TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 2

An Interview with Bhanu Kapil

 · Nonfiction

By Stephanie Luczajko

Bhanu KapilBhanu Kapil lives in Colorado, where she teaches writing and thinking at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, as well as Goddard College’s low-residency M.F.A. Her full-length works of poetry/prose include The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works), humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press), and, most recently, Schizophrene (Nightboat Books, 2011).

Having just read Schizophrene, I’m totally immersed in that book. I am immediately drawn to the apparent procedure that resulted in the text that we have before us. You write that your initial attempt to write an epic on Partition and the development of schizophrenia in Indian and Pakistani immigrant communities had failed. If Schizophrene is composed of the traces of the original epic, would you say that this text succeeds in a way that the original text could not? Did the loss and recuperation of the text address the failure of the original?

It seems absurd to say this, but I didn’t understand my book as a text of “loss and recuperation” until I read your words describing it as such. Why? Are books written beneath the level of consciousness? In some ways, for me, yes. Schizophrene began as a mesh — essays, poems, questions, talks in class at Naropa, notebook entries, early attempts at a longer work — in the late 1990s, even as I was beginning a similar orbital process with humanimal and starting to work out the cyborg-monster mixture for Incubation. To write away from this more expansive gesture into or towards the decayed notebook in the garden was anti-epic in the sense that it opposed narration.

I think, too, of the emotion — strong emotion that was also a blankness — that led me to open the door that night and throw the book away. Too much mesh, too much writing without completion, too much writing-that-is-never-writing: reproduces: the boundarylessness that is also migration. A stressor, you could say, for non-being. The feeling of not really adhering to the earth, or belonging to it — to say in the most old-fashioned way. In this sense, to throw away the book is to stop the book. To stop is an act of proprioception; it gives the book a severe limit. In the arc of a book’s flight into the dark garden, nothing happens and nothing can happen. This is my anti-colonial stance, my anti-colonial desire, in retrospect.

You mention boundarylessness, and it seems to be a recurring theme and perhaps even a mode of Schizophrene. It’s present in the migration, but also in the opening of possibilities for what is allowed into the text. Often the reader’s expectations are subverted in favor of other, richer, alternatives. Being unable to enter a door that you traveled to reach, taking up a subject matter that might lend itself to scientific case study, but which you instead populate with sensuous textures and narrative events. Is this sort of expansion of the terms of case study, so to speak, something that you were conscious of or interested in while writing?

I am not, as always, very sure that I was at the time, but I could say that proprioception has been an abiding study of mine — through the body, through conceptions of psychosis, Elizabeth Grosz’s writing and thinking towards the experience of unbounded regional or national space. That part of feeling real to yourself, or in a time, is to know where you are located in the space beyond you.

For instance, at a recent show of Fred Sandback’s thread sculptures, I tracked my vertigo to look directly at the non-threaded or unbounded part of a room-sized rectangle. And sometimes, as an immigrant presence in this country, I feel a complicated feeling that moves between contraction and the awareness of how much sky/sea text lies between my body and other bodies.

I am writing these words to you through the lens of a voluntary or economic migration, and not through the kind of lens that is irreversible. For example, I am thinking of Dolores Dorantes’s work, as translated by Jen Hofer. Why her work means so much to me. And my own work? Yes, perhaps in the nonverbal parts of the book, the spaces between paragraphs, for example, I can. Can what? Work this stuff out. Do I work it out? I don’t know. There would be more to say about touch.

I notice in your work and in your responses an acute attention to the body and its position in the material world. Here I’m thinking of your notation of colors and textures. You have also written elsewhere that you are interested in producing a “quality of touch.” How do texture and touch relate for you to proprioception, this kind of internal discerning?

I think of a hand drifting over a stack of books in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Norlin Library, ten years ago. My son is ten. I was pregnant, with a mind so dull that my only friend was a writer/artist called Jen Bervin, who is now very famous for erasures and printmaking and cakes and teaching at Harvard, but was then a serious and beautiful girl in dungarees with a dog called Ruby. She’d pick me up in downtown Denver in a red?/blue? truck and drive me to her flat, a second-floor apartment with bright green floorboards. There, she’d make me tea and a pot pie and sit in silence across the table as we ate. She never expected me to make sense or even to speak, and for this kindness during a forlorn pregnancy, with my marriage already failing, no money, my family system in India and England starting to unravel, I am intensely grateful.

Somewhere in all of that, I also felt the anxiety or imperative to begin a new book: to write myself out of the numbness I felt. Bibliomancy — the art of divination in libraries — had always been an instinctive part of my life, as it probably is for all writers. You close your eyes, ask a question, open the book, touch the page, open your eyes. That day, I let my hand drift, palm down — to sense through the palm, as in palmistry — the way I learned it. An under-art. The sense that it is never the line that holds the news of a life, but what flows beneath and through it. The “lines beneath the lines,” as my uncle used to say, “are where the images are,” as I would say it now. And this is proprioception: to come to the book through the vestibular function, an excess of attenuation: the dizziness of the body, alone in the flickering then timed-out, abruptly dark stacks. And at the limit of touch, to begin.

My body begins and ends with writing. My hand stopped at Wolf-Children and Feral Men by Robert Zingg, which contains the excerpted diary of Joseph Amrito Lal, Singh who, in 1921, found two girls living with wolves in colonial Bengal. This book was the root of a later work, humanimal. It took years to make something from the inert photocopy of that found text, how the vertigo and lag both became as integral to the work as its subject matter. The “quality of touch” in this instance is light, sensing, open. In Schizophrene I wanted, too, to think about how a touch of this kind — a touch that repeats, reshelves, that passes books from hand to hand, receiving or giving pieces of paper in a classroom, whatever it is, a light touch — is healing, too. It can bring you back.

It seems that bibliomancy and light touch have in common a quality of open inquiry, a receptiveness to unpredictable information, text, and sensory experience. Is there ever a point where touch and text themselves become boundaryless? How do you filter out material?

Fantasy Answer 2b: Text and touch become boundaryless when you are making paper in Chile, in an orchard, in the early morning. I filter the material, the pulp, by straining it in a silver grid. Many years later, I consider the silver molecules of the grid as made visible by an alloy — what I call silver, but is just lit up, tarnished, a thin wire. It’s this part of the pre-book space that becomes a structure when I finally sit down to write. A scrap of handmade paper pinned to the lapel of my coat as I write — and blue ribbons. The failed, wavering grid of numbers and letters that humanimal is composed of.

Another answer to your question might come from disability studies: the raised, legible (through touch) elements of the plastic key next to the machine, the step, or in the university library. I think of the poet Amber DiPietra, for example, and how she navigates the world, and her practice, too, of what she calls “palmetry.” Filtration can be beautifully negative: bacterial, a cycle of shedding or confusing loss. But it can also be what part of the work has the most life. What leans forward (tilts) towards the light, like roses.

Do you like the answer I have given to your question? It had a scooter in it (Bay Area), an “I Love Cafe Bustelo” bag hanging off one of the scooter handles, and a rose garden in India, or the roses in Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s “Hello, The Roses” that was published in BOMB Magazine this week. I read it aloud on a bench with my friend, the poet Melissa Buzzeo. We’d heard the poet read from it earlier that summer at Naropa. She said afterward: “I was reading it for you both.” I don’t know how to answer questions without starting to remember. Brain chemistry affects both the poem and its context, I guess.

I like your answer very much, in fact. It makes me think about the ways that history and memory are reflected in our creative choices. How would you describe the place of memory in your writing practice and in your work?

It is a vast question, like the downs are vast. The downs you come upon, driving or on horseback, and in films. I read today that protesters stormed the British embassy in Tehran shouting: “Dirty little England!” My memories take place partly/wholly in a place (England) that, at the same time as I inhabited it, was in the process of expelling me. When we moved to a new neighborhood in northwest London, every day, for a long period of two or three years, my mother was spat on on the train. And the enormity of that indignity — the indignity of being nonwhite in a mostly white place, (what else does an immigrant do except move up, somehow, in the world?) bore down upon my own mind.

I have a very visual memory, like staring hard at things, or the wrong things, toward a different reality or a way out of the one I was in. I think of the slate walls and the graveyards and the elms and the sky filled with rain the color of irises. My memories are about surfaces more than events — is that true? It is true in the novel I am writing, a novel of the “race riot” — a phrase that has less and less meaning as the last two years, since I began it. In this novel, I write about the asphalt or street, the sidewalk that a girl lies down upon, again and again. The event of the white boys who come upon her and take her under — under her own life — is a sound the book makes, a muffled sound, a roar below the level of speech. And what I write about is, in fact, the ivy: the ivy that the girl is staring at, her head on the ground, perhaps sideways. This is ivy from my own English memory bank reperformed as the ivy of the hallucination or scene of a girl who never was. She never was because she was never allowed to be.

I am interested in the memories that are never received, never written down, or prevented, perhaps, at the instant that they form. This neutral and ongoing disaster is, in its entirety, my idea of a writing practice. I hope I am not being too dramatic! I am answering your question about memory and narrative on the last day of the semester, with the void of the solstice simply opening up. It’s not yet six but already dark out, for example. I wish to reassure you that I am not drinking and that I do not take drugs. This is my real answer to what you are asking.

Should we end there? Yes. I think if you asked me another question, I would try to make things seem better than they really are! And we wouldn’t want that.

Bhanu, thank you so very much for giving us your time and your thoughts. It has been a pleasure.


Read Bhanu Kapil’s piece in this issue.

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