Lisa Birman with Bhanu Kapil
Given the chance to talk about anything to anyone, I immediately asked Bhanu Kapil out for many glasses of wine. In the end, we ended up drinking tea and eating orange foods at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. Hopefully, more words and wine will follow.
Bhanu Kapil: Oui, c’est moi. Je n’ai jamais existé. I never existed. I don’t exist. Good luck with your questions. It will not be possible to answer them.
Lisa Birman: Je n’existe pas aussi. Mais, I have evidence of your past existence. In Ars Poetica in 2007, you said, “… if poetry is written in a third space, some place less obvious than the colours blue or red, then where is that space?” You do posit that space, in Ars Poetics, but now is a different time and space. So, where is that space?
BK: It’s the darkest space possible. I wait until the garden has gone dark, for example, before throwing a book into it, and sometimes, the whole day passes without writing or thinking but with the intense longing to do those things. When I was a child, for example, I forced my parents, and the Manders, the elderly couple whose car it was – we were all squashed in on a drive around Lake Coniston – to pull over next to a cobblestone bridge. Mrs. Manders had already pointed it out as the bridge Wordsworth sat beneath to write poems. I was thirteen or fourteen, and clearly, already, unmarriageable, as I demanded that they stop the car and let me out. As I recall, they waited in the car as darkness and a light rain fell, while I sat, knees up, hunched, under that bridge, writing a poem. But it wasn’t a poem. I was writing nonsense. I was making what I would now call notes. Curved space, rural space, British space. But what triples a space? What makes a space trans-generational, so that it triplicates the problem, just as sexual and relational dysfunction are the particulate trace of a disjunctive event far preceding them? A cube of dark space, bounded by Plexiglas…ideally, I’d write my first sentence in that room. The darkness, as I think of it now, is Pakistan. Because the third space, like Heidegger’s borderline, can’t be brought into language unless it’s after the fact. And so, I want that to open up when someone opens the book I haven’t written yet…the immensity and ephemerality of border space. I want to trans-sect it, enter it, lie down in it, at the same instant that language does. Building that vibration has meant preventing language from coming. It’s meant that 80 per cent of my time, at least for this current project, has been spent on site-specific concerns, you could say. I go to India, for example, to scrape the darkness into a jar. Darkness, and a kind of blazing white fog.
LB: A lot of your work deals with the identity or identities of the immigrant, and the questions of arriving and leaving and staying. What does it mean to leave a place? Is it even possible to leave a place?
BK: I left England because I wasn’t English. We lived next door to someone called Stephen Whitby who regularly spelled out “Poo” or, in his finer moments – maybe he had help – “Brown Poo” – on his neighbors’ doorsteps! In his own excrement. Or, piece de resistance, he’d empty milk bottles of their milk, re-fill them with his own urine – again, because there was a lot of it, maybe someone supported him in his efforts – and replace them outside people’s doors, with their red or silver foil carefully replaced. It was red foil for whole fat milk and silver for skim. In other words, I grew up in Hayes in the 1970s, during a burst of skinhead/National Front activity. I should write a depressing autobiography, but instead, my son will sometimes beg for a Stephen Whitby story. I just keep it simple. The time he locked me, my mum, and my baby sister in the larder of our house for ten hours, and how we subsisted on Gripe Water. I make it into a Tom and Jerry fable with a complicated chase through the back garden, and how, when my father came home, Stephen Whitby ran away down the alley because our dad was the only person he was scared of. We never had poo on our doorstep, for example. I can’t believe this is my response to your question. To summarize: I hated England. No, that’s not true. I had a childhood I did not understand until much later. I didn’t understand that I lived in a community of working-class immigrants, and that the violence inside and outside of our homes had a context. And, regardless of everything, I’m wired to that context, which was, of course, not singularly brutal. As an endocrine being, for example, I’m flooded by the feeling of being home as soon as I arrive in Heathrow.
Back garden performance, A Midsummer's Nights Dream, Loveland, Colorado, June 2008.
LB: So, that’s leaving and returning, or perhaps the impossibility of returning, and what about arriving? How long does it take to arrive?
BK: Wait a second, I just realized that your previous question was about the relationship a person has to a nation.
LB: Always. It is my constant question.
BK: The answer to your second question is about fourteen or ten years.
LB: Ten consecutive years? I’m just trying to figure out if I’ve arrived or not.
BK: Well, it takes longer if you put off having an intimate relationship with someone who is cheerful, kind, and connected to the country you’re in in basic ways involving cheese. Don’t you remember buying cheddar cheese from Sainsbury’s, or the equivalent of that mini-megastore? Can’t you see the packaging across time? Therefore, if you skip that step, which is also connected to the step of becoming a permanent resident of some kind, and not just precariously renewing your J1 visa every six months, then it takes a bit of time to feel as if the dairy products make sense. To summarize, nine years if you bugger it all up. But I should think four years if you didn’t bugger it up.
LB: I clearly buggered it up.
BK: How many years?
LB: I’ve had this very open relationship with the United States. We’ve been on and off for about thirteen years but only in a committed relationship for two.
BK: I’ve been married since 2007. I like being married.
LB: Did you have to renounce other citizenships?
BK: No. Because the immigration policy is so fluid, so variable. At the time I became a citizen, the US/UK relationship was very good. So dual citizenship. Other times that closes, sometimes it opens up. Like a clam.
LB: So continuing from the questions of leaving and arriving, what about staying? How does one stay in a place? And is staying permanent?
BK: I have accidentally fallen in love with the life I got when I pressed the wrong button, or so it felt for a long time, and found myself in Colorado. Sometimes I think my body, my nervous system, found the conditions that would benefit it in deep ways. An hour north of Boulder, I have a back yard with a dog in it, a world of funny, kind neighbors who come over for tea and spelt quiche, a fantastic independent bookstore and café down the street, the rituals of daily life with my son, a barter share at Cresset Community farm, my palm-reading and bodywork practice, the herb garden in front of my house with citrine yellow flowers each May…and so on. The space and time to write books, even if they are books that take as their outline the history of violence. When this space breaks, I hope I have the resilience and imagination to break with it. I hope I can complete my projects, raise my son with a soft heart, and be of service to the people around me, which includes too, my students at Naropa. I commute to Boulder three days a week, and life there, teaching in the Upaya cottages, dreaming up passage between biological and cultural hybrids, and ones created in language, in the language before language begins…this is also a home.
LB: How do you think that that movement between places fed into your embodiment of the hybrid, both in how you live your life and in your writing and your refusal to live, I don’t know if it’s refusal or lack of interest or inability, to live simply in the grey or simply in the white or simply in the fuchsia? But to acknowledge that the colours bleed.
Rohini Kapil, "Fuschia to Grey",
BK: They’re a continuum. I mean that’s so beautiful. If the hybrid is streaming, forming, then it’s also a record of a species that won’t reproduce. A visual species, interstitial to the cultural document of a population. A flare of color rather than a body. Vibration that challenges chronology, and at the same time is very fragile, completely dependent upon who can feel it or perceive it in other ways. And, what does this contact do? In some ways, I feel I am describing the mutant angels of Hindu and Tibetan theologies – multi-limbed, radical creatures made of flesh and light. And how a person could take a posture to be receptive to them, to make them come. To make them look at you. Which is the practice of writing every day, in all weathers, perhaps. Making a space for hybrids to thrive, even briefly, which is perhaps what small press culture is – an ecology that supports beings without an enduring life span – is different perhaps to the hybrid beings themselves, who are so vibrant, so hidden. At least, as I mark leaving and arriving as textual practice, it’s a journey and duration as long as the one I want to hold in my work – the span of time from Partition in 1948, the blood on the earth on the border at night, to this time, in which that earth remains uninvestigated, a curfew zone. I visualize page after page made of earth. How can I prepare the earth to receive an outline, a briefly held memory or after-image made of flowers and black fire? It means going there. It means returning to a border, for work – lying down in the dark space between India and Pakistan – that should only last moments. Filming the outline a body leaves, re-filled with marigolds and tiny oil lamps…this should also take no more than five minutes. And so I want a book that does not centralize the event, but which gives space, too, to planetary or evacuated time. I want a book that refuses life, that doesn’t fragment…it just flattens out, converts across agricultural and urban thresholds, seemingly forever, until, serrated by Turkmenistan, by the concrete edifices of Akshabad, and the sharp mountain range beyond the city, it begins to bleed. This is what Indian writing in English means to me. In fact, responding to your question, I understand why it is so valuable to me to think of the border as a double envelope and why it is I want to lie down there in a way that doesn’t serrate it. That doesn’t stress the fibers of my dress.
LB: When we were talking about the immigrant, I’ve noticed for myself that I really shy away and in fact am repelled by the word emigrant. I can’t handle using the word emigrant. I always use the word immigrant.
BK: What kind of book does an immigrant write?
LB: There have been so many recent generations of immigration in my family. My parents were both born in Europe but moved to Australia as children. Though they weren’t born in Australia, they grew up as Australians. So in this weird sense they are the first generation Australians in our family, and yet in another way because my siblings and I were the first born in Australia, we’re the first generation.
BK: Then it’s like you were born to children. It’s the grey-fuchsia.
LB: And they also didn’t return to the fuchsia. Having left as children and having left as Jewish children after World War Two, there was nothing to return to. Poland wasn’t even Poland anymore. It was anything but a home. Once they got to Australia, that was it, that was the only place you could live. There was no temptation to even return. There was a good forty years between leaving and any sense of return. There was this strange blend, you know. And now I’ve left there as well. And there’s this continuum of reestablishing. And there’s a certain obsession with geography that happens when you don’t stay in the same place. I’m really attracted to writers directly or indirectly writing about geography, where that is an undercurrent.
BK: Like C.S. Giscombe.
LB: I go bananas for him.
BK: I took some people up to the mountains when they were all here. Someone said, “Cecil is coming.” I said, “Oh, okay.” Then we were all having dinner, and suddenly I realized, “It’s C.S. Giscombe.” I went mad. I know what you mean. I think I get all confused though. Talking to my students about transitional space or mapped space, it seems wondrous…though lately, the inquiry feels less crucial to others. I don’t know how to put this. In terms of cultural theory, the moment of crossing over the border, we’ve moved over that, but actually I feel it hasn’t been fully expressed or investigated. What you’re talking about, that lag, that delay, that’s exactly where my interest is. To go back and in.
LB: Growing up in Australia, the border is very clearly defined. There is land and there is water. There’s no confusion about whether you’re in one country or another country, because the country is the entire ground beneath you. It’s one of the only places where to go overseas one must literally go over sea. So to me, a border can be an idea, an agreement. So many things are. Language is an agreement about how we are to communicate. Laws are agreements or disagreements about exactly how we behave. This ephemeral border, that moves constantly, and then we have to start protecting this border, as if it can be damaged. As if it’s an actual fragility.
BK: Gold space overlaid on black space. Agricultural land. We were speaking before this interview began in metaphor – movement as fuchsia to grey. I think I was describing what it was like to move between India and South-East England as a child, or vice versa, which was, phonetically, a grey grey white white dark scarlet fuchsia blue grey grey grey grey white fuchsia. Do you know the work of Tacita Dean? I love her film of a Kodak factory shutting down. The last day. I thought, that’s it. The greyness in the factory and then these loops of photographic paper. They’re producing the paper to put the prints on, and these flares of hot pink and the chromatic scale of photographic paper appear in this very flat series, the document of the process. And there’s also the thing of it being the last day. Of the space as coming to an end. To look at color processes in another way, I sometimes think that even racism is useful. It kicks you out of where you live, and in its own weird way, gives you a different life, one with gold smashed grasses and mountains in it. But back to your sea. Do you ever take a glass of wine down to the shoreline, and write there? Do you lie down there?
LB: I like to sit in that place on the beach where I’m in the ocean and on the land at the same time.
BK: A wet wall.
LB: I love to be right there. Where you no longer know if you’re at land or at sea.
BK: And is there an artist you love too? Is there an artist who formalizes the unknown in dots?
LB: At the moment I’m a bit obsessed with Neil Haddon. He paints what isn’t there, as if by erasure. He does large-scale aluminium works, and his primary tools are spray guns and sanders. He lays enamel paint over the aluminium, projects a mask or silhouette of his “landscape” onto the aluminium, and then sands it back. So he’s constantly moving between laying the paint on and ripping it off. The image and the shadow of the image move closer and closer towards being the same thing. He does formalize the unknown, but never attempts to explain it, which is an enormous relief to me.
BK: I love the painting with the scarred, pitted dots on a sheet of curved metal that you sent me once. Of his. The
Neil Haddon," Stranded (Poppy)
dots as resembling the particular matter of a book….
LB: And what are our books? Are they what is published? The drafts? I believe you to be a believer in the notebook.
BK: The notebook as non-reproductive. As mutations that are very rarely seen or appear in a more formed state in a book. I learn from my friend, the philosopher-to-be, Andrea Spain, beautiful translator of the concepts Elizabeth Grosz brings forward in her work on art and territory, that, and I hope I got this right: the larger the non-reproductive store of a population is: then: the more swiftly the outer limit of the domain will not just flicker, but begin to convert. So for species, if you have a large number of mutations that don’t become built structures, then the more radically and unexpectedly the outer limit of a territory forms. Or, to put it another way, the greater the number of hybrid possibilities or figures that emerges at a perimeter site. The notebook is both a pre-body, the vibratory contents of a body before it appears, but also nutrients. Milk, as Melissa Buzzeo, with whom I also have these conversations, might say. I am still trying to form a discourse for the notebook as both the animal itself, and its shelter.
LB: So then does the notebook, or can the notebook function as a type of humanimal nest in which we bring the scraps together and make our home and live inside it?
BK: I feel that way most intensely when I gather my notebooks into one place, in a basket that my friend Gina gave me, there on the top shelf, or a shelf itself. When they’re near to each other I feel that protection and nourishment are exchanged independently of my effort as an artist. Sometimes when they’re put away, when they’re not available to me as much, when they’re not near me when I write, I forget them too. Inside that blankness, something happens. Concepts communicate with each other without human modulation. This is the kind of biospherical mapping I was trying to describe earlier, when I was describing the book that marks the elongations of bruised silver as much as the red. A kind of red. The notebook is for not existing, it’s for not having a lover, it’s for being buried, as Cixous writes, beneath the sand, for five days.
LB: You say that sometimes the notebooks are put away and sometimes they’re more accessible. Do you go through phases where you very intentionally use them?
BK: As a writer, I gravitate towards the disgusting content, which is a definition of war time. I cannot say them or think them. The things I put in the book. So I forget my own writing for days or years at a time. My subjects are madness and violence. So I blank out. Why not? The notebook, in this way, traces not thinking but the neurology of thinking. In a notebook, I might examine the question: What is thinking like for a schizophrenic person? For a child? For the person who can’t return to the place where they are from? Perhaps thinking as an analytic function is not actually useful. The notebook processes events, it always does that, but it’s also intuitively and texturally organized, to say it in a very basic way. There is no obligation to recollect. It’s a grid. Do you keep a notebook?
LB: I do. I think in my notebook. I have a theory that we plant seeds in our notebooks. You need to keep going back to them, to see if something has grown. The seeds need different temperatures and soils, so they can’t all grow at once. You need to be very patient, and you need to pay attention. It’s a different environment for words.
BK: And then, can environments communicate with each other? I think of the notebook as a kind of India, a domain I am far from. For example, in my contemplative practice, the way I shift is to remember looking into the Ganges, meditating there, receiving the almost surreal vibration that emanates from the water…and…I look into my own eyes. I look into my eyes in India. All I have to do is bring the visual memory forward. And it may be something similar with a notebook. All I have to do is visualize the notebook, think of it, and its stream of images is available to me – I mean, the logic of the images in that notebook in particular.
LB: Yesterday I was preparing for this interview, and I asked some folks, “Okay, what do we ask Bhanu Kapil? What do we do? What do we need to know?” And Max Regan described you, amongst other very fabulous things, as a filmmaker without a camera.
Teahouse Mirror, Obstructed:
"Eh up, I can't see to put on me mascara!"
BK: Ah oui, Max is a beautiful genius! This January, I visited India with the strong desire to go to the border with Pakistan and to lie down exactly there. To build a silueta.
An outline. An Ana Mendieta imprint. To re-fill it with flowers and fire. I found marigolds. And to film.
LB: With a camera?
BK: Yes. In the right place, a place that’s not surveilled. There was troop build-up when I was there, a curfew, and so, in the end, I built the outline of my body on earth that was proximal. People were very respectful, very hushed as they watched me do this public/private work over the course of two days. There was a rumor that I was performing a Shiva pooja! A ceremony. Maybe they were on to something. I’m going again in May, to Kashmir, for a pilgrimage to Amarnath with my Uncle Roshan, where Shiva meditated in an ice cave for millions of years, apparently, and then I’ll loop down.
LB: You do a lot of research in your work, and I’m wondering, how do research and imagination inform each other in a work?
BK: Researching, you become the surface too. Your body becomes the receptor site to influences and relationships you couldn’t imagine before. In Chimp Haven or Berkeley National Laboratory or the jungles of the wolfgirls in Bengal, I collected the information that some aggregates share membranes and others have clearly defined membranes; I took notes on the exact blue of the jungle filmed at night, and then the green. I felt desire I didn’t know I had for the inhabitants of these other worlds. I saw that the garden for the Louisiana prison, which has a predominantly African-American population, abutted the fence of the colony of chimps, and that the HIV-infected chimps are free-roaming in a separate part of the woods. In the car driving home, or at night on the balcony of the jungle lodge, I wrote descriptions of the trees. I formulated new questions. And the questions carried me, they gave me passage, but they didn’t control the response of the work itself, which was the book. In this way, a book is formed from the strong desire I felt to go to those places, which my work had opened up as architectures or ecologies or hospitals. It’s formed from the risk and adventure, too, of going. Of documenting the corridor of the Institute of Health Sciences, the door of Dinesh Bhugra’s office, the lift, the London rooftops extending like a broken red crenellate across the East End as much as the subject area – Bhugra’s work on cross-cultural psychiatry – itself.
LB: And then when you’re weaving all of that together, is it desire that holds the research material, the interview material, the studying of the place with the imagination? Or is there no difference there?
BK: Because my subjects are not lyric subjects, because they have “an unassimilable content,” in the words of Cynthia Sailer from last year’s AGGRESSION conference in San Francisco – quoting Bion via Bhabha, as I recall…how do you bring that kind of subject matter forward? So, to answer your question about what holds the work together, I have been thinking more and more of imagining the figure or entity that can do that inside prose documents. Following a figure, tracking a figure, and considering the kinds of proprioceptive events that might make this…person…visible. Though, for a person of color, visibility poses another kind of risk.
LB: The questions that you used as the skeleton or launching points for The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers have been widely used beyond the text. I’m wondering if that’s something you foresaw or how you feel about the book being, it feels like it’s still being written but by many many people. How is that for you?
BK: It’s very beautiful to share the questions with others, that the questions are useful. People, mostly women, young women beginning to write or with so much desire for writing, somehow have found this book in various North American territories – the U.S., but also Canada and Mexico – and responded to the questions themselves. Then they find me somehow, through the internet, and send the writing they have formed.
LB: I know that whenever I use it in a class, and I try to always use it in a class, there’s always at least one person who makes a whole project out of it and starts using the questions, continuing.
BK: They should have the questions. The questions belong to them.
LB: Oh, they take them.
BK: Tres bien!!!! More fake French. I apologize.
LB: I know that you spend time looking at the architectural structure of words and text. And I’m wondering if there is
a dominant architectural structure that you like to build with your work and how it develops. When do you know where the walls are going to be? When do you know if there’s a basement? When do you know what the roof’s made out of?
BK: And how do you know where to build in a wet wall? There’s a French architect living in Tokyo, François Blanciak, and he’s written a book called Siteless, which was recommended to me by the Naropa librarian Tristan Duke, who said, you should read this and he was right, which is another reason why I love Naropa. In the introduction, Blanciak writes that he’s “bored” with the way that architects process or program for a site, all of the recombinant language. So his whole book, it’s just a very short preface and then the rest is images of Tokyo, New York, of different cities, with architectural forms, tiny imaginal models and underneath is condensed language like “global slabs,” “end bundle,” “spiral sets,” “peeled cone,” “glowing square,” and so on. That’s it. He builds an image, makes a decision in language, and then moves on, rapidly, so that in fact, all of this language is in fairly simultaneous communication with itself. A strict grid that both contains and pours energy through itself. How? I’m trying to translate Blanciak’s matrices to the work I’m doing with schizophrenia and sexual violence, which is also, as a subject matter, content that takes place in three countries. How to create a book of this scope that works counter to an epic aim? That makes a word throb, not as a fragment but with a physical purpose.
LB: Do you know the first word that you fell in love with?
BK: I do. Crane. I lived in a part of London where they were building a new section of the motorway, so the few years when I was a child that construction was always going on. There were big cranes. My first word was “crane” and then “Hector Theatre.” From BBC1. A puppet called Hector who used to put on little shows.
LB: When you said crane, I thought you meant the bird.
BK: Yeah, so did I.
LB: What are the qualities of a hero?
BK: The word that immediately came to mind was “deviant.” You know? The person who has deviated from her path in life, and is ready, prepared, to be of service to whomever she encounters. In India this summer I stayed at the ashram of Swami Ramananda, which was built by my mother’s cousin’s brother-in-law, and so I could stay there without any problem. Swami Ramananda studied in Lahore before Partition. He got the highest marks, in his graduating exam, of anyone in India and was instantly offered a job in the diplomatic service. Instead, he gave it all up to become a homeopath, and to take a spiritual path. He would hear of a typhoid epidemic in some village in Punjab, and he would go straight there, with no money, nothing. Catching rides all the way to this remote place to distribute homeopathic medicine. And so he would be an example. Someone who is of service to people who are impoverished, disadvantaged in profound ways, and who has family members infected by disease. A hero is someone who deviates from the life that they’ve been given or the life that they could have in order to lie down in the bed with a person who is dying. There is a story that Swami Ramananda lay down with a man who was about to die and described an orchard of lemon trees, pomegranate trees, vividly describing it, and continued speaking even when the man had passed. In this category, would be hospice workers and all the people who work with refugees, with people whose bodies have suffered in ways that we would not tolerate, even for a moment. We would scream. Is there a poet who does this? Is there a writer who stays, who leaves to go: right there? The person who comes to mind is the writer Mark Nowak; his enquires into how our society organizes and regulates its labor force. He wrote, and then I wrote it down in my notebook: “…of particular interest to me is “poetry” produced within transnational social movements and especially transnational social movement unionism.” Wait! Now I’m thinking, too, of Laura Mullen, of the devastating attention she pays to “what’s dragged” – through a book, down a street, from a car. That human body. A heroine is someone who doesn’t look away from the body-in-time. In order to describe it, to make this body appear, she might, as above, give up other things. What are those things?