portrait Lynn Aarti Chandhok

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 133 ~ June, 2008

Lynn Aarti Chandhok’s collection of poetry, The View from Zero Bridge, won the 2006 Philip Levine Poetry Prize and was published by Anhinga Press in October of 2007. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Antioch Review, Tin House, Prairie Schooner,

and The Missouri Review.

In 2006, Chandhok received the Morton Marr Poetry Prize (Southwest Review); was a Distinguished Entry in the Campbell Corner Prize (Sarah Lawrence College); and was a runner-up for the Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Chandhok spent many childhood summers with family in Kashmir. She received a B.A. in English Literature from Swarthmore College and later completed the Teacher Training Course

at the Shady Hill School and a master’s degree in teaching from Tufts University.

Chandhok lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she teaches high school English. She is married to Robert Dieterich, a journalist, and has two daughters, Meena and Priya, and travels frequently to India.

Derek Alger: Tell us a bit about your background.

Lynn Chandhok: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where my parents met. My father came to the US from India in 1952 to study. My mother, who is from Brooklyn, was a student at Antioch College. She was on work-study in Pittsburgh and I think the story is that a mutual friend invited them both to a picnic for young Unitarians.

My father’s parents in India and my mother’s parents in Brooklyn were — in very different ways–very progressive politically. They were interested in social change, fought for it. Still, my parents’ relationship and marriage was a shock, on both sides.

My brothers and I spent our summers either in India with my father’s family (where there were daily prayers and a good deal of attention to ritual) or at a secular Jewish summer camp that my mother’s parents were involved in –- one of the socialist camps started in the 1920s — everyone there was from New York City. But we lived in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where we were one of only a very few non-white families, and the only mixed family I can remember.

DA: You truly grew up with a dual heritage.

LC: Yes, it was a big split. My summers in Kashmir were long, slow, intense, confusing, and beautiful. My extended family there is huge — my grandfather had seven sisters, and my father’s cousins are like aunts and uncles to me. Really like parents too. They are unusual too in that my great-grandparents believed that women should be educated. My great aunts were beautiful, mysterious, intelligent, creative, and very loving women. I remember just wanting to sit with them.

We spent almost all of our time outdoors, either in our enormous garden, running around in the orchards and vegetable gardens, or out on day trips, hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas or bathing in some glacial stream or other. There is a rule in our family: no river is too cold, no lake is too forbidding. If there is a body of water, the Chandhoks go in. Everyone goes in, even the littlest cousin. This is the way my aunts and uncles were raised by my great-grandfather.

Then, my other summers, I’d spend with New York City kids talking about social justice, nuclear war, labor unions –- and, much to my father’s dismay, learning to curse. It was hard, no matter where I’d been, to ease back in to school, the suburbs, football games and cheerleaders.

DA: Congratulations on publication of your poetry collection, The View from Zero Bridge, which was a winner of the Philip Levine Poetry Prize.

LC: Thank you. The collection really begins with those experiences –mostly my early memories of time spent in India, but I didn’t start writing those poems (actually, I hadn’t written poetry at all) until I had my own children, and I was trying to figure out how to take them back to India. This was the mid-1990s, and in the late 1980s, my family basically packed up the house in Kashmir because it was so dangerous — most of the Hindu families left, and the situation — well, the politics there are so complicated and tragic. I felt, and still feel, helpless and sad about what’s happened there — angry about the loss of life, about what has happened to that community, but mostly incredibly sad.

We could go to my grandfather’s house in New Delhi, but I wanted to take them to the mountains. That’s why and how I started writing. Over the course of the next few years, as we did in fact go back, the rest of the poems came along out of the new experiences, out of the traveling back and forth, out of trying to make sense of the political conflicts, the religious tensions. And as it turns out, my aunts and uncles, who missed being in the mountains, found a little town in the Himalayan foothills in Uttarakhand — twenty years ago, it was pretty much off the map, though now it’s being developed, overdeveloped. In any case, we have a small cottage in there, far from any political conflict. It’s turned out be a perfect place to write: when we first got there, there were hardly ever working phone lines, let alone internet. And it’s beautiful, though not like Kashmir once was.

In any case, I was thrilled to have the book taken by Anhinga — through Cal State Fresno’s Philip Levine Prize. It was an honor, of course, to have Philip Levine’s name on my book.

DA: It says a lot that you dedicated The View from Zero Bridge to your parents.

LC: Well, as much as I sometimes hated them for sending us here and there and expecting we’d adapt and adjust, of course now I’m incredibly grateful. Sure, it was confusing, but I think in that confusion I came to understand the world at least a little more completely, and much more realistically, than my friends who’d never gone out of the country. Actually, we used to complain to our parents that we never got to go to Disneyland, or do anything that “normal” kids did. My parents scraped together and saved every dollar they could to send us to India -– it was a real sacrifice, and I think it was pretty brave. I have many difficult memories — I saw things that my peers did not see. But I can’t imagine having grown up without seeing those things, and without knowing my grandparents and aunts, uncles, and cousins, without really living with them — being bored, hanging around, having everyday experiences there, not going for a visit, but living with them. It was a great gift.

DA: You found a great publisher in Anhinga Press.

LC: Anhinga has been just amazing — very supportive throughout the entire process. I feel very lucky. When I first heard from the book designer, Lynne Knight, she said, “I want you to be happy with the book when you open that first box.” And I was delighted. And Rick Campbell, who is the one of the most dedicated people I know, has done so much to publicize and promote the book. There are plenty of people with first books who don’t have a chance to give a lot of readings. But Rick has helped me get the word out, and so the book has done very well.

DA: Did you have an idea you would write poetry early on?

LC: No. None. I avoided every creative writing class I could avoid. I was terrified, really terrified, of criticism, and I was pretty sure I had nothing interesting to say. In high school, I was a very good, mechanically good, student. My older brothers were sort of brilliant in math and science and so I just coasted behind them and didn’t really focus on anything in particular academically. I just wanted to do well enough.

I was interested in the visual arts, mostly in ceramics, but also drawing and painting. We had a pretty amazing ceramics studio in our school, and I had a great teacher. In college, I took a semester off and apprenticed with a potter in New Delhi. When I graduated from college, I worked as a potter, and as a waitress, and eventually as a technical writer, before I decided to teach -– far more lucrative than pottery, though that’s not really saying much.

I was always a good writer but I didn’t think I had an imagination.

I liked pottery because I understood that if I just practiced over and over again, I could get a form just right. I didn’t really understand that poetry worked the same way. And I didn’t really understand poetic forms. Perhaps if someone had really taught me about poetic forms, I wouldn’t have felt that anxiety. That’s really how I started to feel comfortable writing poems -– by trying to attend to form. It gave me the distance I needed from myself. I think the forms gave me a space to work out what really was there in my imagination.

My background in the visual arts informs my poetry also in that what I write about is often very visual: my memories of how things looked. I’m interested in places, colors, what it feels like to be somewhere, what the textures are. I suppose, since I’m writing about these places, homes that have been lost, I need my reader to be in that place to understand that loss.

DA: What about college?

LC: I ended up at Swarthmore a little bit by chance — I didn’t know that much about it, but I think I was very lucky to have gone there. It was very intense, and not at all easy. Intellectually, I was stretched nearly to the breaking point -– but my professors there taught me to think, and for that I’m grateful. I think that what was lost for me in that intense academic environment was the appreciation of literature for its own sake: because it’s beautiful, because it offers a visceral and a transcendent experience. I’ve tried to balance that in the way I approach teaching literature now: on the one hand, I want my students to be good, critical readers who understand complex ideas, who aren’t fooled or manipulated by language, who understand tone. On the other hand, I hope that when they read Faulkner or Wallace Stevens, they have the opportunity to sort of wallow in the beauty of a passage or an image. We spend a lot of time reading out loud in my classes. I’ll often read something just because it’s beautiful -– and tell my students they don’t have to analyze. That, of course, is when they do their best decoding, their best analysis. But it starts in taking pleasure in the language itself -– teachers often forget that. I forgot that for a while in college.

DA: What came next?

LC: After college, I drove to California and back, ended up in Boston. As I said, I settled in to making pots — but having no money and having to pay college loans was also terrifying to me. So I took work as a technical writer.

DA: You also met your husband at this time.

LC: Yes, we were both waiting tables at a restaurant in Harvard Square. We overlapped by about a week, and then he quit and went to Europe. So then I quit and went to Europe — just for a few weeks. And somehow 23 years has passed since then…

DA: What made you decide to continue your education?

LC: We were living in an apartment in a house in North Cambridge. Our landlord was a teacher and an artist. He worked at the Shady Hill School, which has an incredible teacher training program — I don’t know of a better one. He knew I was miserable doing technical writing, and for some reason he thought I’d make a good English teacher. I suppose again that the idea of being trained by a “master” — and the teachers there were definitely master teachers, made me feel comfortable. I ended up teaching middle school for many years, and loving it. Though I have to say that I don’t think I’ve been as happy in the classroom as I am right now teaching juniors and seniors.

DA: We might say you were able to pursue two great loves after
that, becoming a mother and doing your apprenticeship as a poet.

LC: That’s an interesting way to put it, though I suppose it’s true. I’m not sure there was a master teacher around to help me learn to be a mother, though my own parents, both of them, are excellent parents, and were especially good with the babies.

I was on leave from teaching, working freelance, and actually selling real estate for a while, when I started to write poems.

DA: Perhaps you could tell us about your apprenticeship period.

LC That was around 1998 or so. Brooklyn was filling up with young writers. I had a few friends who were well on their way in their “careers” as writers who were very generous and very helpful. And I found mentors by taking classes -– at the 92nd Street Y and at summer conferences. I was stunned by how generous and helpful and supportive those teachers were. In fact, I’m a far better teacher now mostly because I finally see what it can mean to be nurtured and appreciated as a thinker, artist, and writer. They also let me know just how hard the work would be. That was good to hear — really, I was clueless.

Andrew Hudgins has a great poem, actually, called “Day Job and Night Job” in which he makes the decision to become a poet. The last lines are, “I could see my new life clear before me. It looked the same. Like work.”

That’s what I learned in that early apprentice period.

DA: Anything else?

LC: I spent a lot of time reading. I didn’t have a very good background
— not much knowledge even of 20th century English poetry. I read and memorized: Stevens, Merrill, Auden. A lot of Stevens. A poet named Edgar Bowers that not many people read. I memorized as much blank verse as I could. I would read for an hour or more every morning, and then write for as long as I could. And then try to figure out ways to bring my work to good workshops with good teachers.

DA: How do you find living in Brooklyn?

LC: I have lived in Park Slope since 1990 -– and I have loved it since the minute we realized we weren’t cut out to live in Manhattan and fled over the bridge. Back then, it was not cool to live in Brooklyn.

But it changed pretty quickly. Now Park Slope seems mostly to be the subject of derision — I can’t really figure this out — people love to hate people who live in Park Slope. It’s a beautiful place to live — and we’re lucky we came when regular people could afford it.

DA: Park Slope sounds fine to me.

LC: I feel very comfortable here. I know my neighbors, and the shop owners know my kids. I like Brooklyn because you can be anonymous and known at the same time. Brooklyn is the first place I’ve felt accepted … normal, I guess, whatever that means -– remember that suburban upbringing? Here, everyone has some weird mixed heritage.

Because of that, and because it’s a real neighborhood where people know each other, it’s been an amazing place to raise kids. I know this is changing, too. I know the neighborhood is getting wealthier and whiter. We’ll see what happens. I can’t think of a place I’d rather live, except in India.

DA: Does teaching high school help you as a poet?

LC: Yes and no. Teaching poetry to high school students gives me the chance to go back again and again to the poets I love. And, interestingly, my students can point out the flaws in some of the contemporary poetry that I get enamored with. They are exceptional critics. But they love great poetry -– even if they don’t “understand” it entirely. Maybe especially when they don’t! We recently read Anne Stevenson’s poem “Arioso Dolente” in class and my students were appropriately stunned by it — it is a remarkable poem. In a way, their appreciation for a poem reminds me again and again of what I should be after in my own work. I’m forced every day to think about the interplay of music and meaning, image and echo.

The downside is that there is little time to write. I take time in the summers in India, but it’s not really enough. During the year when I have papers to grade, or college recommendations to write, I feel like I’m sprinting for months at a time. And our school year is longer than a college school year.

Another sad truth about teaching high school is that, even in a good school — like the one where I work — the focus on test scores and Ivy League admissions makes it hard to do what I want to do. I think I make my point, by the end of the year — that I’m interested in literature as an art, that I’m interested in talking about what it means to be human, to feel love, pity, hatred, compassion — to do bad things and good things, to forgive and to endure — and to take pleasure in the beautiful things that human beings create.

My students — and they are wonderful students — are unfortunately going through high school in an era that doesn’t really allow them to be students.

DA: Without having a crystal ball, what do you hope for the future.

LC: Oh, I want to figure out how all the fragments of poems and stories I have in my head and on some scraps of paper are going to shape themselves into a next book. So I guess I hope for a next book – one in which I reconsider some of the issues of form that both define and, maybe, limit my work. I’m trying to write about my grandfather’s seven sisters. I really, really hope I can pull that off. It’s been difficult to get a handle on exactly how I want to shape this next project.

And I hope that I can have some influence on the way that poetry is taught in high school, but that’s another story.