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Interview with T.S. Eliot poetry prize winner, Bhanu Kapil

Feb/07/2021 / by heena-kausar
Image credits: Wikipedia

New York: For Indian-origin poet Bhanu Kapil, who recently won Britain’s prestigious T.S. Eliot poetry prize, “writing is not just writing, it is a pathway to another part of life.” She received the award for ‘How to Wash a Heart,her first full-length poetry collection published in the U.K.

The “radical and arresting” collection explores the complex relationship between an immigrant guest and a citizen host. Kapil was unanimously chosen by the panel, chaired by poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw. “It is a radical and arresting collection that recalibrates what is possible for poetry to achieve,” said Greenlaw.

Inaugurated in 1993, the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry is awarded annually to the author of the best new poetry collection published in the year, in the U.K. and Ireland.

Born in England to Indian parents, Kapil grew up in a working-class South Asian community in London. Kapil resides in the U.K. In an email interview with SEEMA Magazine, Kapil spoke about some of the events that influenced her while growing up, her thoughts on writing, and the inspirations behind her winning collection.

1) How has growing up in London in a working-class South-Asian community influenced your work and the themes you explore in your work?

I grew up in Hayes, Middlesex, which borders Southall, or “Little India”.  We lived there until just before my eleventh birthday, when we moved to Ruislip, which was, unlike Hayes, a mostly white neighborhood. I should say, when I return to Hayes, that it doesn’t exist anymore in the way that I remember it. What’s the opposite of gentrification? Perhaps the event that most influenced me was a protest against the Far Right, on April 23rd, 1979, a few weeks before Margaret Thatcher came to power. My teacher Blair Peach died that night, struck by an illegal weapon wielded by a member of the Special Patrol Group. The memory of what came to be characterized as a riot is a vivid one for me, as it brings back everything at the perimeter of an event: the sound of breaking glass, screams and wails, and the aftermath the next day. I remember my father lifting me to view Blair Peach, to pay my respects, when we filed past in the Dominion Cinema in Southall. I recall the smell of sweat in the cinema lobby of mostly men packed in tight spaces, talking and organizing.  I slipped between their legs like a fuschia eel. Perhaps moving to Ruislip also affected me, in the sense that it was, in a new context, an experience of being alien, of lips curling, or a loud “tut” being verbalized by another customer, when I, or a member of my family, entered a delicatessen, for example.  

2) You have mentioned that the inspiration for ‘How to Wash a Heart’ came from a newspaper photograph. What made you want to explore the theme of the complex equation between immigrants and citizen hosts?

The photograph was an inspiration, certainly, for one aspect of the book: an idea about disgust. That disgust is the hardest emotion, once experienced or felt, to conceal from others. It’s a fleeting contraction around the muscles of the nose and mouth, in particular, that denote it. Are we wired, as human beings, to track these moments, which are facial?  I’ve been trying to think, for some time, through themes of belonging and under-belonging: place attachment, and conversely, what it is not to adhere. Another inspiration, in this regard, was the Cuban artist, Ana Mendieta, who explored, through the “siluetas” she made on the earth (her body outline refilled with red powder, mud, or other materials), what it would be to adhere, to use that word again, to the surfaces of a country that is not one’s own. 

3) What are the themes, issues, and emotions that move you most as a writer and how do you decide what you are going to write next? I am not sure what my themes, issues, or even emotions are. What comes to me is that in each work, I am attending to the body. The bodily life, that is, of whoever moves through the book as they move through life. I try not to rush new work, but to spend as long as I can waiting for what wants to arrive – to arrive. Sometimes it vanishes. Sometimes, you could say, I also disappear. I’ve been doing a lot of work this year on why writing does not always feel possible. An incredible resource that’s really helping re-frame my relationship to writing is ‘Race Reflections Academy’ in the UK. Writing doesn’t come (only) from the outside. It comes, also, from the back of the heart. At least, that’s been the case for me.  Whatever it takes to dislodge or work directly with fear (or shame), as a writer, is as helpful to the creation of new work as language itself. Writing is not just writing. It’s a pathway to another part of life.

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