A conversation with Bhanu Kapil
The poet's novel
Laynie Browne: Is there such a thing as the poet’s novel?
Bhanu Kapil: The poet’s brain changes, perhaps in mid-life. Perhaps the poet moves from one part of the country to another. The poet turns to the sentence as the place where questions of magnetism, gravity and light — the forces that bind a person to the earth and then release them, abruptly — might most fully be worked out. Why? On a scrap of paper, I draw three overlapping rough arcs. These are sentences. These are vectors, complicated — in this preliminary sketch —by refraction and shame: the reality of what happens — does happen — has happened — at the limit of a nation state. Sometimes, as I’ve thought about elsewhere, a person doesn't get to cross. A person sees their body reflected, perhaps, in the gelation membrane that extends above and just beyond the border like an invisible dome. To exit you rupture. What the novel-shaped space lets the poet do (perhaps) is work out what happens both before and afterwards: the approach to that multi-valent perimeter [the shredded plastic on the floor.] To track the vector until, as I tell my students, “it disappears.” Syntax, too, is where this [the] poet — engaging vectors in this other kind of duration — might bring a pressure to bear. A record of forward movement but also a way of investigating the glitches and formal barriers to cultural, global or personal notion of “progression.” Syntax has the capacity to be subversive, to be very beautiful, to register an anti-colonial position: in this respect. I think of the semi-colon: how it faces backwards and is hooked, the very thing a content [shredded plastic] might be caught on. A content, that is, that might never appear in the document of place. Perhaps the poet's novel is a form that, in this sense, might be taken up [is] by writers of color, queer writers, writers who are thinking about the body in these other ways. With the proto-Floridian/Bay Area writer, Amber DiPietra, for example — on-going conversation about the “blips,” “errata” and “bursts” of the sentence. See: her blog, Radio Real Time. Amber is a poet, active in the disability poetics community — and I am not sure that she is a novelist also, but the way she takes up syntax is one of the ways I’ve been able to think about, for myself, for others: the lyric and textural scope of a novel-shaped space. The zone of impossible life. And how, in that zone, the poet might: stop time. And perform. Or install. Something. Last summer I taught a class at the intersection of performance art and the novel: to try and work some of this out. For the poet's novel I am writing at the moment — BAN — I lay down on the floor of the world and rotated [gesticulated] there, in the mud: which is nudity. In the UK, I lay down next to the ivy on the sidewalk and set mirrors: there. Propped in the ivy. And studied the sky: a sensorimotor sequence. And gathered: witness notes. Nervous system notes. To return to the novel: in another form.
LB: In your own work, do you think much about the differentiation between poetry and prose?
BK: I do not. I have been variously described or introduced as a poet, a novelist, a cross-genre writer, a hybrid writer, a creative non-fiction writer, a lyric essayist, a writer working at the intersection of lyric and documentary aims, a fiction writer, a performance artist and a prose-poet. The category is after the fact, just as nationality is. I have the same vagueness about genre that arises in my body when asked where I am from. “England.” No, where are you from? And so on. In fact, I have become interested in this core numbness and have been trying to work out ways to make it a part of the writing. To make it the thing I think about. Ethnicity is yet another matter. I am also not saying the question of origination is analogous to the question of differentiation; I think that non-differentiation can have, as one of its outcomes, the very thing an experimental writer tried to avoid: heterogeneity. So, it’s a complicated question and perhaps reads to the poet’s novel as a hybrid form: not hybridity that comes from the activity of theft, collage or polyphony — but from the capacity of the body to form and extend a new gesture. This is to think through the animal. The poet’s novel is a kind of animal. Discuss.
LB: Are there any particular novels by poets that have influenced or inspired you?
BK: Gail Scott's My Paris and The Obituary.
Sina Queryas’ Autobiography of Childhood.
Melissa Buzzeo’s What Began Us and The Devastation.
Laynie, your own The Ivory Hour (a future memoir)
Laura Mullen’s Murmur.
Juliana Spahr and David Buuck's Army of Lovers collaboration.
Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail.
Renee Gladman’s Juice.
Laura Moriarty’s Ultravioleta
Douglas Martin’s Your Body Figured
Elena Georgiou’s unpublished novel on the Crimean war.
LB: Please tell more about BAN. I'd like to know more about “sensorimotor notes,” “witness notes,” “nervous system notes,” and how this novel is a different form. How long have you been working on BAN? Where did the project begin? The process sounds very visceral, embodied. How is the process different this time? Tell more about mud and nakedness.
How do "time" and "character" evolve in this book?
BK: How can writing be the place where an interoceptive nervous system is tracked? The sensorimotor sequence is a sequence of glitches, subtle movements, trembling, voltage — that, in somatic trauma therapies, is: tracked. So that a sequence can be completed. To release: a response to trauma that has been lodged — as a loop or distortion/contraction — in the body. To shake until the shaking stops. To complete a movement that was not completed at the time of impact, whether that impact was chronic — a set of impacts — or acute. My influences are: Peter Levine, Babette Rothschild, Pat Ogden. I have been working on these ideas since 2006, when I began teaching through the animal, body and somatic trauma theory at Naropa University. How does a writer translate these concepts or approaches: to syntax? That is another reason, I think, that I turned to prose.
Ban, for example, is a girl who lies down on the ground in the opening minutes of a race riot. She lies down to die because, on some level, she is “already dead.” She is socially dead. There are two kinds of violence: the violence on the street and the violence at home. Either way, she's done for. This is 1979, in a working-class, mostly immigrant suburb of London. I felt that some part of my writing was a set of “witness notes” — to witness Ban's body until it ceases to twitch/flare — so that, here, in fiction, she could: complete: her sensorimotor sequence. A precursor, perhaps, to shedding off: to becoming the next possible thing. Here, I am speaking of incarnation. There is no way to reverse the death — in fact, it's already come — or is coming — but perhaps there is a way to accelerate: the release of Ban's “materials” so that — in fiction — they might: become something else in time. Recirculate as energy in another way. The witness notes also allow me to document the cyclical natural and artificial light that warps over Ban, and to think into the taxonomy of the riot in other ways. What is a riot? What is the history of violence of this neighborhood? So, two things at once.
What the witness position also allows me to do is to: send light: to Ban, at the same time that I am notating Ban's residual movements — the Bergsonian [overlapping] repetitions that underlie the illusion of posture-gesture contiguity. How the body is a series of rough arcs. And how the novelist is the person who holds the space for what that body wants to be. This is proprioception, the act of letting the body know — through light touch and the sensing/directing of energy to the body's outer membrane or "field" — where its limits are. How does this help Ban? I am not sure that it is something that I write about in Ban, but it is part of what my process is as a bodyworker; something that is also part of the experiment of the novel. How to bring to the novel a way of thinking about or sensing with bodies that happens in other disciplines or fields?
This last idea is what led me to lie down on the ground myself, in London, in India and in my garden in Colorado, where Sharon Carlisle — a friend, an earth-artist — dug a rectangle of earth. She wanted to build a mud female Buddha. There were interims when the mud was being sifted and the ground raked/prepared. During the last interim, I lay down — nude, ash/dirt covered — in Ban's mode. To say: the rectangle of earth was a balcony: the staged outline of asphalt where — in the novel — she lay. Mirrors propped in the ivy behind her head. I wanted to open my eyes as Ban and study the particulate, dazzling field of earth materials, to feel the air on my body and what it might be like, to be exposed like that, even in a minimal way, a curated way, and to: give up.
It was embodied, but it was also functional.
In Los Angeles, in a red sack, on a butcher's table at the Schindler's House, I also — lay down. To glitch. And practice movements for BAN — observed by audience members on the grassy slope outside. As part of Les Figues' symposium on Voyeurism: "Both Sides and Center." I opened my eyes and saw the red fabric.
In Hayes/Southall, in the U.K., where Ban is set, I lay down. In the exact spot that Ban is set. I opened my eyes and saw the ivy. I saw a strange rainbow cloud. I saw a milky pink street light. I saw the mirrors, which I'd stacked in the ivy leaves.
And so on. Thus to return: these notes: to the novel. What it looked like, from that terminal position. And what it felt like: the soft tissue contracting around my kidneys, my urethra and even my heart. The refraction of these notes — the way they magnetize the event — resembles poetry, in the sense that poetry, for me, is the work of the fragment. How do fragments attract? And so on.
Prose lets me attend to this question in a massive way.
I get to be the fragment too.
Glinting in the oily curd of the asphalt.
As a car drives past.
To this end, perhaps I am saying, too, that the "novel-shaped space" allows me to think through national space in ways that I have thought about in other places. As an immigrant who does not live in a community of immigrants — I want to think about the way my own body — a diasporic body — has sliced through space and lodged, in what a novel "was."
The novel was the thing I read on aeroplanes.
Now it's the thing that you can dig out of the earth and lie down upon: an eternal image, one that never fades, no matter how many times you repeat it.
I have been writing Ban for three years.
I think I am trying to write her until she can no longer be written.
This is what time allows me to do.
Or what I am doing with time.
I am trying, as a writer, to write the body [character] to its end-point and beyond. Why?
That is why I am writing this novel. To reach into that other space — a radical index — and it is why I cannot write about it now.
Not having reached.