“Poetry is an elemental human capacity that connects us to people we cannot reach”

shares Bhanu Kapil, winner of 2020’s Windham-Campbell Prize for poetry.

British-Indian poet Bhanu Kapil is the winner of 2020’s Windham-Campbell Prize for poetry. The recipients of this award unite a rich, international collection of writers whose challenging work explores pressing political and social themes across identity, culture and power.

Bhanu is known for exploring crucial questions of trauma, healing and immigration. She is the author of a number of full-length works of poetry/prose, including The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Incubation: a space for monsters, humanimal [a project for future children], Schizophrene, Ban en Banlieue, and How to Wash a Heart. Here, she shares more about her love for writing.


AABP: When did you start writing?

Bhanu: On January 1st of the year I turned sixteen, I dramatically filled a page of my A4 hardback Diary from WH Smiths with my cramped handwriting. Every day since that evening, I have written in my notebook every day, aspiring to become the British-Punjabi version of Jean Genet, with varying success.

AABP: How was Salman Rushdie an early influence to you?

Bhanu: I remember the moment my father came home from work with a copy of Midnight’s Children. That night, for the first time, I saw someone who resembled the people in my family win something that people in my family did not do and which I yearned to do: write stories that burn blue holes in the real day, through which another person might perceive another world. I was twelve years old. From that moment on, it became my dream to write. That year, for example, I entered a competition for aspiring novelists. My protagonist, Pinky Agarwalia, had just survived a thermonuclear war. I can still remember the feedback I received from the judge, something along the lines of: “This is not a novel.”

AABP: What has been your inspiration?

Bhanu: An inspiration, in retrospect, might be this quote from an extraordinary talk given by M. NourbeSe Philip, which I memorized: “The purpose of avant-garde writing for a writer of colour is to prove you are human.” Yes, I’ve been working on that for some years now.

AABP: How were you attracted to poetry?

Bhanu: My mother came to England as a new bride in the time of paper-thin, light blue aerogrammes and the impossible cost of long-distance calls. In that context, she had made an agreement with her own mother, in India, that whenever the moon was full or certain constellations appeared in the night sky, that they would communicate with each other like that: by bouncing prayers and love off the moon and stars themselves. I have early memories of my mother opening the window of our bedroom and singing the bhajans of Mira Bai to the sky. As I grew older, my mother would wake me up and sit me on the windowsill to “sing poems to the moon.” She would then write down my poems, and include them in letters she wrote in the morning. And so, for me, poetry is not about the desire for being, or expression, it is something that is already there, an elemental human capacity that connects us to the ones who are beside us but also the ones we cannot touch or reach.

AABP: Share your experience as a 2019-2020 Judith E Wilson Visiting Poetry Fellow.

Bhanu: I wanted to create a space in which writing could be developed from the “bottom up,” through sensations and textures of many kinds. How do you remember who you are when you are not with others? How do you remember who you are when you are not alone? I have a blog where I traced some of the experiences that unfolded in the Judith E. Wilson studio, which can be found here: https://judithewilsondramastudio.blogspot.com/. This next term, I wanted to showcase artists and writers who have created radical works, but with the evolving coronavirus situation, I am not sure if this will be possible. Perhaps I can create digital events, with the support of Lorraine Carver, the extraordinary manager of the Judith E. Wilson studio, who has encouraged me to keep dreaming about what might be possible in that space.

AABP: Your thoughts on travel, transformation and writing.

Bhanu: As a teenager and in my twenties, travel between many countries, and for so many different reasons, filled my third eye with powerful images of oceans, flowers, streets, orchards, airports, skies and love. As my life began to change, and when I became a mother, in particular, I had to train myself to transform in place, to learn how to stay and to grow in other ways. It took a long time. I think of Willa Cather’s line: “I have crossed so many rivers I have become numb to them.” That said, I don’t want to equate a social or romantic form of traveling with the kind of travel that cannot, always, be reversed and might not be travel in the first place, but rather, displacement.

AABP: Trauma, healing and immigration – your views on the same as a poet. How do you interweave the three and write?

Bhanu: A poet I met in a cafe in San Francisco, Petra Kuppers, said, when we met for tea: “I am not interested in disclosure. I am interested in discharge.” How can writing, in bringing awareness to cultural or individual forms of trauma, also be the means by which these forms of trauma move through the nervous system of the writer or the reader, or the audience? I actually don’t know that writing, after all, can do this. I am not sure that my own books have been able to do this, for example. But something about performance, or process, feels like the place where these ideas might be worked out. At the same time, I am not sure if I am there yet, though I can think of other examples: M. NourbeSe Philips’s ritual performance works, for example, that followed the publication, in the U.S., of Zong! I am also remembering Eleni Stecopolous’ curation, The Poetics of Healing, in the Bay Area a few years back, as a place that allowed me (and so many others) to start thinking and exploring in the axial space of trauma, healing and “the vital arts of crisis.”

AABP: What are the themes you like to explore and connect to the reader?

Bhanu: In writing my last book, Ban en Banlieue, I wanted to create a historical work that was at the same time a fleeting or ephemeral work, the depiction of the night of April 23rd, 1979, which was the night of one of the first “riots,” or what was characterized as a riot, in the Asian neighbourhood of west London that I was from. This was a time in which the Far Right was resurgent, and in 2009, when I began writing the preludes for this book, or collecting its necessary fragments, I noticed that much of what was stirring politically, in northern Europe but also elsewhere, felt so similar to the pre-time of the 1970s. How things re-loop. I guess I wanted to trace that weak connection between the two eras, which of course, since, has become an evident one.

AABP: Would you like to quote one of your favourite lines.?

Bhanu: “I want a literature that is not made from literature.”

AABP: What more do you want to explore?

Bhanu: I want to explore ideas of performance and shame, perhaps as an essay, and perhaps as a novel, and perhaps as an unwritten work. I would like to continue collaborating with my sister, the artist Rohini Kapil. A dream would be to curate an installation of my sister’s art in Chandigarh’s Architecture Museum, and then to read Schizophrene (a book which has on its cover an image from my sister’s F is for the future of colour, derived from a series produced in Chandigarh itself) there. I want to explore different contexts, in other words. All this time, I have been reading diasporic works, and writing them, so far from the places in which they are set.

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