Lynn Aarti Chandhok
March 2008

 

Lynn ChandhokLynn Aarti Chandhok is the author of The View from Zero Bridge, which won the 2006 Philip Levine Prize and was published by Anhinga Press in 2007. She also won the 2006 Morton Marr Prize for Poetry. Her work has appeared in journals including The New Republic, Tin House, The Antioch Review, The Hudson Review, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Florida Review, and Sewanee Theological Review. A chapbook, Picking the Flowers, was published by Aralia Press. Her poems have been featured on Poetry Daily and in the anthology Poetry Daily Essentials 2007.

*          *          *

Chandhok was born in Pittsburgh in 1963 and raised in the suburbs. Her father grew up in Kashmir and her mother grew up in Brooklyn. She traveled to India frequently as a child, and as a result of all the back and forth, she was bewildered for most of her young life—always on the outside without a clue how to fit in. She remains bewildered but curious—both of which, she believes, are good states from which to begin writing poems.

She graduated from Swarthmore College in 1985 with a degree in English Literature and no idea what to do next. She had studied pottery in high school and apprenticed with a potter in New Delhi during college, so she moved to Boston, continued to work on her pottery, and made money as a technical writer. In 1988, at the suggestion of friend, she entered the teacher training program at the Shady Hill School, completing this and a master’s degree in teaching at Tufts in 1989. She moved to Brooklyn in 1990 with her husband, and since then she has taught middle and high school English, raised two daughters, worked as a freelance writer, and, briefly, as a real estate salesperson. She loves teaching high school, but believes it is one of the hardest and most undervalued professions this country has going.

In 1999, while on extended parental leave from teaching, she began writing poetry—and reading poetry seriously—for the first time. The next year, after many years away because of the war in Kashmir, she started traveling back to India and taking her children. Much of her work is about the ongoing process of trying to negotiate different places, families, histories, and political conflicts. She now spends about a month every year in the Kumaon Hills region of the Himalayan foothills. Frost, Larkin, Stevens, Merrill, Edward Thomas, Derek Mahon, and Richard Kenney are some of the poets in her library there.

Statement about Poetry

I think it’s most important that poetry remains accessible—not to some pejoratively described “average reader” but to people who read, who want to read because it gives them a kind of pleasure they don’t find otherwise. Readers want to be moved and delighted by language—by images and by the music of poetry, by the story in a poem, and finally by what the poem evokes or means. Too many people outside of the poetry community feel shut out by much of contemporary poetry. They feel that, no matter how hard they try, they just can’t get what the poems mean.

I suppose I’m attuned to this acutely because I teach high school and because I so desperately want my students to be lifelong poetry readers. If they’re alienated by poetry by the time they’re 18, it seems much less likely that they’ll turn back to it later in life.
By the time I get them as juniors and seniors, too many of them already feel that poetry is “too hard.” But when I read them Frost or Yeats out loud, they murmur afterwards like the most well-read, most literary audience, and then they talk about what’s striking, beautiful, and unnerving in the poems.

High school students are shockingly good critics: they don’t want to have to work hard if there’s no payoff for the work, but they will keep rereading, talking, and revising their ideas—no matter how hard the poem is—if it offers clear music, beautiful images, and language that is meant to yield up meanings, not language meant only to play with itself. They will look up historical or cultural references, pore over dictionaries—they will do whatever it takes, but they will only do this if the poem promises to open up their understanding of the world.

When my students read contemporary poetry written in form and in conversational English, they are actually thrilled. It seems ridiculous to me that they are led to believe that there are no “good” new poems written with attention to rhyme and meter. They want to love poems the way they loved them when they were younger, and I think most adult readers want to love poetry the same way. The experience they are looking for begins in hearing the music of metrical poetry, in the pleasure of rhyme. My students have taught me a great deal about how I want to write.

*          *          *

My own work began to seem urgent to me when the politics of the situation in Kashmir first became really personal, when the loss of that home really sunk in. I wanted to change my own reaction—“How could anyone do that?”—to “How does a person come to that place? What would it be like to feel as that person feels?” The first reaction is a dead-end response, politically, artistically, and personally.

I’m interested in understanding how people come to do unthinkable things—and I’m no longer na´ve enough to think those things are out of my range as a human being. It seems to me that behaviors that derive either from fear or from a desire for control are behaviors that we all understand. Fear and desire—well, those are subjects for poems. They make up every relationship; they are how we negotiate the self and the other.

It seems to me that the best political writing should obliterate the reader’s ability to think of the “other” as wholly unlike the “self.” If we can experience empathy or compassion, we can get somewhere. Poetry can elicit compassion when the easier response is anger or fear. At this moment in history, that seems pretty important.

*          *          *

Until I was in my mid thirties, I never imagined myself as a writer—and once I started, I didn’t know or imagine I’d end up writing in traditional forms. I know now, however, that writing in form makes me a better writer. It forces me to think outside of myself and to consider the traditions of writing and writers who achieved far more through their poems than I ever will. And I’m not interested in shocking or disturbing my reader with dissonant music or unsettling visual placements of words on the page. I think the world is shocking and disturbing enough.

A really good poem, a poem with music that the untrained listener hears, is a personal experience and a social experience. When I read to my students and all of them (they want to be businessmen, doctors, basketball players, filmmakers, artists, teachers, scientists—one wants to manage casinos)—all of them let out a sigh at the end of “Sailing to Byzantium” and all of them engage in a discussion about the power of art to effect change—well, it seems to me that the poetry can give very different individuals a shared experience that leads them into a conversation they would not otherwise have had. But if there’s no music, the audience tunes out.

Perhaps it’s na´ve to think that if we prick up our ears when we hear metrical poetry, if we are compelled to listen by that primitive, finger-tapping music—that we will listen and hear something we did not consider a moment before. To me, traditional forms—when used well—allow for something radical and political. Poetry should engage us in a shared experience and force us to consider exactly what that means.

Author photo by Richard Bowditch.

Back to PoetryNet