Each year our Pavilion Poetry students assist with the publishing of our new collections, dedicating their time to an individual poet. In this interview, which took place in January 2020, Amber Pollock talks with author Bhanu Kapil about her new collection, How To Wash A Heart (Pavilion Poetry, 2020).
What inspired you to write a collection on the complex relationship between an immigrant guest and a citizen host?
The culture of detention and family separations on the U.S.- Mexico border, repatriation protocols in the U.K., and the aggression towards minority populations in contemporary India are the water of this book, its background radiation or sky. The sudden inspiration to write this book comes from a glimpse of a photograph I’d seen in a newspaper. In this photograph, a couple in Berkeley, California had opened their home to a guest with a precarious visa status. What caught my attention was the tautness of the muscles around the mouths of these hosts. Perhaps they were simply nervous of being photographed. Nevertheless, the soft tissue contraction of those particular muscles are at odds (when visible) to a smile itself. I didn’t know I was going to write a book, so swiftly, and so I didn’t retain that photograph. Nevertheless, I immediately began to imagine (fictionalize) a story of hospitality, of being welcomed and welcoming in, that is also “at odds” to the situation itself. For me, this was also a way to write about the discrepancy between being in spaces that, outwardly, present themselves as inclusive, open to outsiders or minority presences, but which, in the lived experience of inhabiting them, is excruciating. This is the territory that Sara Ahmed unfolds on her feministkilljoys blog, and in her books, when she evokes university settings, in particular. Yes, I wanted to alchemize my own experience too.
Your works often deal with serious issues such as immigration, colonisation and abusive structures of power. Do you think that it is important for poetry, or literature more broadly, to always have a moral purpose?
I’m thinking of something I once heard Samuel Delany say, on a panel we were both on, something like: “What is the relationship of fiction to the borders of the national space in which it is being written? You can tell what kind of country you are living in by studying its prose.” Yes, who gets to be in this imagined world? Who gets to arrive and who, in fact, never arrives? Can a poem do some of the work of attending to these questions? Imagine a syringe that enters the culture to retrieve a lime or pink solution. Is this dosage? Is it a cure? Or is it titration? Can a poem be a way to analyze the culture through a drop of that culture, injected into the act of reading and writing in turn? As a term, titration is also a part of trauma theory: an idea about oscillating between the intense parts of an event and an image environment. In my previous books, I tried to think about this as something poetry could do: work very intensely with the sensations and textures of colonisation, the half-lives of a colonial impact, but also — through the work of rhyme or sound — to also be the means by which inherited forms of trauma, in their non-verbal states, might also: move through. Of course, if I think of the moment we are living in or through right now, there’s no “moving through.” How can the poem’s form — the shape that it takes, and the limits of that shape — tell the truth (or one of the truths) about what it is like to be a human being in the given world? Can it do this at the expense of its own lyric aims? Is poetry, in fact, prepared to be less beautiful than it could be, otherwise? I am thinking of the last line of this book, the book that I have written for Pavilion Poetry, a book that is not intended to be an amazing book or a remarkable book, but rather a very ordinary or banal book that closes — well, with the reality of how a body, a vulnerable body, interacts with the devastating structural power of immigration policy in 2019 or 2020. I wanted that last line to make the book stop. It stopped, I guess. My morality as a writer resides in the decisions I make before the book begins, but also when it ends.
Do you see this collection as having a similar voice as, or as being linked to, any of your other works?
Under what circumstances is a person born in England never English? That was an early question for me, one that lodged in my last book, Ban en Banlieue (published in New York by Nightboat Books), as a meditation on bodies as somatized differently. Which bodies appear in the document of place, or the evocation of the ways in which a “place” (or a “time”) comes to be? I am thinking of the recent pronouncement, by a British actor, that the sight of Sikh soldiers in the film 1917 was “incongruous.” Conditional forms of belonging have been themes in my writing — a way of writing about England, you could say, from elsewhere. My last two books track themes, lived experience and memory related to being a human being in a time in which Far Right rhetoric and practice is resurgent. My work is about arriving, but also never-arriving, you could say. In How To Wash A Heart, I wanted to extend my autobiographical practice to a fictionalized account of the guest-host praxis. Praxis is the wrong word. This collection, though it shares content and memory with the other books I have written, has a speaker who is not me. It reverses the vector of my first book, which I began to write in the United Kingdom (and India), but which I completed in the United States. In this case, I wrote a first draft in Colorado and it became what I worked on and returned to after returning to England after twenty-one (or twenty-nine) years.
After you achieved such great success with your work in America, what made you decide to publish in the UK? Is there something specific about the message in How To Wash A Heart that you wanted a British audience to resonate with?
Who are your radical or near others? In your workplace or in the sphere of your everyday life, the life you share with family and friends, who is there? Who is not there? What kinds of lives or trajectories of lives appear in the books you read, or want to read? These are questions about power, belonging and love that I am only beginning to form, and I don’t know, as yet, if they will seem naive or belated in a British context. My decision to publish in the UK extends from a desire to return to the UK after many years in the United States, where caring for my mother, a British citizen, was becoming untenable and increasingly restricted under changes to healthcare and immigration policy during the current presidency.
I understand that you have a love of traveling, how much do you think traveling has impacted and informed your work?
I don’t know that I love traveling as much as I once did. The flows of my body don’t settle as easily as they once did when I crossed time zones multiple times in a year, and I am rethinking the carbon footprint of the poetry gig, what it is to be flown across the ocean then back in the course of two or three days, just to stand on a stage and read from a book for 20 or 30 minutes. I don’t have a permanent home in the U.K. and so all I can think of right now are the steps it will take to make such a home, for myself and my family, possible. How can I integrate with the biome of the place where I was born? Ideas: drink tea with Mina Gorji at Fitzbillies on Thursday morning, take slow walks through the grounds of the Institute of Astronomy, paying attention to the snowdrops and holly berries and bright green moss. Someone recently said something that helped to me to reframe the feelings of vulnerability I’ve unexpectedly experienced upon my return to England. She said: “Perhaps being in a new place is not just about absorbing it, but allowing yourself to be absorbed by it in turn.” And so, I’m trying to relax. To summarize, I don’t want to travel as much right now. I want to experiment with what it would be to feel at or to be at: home.
Bhanu Kapil is the author of five books of poetry/prose: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works, 2006), humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), Schizophrene (Nightboat, 2011), and Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat, 2015). Her blog can be found at https://thesparklyblogofbhanukapil.blogspot.com. She is also the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry, 2020.