TS Eliot Prize winner Bhanu Kapil on the art of capturing trauma through poetry

Kapil believes poetry can be an antidote to a sense of loss

Bhanu Kapil wrote ‘How to Wash a Heart’ by imagining a migrant's life in a new home. Bhanu Kapil
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

“It’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever.”

In only three lines of poetry, Bhanu Kapil, 53, captures the ache, trauma and sheer fatigue of being a migrant, an outsider. Exiled.

Taken from her remarkable collection How To Wash A Heart, which won the TS Eliot Prize last month, they are written in the voice of an immigrant guest in the home of a white middle class couple. As their relationship rapidly fractures, so – deliberately and brutally – does the poeticism of the book. But for Kapil, there's succour to be found in the power of her form. "Poetry is the antidote to the loss of place or home," she said after winning.

We communicate via email a few days after her win, and though it seems likely that Kapil will have to deal with a hugely deserved increase in her profile, for now, she is still keen to let the written word do the talking.

Born in England to Indian parents, she grew up in London and has spent the past two decades living, working and publishing in the US, very aware of what being a "minority presence", as she's put it before, feels like.

"One of the questions I had was about creativity and survival," she says. "How do you survive in spaces that are not meant for you, how do you create art, or poetry, when all of your energy is going into the assessment of whether or not you will be punished for the full expression of who you actually are?"

So though How To Wash A Heart isn't autobiographical, it's certainly packed with lived experiences, born of a suspicion that the outward-facing inclusivity of Kapil's "mostly white" private liberal arts college did not quite match how it felt to work in that space as someone of her heritage.

Inspiration struck when she saw a news story about a Californian woman offering a room to someone with a “precarious visa status”, having already adopted a girl from the Philippines a few years earlier. “I felt something I could not [then] put words to, when I read her ornate way of describing the hospitality that she was offering,” she explains in the book’s notes.

How To Wash A Heart by Bhanu Kapil. Courtesy Liverpool University Press

In other words, Kapil began to wonder what it was really like in that house in California (in one poem, a wet towel is placed on a bannister and the host explodes in anger) and what a "welcome" might really mean, then going on to create a fiction which speaks to both yet is also at odds with the rest of her more autobiographical work. "I wanted to bundle the stories of my own family, told then retold, with other memories and ways of knowing, which are and are not mine," she explains.

“This book is a stage in a larger process of collective life-writing, and an investigation of form as resembling the nervous system itself: glitches and routes, semblances, visions, and the way that memory actually moves through an organism, like its own kind of time.”

These thrilling experiments in form are, of themselves, a fascinating writerly experiment, which, when melded with a linear story, pierces the heart and head equally. The idea of washing a heart is bound up in the notion that chronic racial trauma lodges in the tissues of the body – it's no surprise that the judges for TS Eliot Prize were so impressed.

I wanted to bundle the stories of my own family, told then retold, with other memories and ways of knowing, which are and are not mine

Yet, Kapil also had a more prosaic hope for the collection. Even before she wrote the first word, the book would be a means of being able to return or reconnect to an England she left in her late twenties. How To Wash A Heart is her first full-length collection published in her home country. "How To Wash A Heart is a radical and arresting collection that recalibrates what is possible for poetry to achieve," said chair of the judges panel, Lavinia Greenlaw.

“I had a vision of a reader sitting in their kitchen, making a cup of tea and sitting down to read the whole book in the time it might take to drink that tea,” she remembers in typically, perhaps necessarily, poetic terms.

“Perhaps their tea would grow cold. I could see the kitchen floor in my mind, and hear the kettle hiss. It was palpable, the sense of a reader reading, and what it would be to write a book that could not be stopped, reversed, or paused – just as what was in it could not be, either.”

Kapil is back living in England now, finally getting the recognition she deserves. Last year, she was awarded the Windham Campbell prize, a $165,000 grant that gives writers the opportunity to focus on their work without financial concerns. If that was "life-changing and life-supporting for myself and my family", nearly a year on, the TS Eliot prize has similar practical benefits.

“Having returned to England without inherited wealth or a permanent home in this country, or a full-time job, the prize money makes it possible to create a stable base for my family here,” she says. “It’s a source of deep good fortune and magic for which I am profoundly grateful.”

There's also an intriguing creative impact which she hopes to investigate. The title How To Wash A Heart actually started as a performance with her sister Rohini at a live event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London, in which she literally washed a frozen heart.

At the moment, they’re recalibrating the show – Rohini’s images and projections with Bhanu’s writing alongside – for an online installation.

“Stay tuned! I’d love to see a space with my sister’s astounding work on every wall, and then to think in that space with others, diasporic others, you could say. For me, the intense colour and light vibrations of my sister’s work are something I experience as deeply healing and transforming, even when the conversation or thinking alongside is not always the easiest.”

But you sense that's the whole point of Kapil's body of work, she's not interested in simply the performance or reading of it, but how people approach her themes and concerns afterwards.

"How we can think together, through the debris, that's not going to cause further harm," she says. It's an approach to poetry which underlines Greenlaw's assertion that Kapil's work is genuinely radical.

“Well, I’m hoping that winning the TS Eliot prize will make it possible to connect with radical others of many kinds,” she says.

Stay tuned, indeed.