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Bhanu Kapil is a poet born in Britain to Indian parents. She is the author of a number of works of poetry and prose, including 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 Books, 2011), Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015), and How To Wash A Heart (Liverpool University Press, 2020). In the US, where she lived and worked for many years, her name is often invoked as a writer at the forefront of the poetic avant-garde for her experimental and genre-exploding work. In the UK, where she has recently returned to live, she continues to receive increasing recognition with the republication of Incubation – described as a “feminist, post-colonial On the Road” – this year by Prototype. 

Interview by Stephanie Sy-Quia
Portrait courtesy Bhanu Kapil

STEPHANIE SY-QUIA I want to ask you about your preoccupation with peritexts or paratexts. I’m thinking of your acknowledgements in Ban and your notes on Schizophrene, for instance. Often in Schizophrene, it felt as if what you were trying to say was quite unusually weighted towards the notes.

BHANU KAPIL What is a hybrid possibility for a book that might be described by others as poetry? Ban in particular was written through my blog, initially called “Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi?” and then I think it was “Reading Fred Moten in the Cherry Orchard” and then it became “The Vortex of Formidable Sparkles”. So I was part of blog culture, you could say – this was 2010, the time of Kate Zambreno’s blog “Frances Farmer Is My Sister”. There was a whole world of cut-price – in the sense that you didn’t have to pay anything – low-tech writing in notebook form. It was 2012 or 2014 when I began to feel the pressure of organising the materials. There was so much material, and there remains so many dormant or inaccessible, or real or ephemeral versions of Ban, and this just happens to be one of them. The reason I feel proud is because the book is not the same thing as the work. What is flowing through, what is a chance operation of editing, organising or deleting at the last moment? I find that I don’t write in order to find out what I’m thinking. I still don’t know. And so the paratext is a chance to think differently, or think with, or to place value on life as it’s actually lived as a writer – scraps, fragments – and to let them orbit the void of the work.

SS-Q  I love the idea that the work is the work, not the book. I’ve just finished a big writing project that’s been a long time in the making and I keep having doubts about it and thinking, have I done enough research or should I have tried to get into such and such an archive? Then I think, no, this is the thing I wrote and it was hard enough as it is, so I’d better try and stick with it.

BK Maybe I can ask a question, Stephanie. Thinking about the present moment, the connections between archival thinking and poetic reality, or the book of poetry and the archive, I’m interested in a form of something almost like exhaustion. Is there a way that the archive deflects the possibility of crossing its own threshold? It’s a lot to traverse and make and remake and to think, internally, with an archive. That is precisely that moment when we think well, maybe I should have gone to the archive. Why didn’t we? And why do we keep the water of our bodies outside it? Is this to implicate the archive as an imperial space?

The work is not just the imprint, but a kind of luminous or occult embroidery

SS-Q  I think part of it is resisting the standard call of the archive – going to the archive as a legitimising act that legitimises our project and our endeavour. For me, I was also worried about how the archive might distract me – what it might throw into my path – that I then felt duty-bound to pursue.

BK Back to composition and the last moments just before a book becomes an artefact... When you began to speak about the project that’s completing now, I had a glimpse in my mind of a perimeter, perhaps recalling or reflecting on the reading I heard you give in The Horse Hospital where we met in April this year; that evocation of the text as covalent or fluxing with the path that’s barely discernible as it is. It’s really beautiful and sounds right to me. Maybe paratext, and just the flutter of the book or its randomness, is a way to reduce the dominance of other ways of recording or vivifying lived time.

SS-Q Do you find writing hard? I like that idea again that the book is evidence of how you battled your way through a set of ideas over a certain period. The book is actually just a series of scuff marks left from how you crossed from one place to another. I’m reminded of a Hilary Mantel quote: “Information is not knowledge and history is not the past. It’s the method we’ve evolved with organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken when we stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it. A few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth or a script is a performance or a map is a journey. It’s the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with the incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them.”

BK That’s beautiful. Thanks, Hilary Mantel. I was rehearsing on Tuesday in a chapel at Churchill College [Cambridge] last week before a performance on Friday for Prototype at the Burley Fisher Book Festival run by So Mayer. There we were, grimy, sodden, chilled to the bone, trying to go through our performance – myself, Blue Pieta, Yasmin Rai and Nina Harries. I went to the loo, and when I closed the door, I saw that the scuff mark on the wall resembled half a dragonfly. This was mesmerising, and I thought about this dragonfly smudge as we moved through our experience. Later that day, I went for a walk with my mother and I saw a dragonfly, just stationary, but also flexing on a blackberry briar. So there’s something about the smudges and the scuff marks and the traces. And as Hilary Mantel says, the work is not just the imprint, but a kind of luminous or occult embroidery, an embroidery consisting not of thread but of light upon the imprint itself. Your question was, “Is writing hard?” It’s hard if I’m just trying to write on paper or type, but it’s not hard if I ground myself and develop the relationship with materials, and then use those materials to striate, to break up the ground of the work, which is both solid and void. Perhaps that’s a way of thinking about performance and installation or ritual; all of the ways of making or pre-making or preparing oneself to do the thing that we’re calling the work that then becomes very close to life itself. It’s not so hard then to switch into other modes of, let’s say, caregiving or parenting. To think of my destiny as a writer, as a single parent and now caring for an older parent, alongside my sister. But, you know, there’s never enough time or space and the thing that’s difficult is to move between different parts of life. To write in the middle of life, in the garden, or on the floor of the living room or in bed – all of this makes it feel more possible.

SS-Q I used to care for my grandmother. She had a stroke and then she had dementia. Neither of those things were identified at the time but with hindsight, I can see the onset, well, certainly of the dementia. It felt as if my personhood as an individual was neither here nor there because she needed help with a lot of things, but she could be very imperious. She got me mixed up with my mother, who’s an only child, so there was just this sense of being folded up with all the other generations. Caring for her was very fulfilling for me and it continues to be something very important to me, but I remember my writer self feeling a bit imperilled, and that I was working hard to reclaim and protect it, realising that it’s only down to me to have a writer self. I took a really long time to take myself seriously as a writer, and that again felt like a bit of a rescue mission. But I completely understand what you mean about jockeying between different modes and that making it quite hard. Some of the best writing I’ve ever done was whilst I was chopping a vegetable or something. I think it’s really important to have a fully embodied practice. So much of my book, Amnion, was written when I was walking around; there are so many different versions of the text which are just hovering out there somewhere because I never wrote them down. I came up with some great lines that I forgot to write down, and so they’re just lost to the ether. Amnion is really only the record of what I wrote down. 

BK I love this idea of the books that are hovering. This was the language that was audible, but to whom and for whom?

SS-Q I suppose that was itself a self-nurturing practice, because I wasn’t so focused on preserving it. I was just letting the ideas appear and then go away again. 

BK Maybe just haunted a little bit by the archive. Maybe it’s precisely that instinct not to preserve that moves differently to all of the boring or coded or very interesting or durable, acidic content of the archive. How do we make a space in our works for elements that can’t be preserved? Is that a way of thinking about extinction? I’m curious about the way that migration figures in your own formations and towards hybrid works. What communities have nurtured you as a writer beyond what you could do for yourself?

SS-Q I joined the Ledbury Poetry Critics programme at a time when I was very, very uncertain about what I was trying to do as a writer. I’d just gone freelance without really knowing anyone or having that much experience. The fact that I was really scared about money gave me a lot of energy to go out there and be a bit scrappy. But on top of helping me with networking and resources and advice and mentorship and all those tangible things, the programme also validated my sense of vocation. That’s been the wind in my sails ever since. Sandeep [Parmar] and Sarah [Howe] are excellent judges of character. With so many of the people I’ve met through Ledbury, there’s been that instant feeling of recognition and ease.

BK We’ll know each other, Stephanie, until I am 74 and a half. Twenty years from now, thirty years from now, if you are writing poetry and I am writing poetry then we’re likely to still know each other. That relation or that community lessens or fades when we stop. I really love having conversations about what it is not just to survive but to sustain the life in which the writing is made possible. ◉