-audience gecko on the window sill
nodding loudly in the affirmative

In the early hours, when the air falls a steep 12 degrees

the birds shriek and draw blood in the stilldark –
musicians testing their instruments in the blind

When the last amplified syllable dies out,
the prayer's inscrutable meaning closes the dawn air
like a guillotine

The microphone explodes in one brief crackle

the sound of a god hanging up

— Rohan Chhetri

Tell me a little about yourself and your tryst with poetry.
It was more a tryst with literature first rather than poetry alone. I had a very interesting English teacher at St Augustine’s, the school I studied in in Kalimpong. His class on The Old Man and the Sea could’ve possibly been the turning point that got me into all of it.

The big way poetry entered my life was perhaps with discovering the Beats, Ginsberg primarily, but also Corso, Burroughs and Kerouac after high school. Even some of their unintelligible novels. Ginsberg’s poetry at that age kind of tore open a gaping hole in my presumption of what could be written about: everything. It gave me permission to stop being genteel. It damaged my sensibility in a good way, forever. I never went back to reading him again since 2008 or so, though I still have a collected volume lying somewhere.

Your poetry is personal and honest, telling stories with lush imagery. It's a very defined style. How did that come to be? Which poets have inspired your writing?
My style bears echoes, I suppose, of the various poets and their works I’ve read, with some things I was able to bring on to what they’ve done, hopefully, to pave the way a little further. I’ve always somehow been drawn to the narrative, and the story that images tell. In recent years, I’ve started paying more attention to sound and musicality. This book of poems written in the last seven years reflects that progress, I hope.

The list of poets – I’ll keep it to the ones that might have inspired the poems in Slow Startle: Larry Levis, Jack Gilbert, Franz Wright, Alice Oswald, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Rilke, Philip Levine, Rimbaud, Raymond Carver and, yes, many others.

In Praise Of Quietude
After Borges

A word fissures the dark, a falling star will illuminate the sky of paper.
The impersonal assembly of tenements pushes the countryside farther.
I have just written down the date I’ll fall dead, so I can tackle
this big distraction they call living.
The claw marks that stand for the once loved.
They talk of humanity.
I know of humanity in the truth that we’re beggars
outside the same city of love.
They talk of home.
Home is one bleeding television, two severed heads on a branch,
& a hundred-year-old map of a liberation that will never come.
Time is killing me.
Slower than my shadow, I walk past them.
Sure-footed in the rain, they seem to know where they’re going.
My address here is as good as anywhere.
I walk slowly like one who has just begun a long, tedious journey
already wishing to return.

— Rohan Chhetri

Have you explored other genres of writing?
I have. I was always writing some fiction on the side along with poetry. I’m also trying to tackle a novella that I’ve just begun.

So why do you think poetry as a form comes so naturally to you?
Nothing comes easy or naturally. I don’t write poetry every day. I wait for images, the frisson certain events create, and lines to ferment in my head for a long while before the first lines even emerge. But I like the process itself, the slow build-up.

You have been published in several online poetry journals like Rattle, Mithila Review, and The Missing Slate. Are you a poet who has faced his share of rejections too or has the publishing world always been kind to you?
I’ve had more than my fair share of rejections from all sorts of things – from magazines to book prizes and fellowships. What would I do without rejections? I’d have terrible, stillborn poems all over the place, and the worst part is I would think they were good. It’s hard to revise something once it gets published.

New Love

Like a woman who in the heat of summer drought
has walked half a day through the shimmering

desert to the well to fill a pair of pots, and
notices too late a crack in the belly of one,

from where the thirst now leaks into the sand,
and in a panic she starts emptying it

to fill the other. Like this, the frozen moment
of her undoing, a small storm

distressing the shrinking meniscus
& the long fruitless hour of the emptying.

— Rohan Chhetri
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