Interview with Kirun Kapur, Past Poetry Prize Winner

One of our editors, Alexandra McLaughlin, interviewed Kirun Kapur, winner of the 2013 Arts & Letters Rumi Poetry Prize. Her poem, “From the Afterlife,” can be found here and in Issue 27.

Alexandra McLaughlin: I see that you’ve lived and traveled all over the world—growing up in Hawaii, living and working in North America and South Asia. How has this influenced your poetry?

Kirun Kapur: When I began assembling poems for my first book, I showed one of the earliest manuscript drafts to a poet I trust and admire. He said, “I love the poems individually, but when I read them all together they give me whiplash.” He meant that the book was constantly shifting—without warning—across the world, across time, and he found it jarring. One minute the reader is in America, the next in India or Pakistan, then back again; it’s 1947, then the present day, then in some mythical time, then, suddenly, 1947 again. Looking back, it makes perfect sense that he would notice that motion and I would not. Like many people who grow up between countries, languages and cultures, I’ve spent my entire life crossing back forth. It’s so instinctive I hardly notice it. “Whiplash” has been a way of life for me, and rather than jarring, I find it a marvelous source of energy and inspiration. I realized then that I wanted to preserve the qualities of motion and plurality. But I also understood the criticism. I needed to work more to make the experience fruitful for the reader. I wanted the “whiplash” to add to the poems and the book. Some of the hardest work I did on the manuscript was figuring out how to move the reader meaningfully through history, culture and geography. So, I think it’s fair to say that my wanderings have been at the center of my poems, even when I couldn’t see it.

AM: Can you describe the time when you first realized that being creative and writing poetry was what you wanted to do?

KK: I’ve wanted to make poems for as long as I can remember—even before I was entirely sure what a poem might be. My father was (and is) a wonderful storyteller. When I was little, he would tell stories to put us to sleep. We’d all pile into my parents’ bed with the lights turned off and listen. For me, a beloved voice in the dark is still a moving and profound experience. So, perhaps the impulse and interest came from there. I’m not sure. In any case, wanting to make poems didn’t seem like the sort of thing you could admit out loud. On a school trip to the Big Island, we’d watched a volcanologist walk on crust of cooled lava, step over a stream of molten rock, and use special instruments to draw liquid fire from inside the earth. This seemed just as exciting and far more practical than poetry! For a long time after I told everyone I wanted to be a volcanologist.

AM: Do you have any creative patterns or rituals?

KK: I love the idea of rituals. I’ve always wanted to have creative rituals, but, these days, it’s not feasible. I fit my writing around other obligations (work, family etc.). Every day is different. Once in a while I have whole, beautiful, blank hours in which to read and write and think, uninterrupted. Other days I work on two lines in the parking lot before a meeting or edit a stanza while I’m waiting for water to boil on the stove. Someday, though, I’ll have special (admirable!) rituals involving long walks and tea.

AM: Tell me about your debut collection, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist. What was the process of putting that together like? What inspired it?

KK: Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist is a collection of poems that ricochets from 1940s India to Biblical pastorals, from American bars to the battlefield of the Bhagavad-Gita. The book explores history, family ties, personal identity and the harrowing collisions of love and violence that force us to reinvent our culture and ourselves. The poems are populated by an array of characters—mothers and fathers, princes and soldiers, daughters and lovers—who struggle to understand our most fundamental stories and our most enduring human bonds.

Part of Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist is inspired by Partition, the 1947 division of British India into the modern nations of Indian and Pakistan. Partition led to the largest human migration in modern history. Close to 20 million people lost their homes and livelihoods; almost 2 million lost their lives. The story of Partition was something I really wanted to address in this book. It was a story that was always present in my house (my father lived through it), though it was rarely talked about out loud. In part, I wanted these poems to respond to those silences, to be the voices I sensed but didn’t hear.

I began publishing poems in journals immediately after I finished grad school, but it took me some time to publish my first book. I edited the poems relentlessly, cutting out large sections, writing and rewriting. Convinced the poems weren’t good enough—or maybe that I wasn’t good enough—I gave up a number of times. Finding a structure that could accommodate multiple cultures, landscapes, historical events and mythological worlds was daunting. But, somehow, I just couldn’t stop. I kept working on it. Eventually, I did send the manuscript out. In 2013, it won the Antivenom Poetry Prize and was published by Elixir Press in 2015.

AM: What have you been working on recently?

KK: At present, I’m procrastinating! I’m getting myself ready to begin assembling a new manuscript. I’ve printed everything out. The pile of pages is sitting on my desk, reproachfully, held together with a massive binder clip. Somehow, I’m not up to facing them quite yet. So, I’ve been writing a series of ghazals. Procrastination ghazals. I love the ghazal form. They are difficult to do well in English, so it’s the perfect mind-absorbing project.

AM: Any advice for writers?

KK: Don’t give up. Read more and write more. Then revise again, even when you think you can’t.

Follow your interests and your instincts, especially the weird ones.

Try to remember that nothing is wrong with you if you are plagued by self-doubt. You can learn to write with it (or from under it).

Find a true friend or two. Your friends will tell you (gently) when your work isn’t what it should be and will have faith in you when you doubt yourself. Your friends will prop you up and cheer you on, talk you off the ledge and read your thousandth draft. Their miraculous work will inspire you.

AM: What are you reading right now?

KK: I just finished The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch and A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam. They’re very different books, but both are lyrical, economical and beautiful. I’m now knee deep in a fine biography of photographer Dorothea Lange and I’m re-reading the excellent Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed.*


The 19th Annual Arts & Letters Prize Competition is still open for submissions through March 31st!

Kirun Kapur is the winner of the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize in Poetry and the Antivenom Poetry Award for her first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (Elixir Press, 2015). Her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, FIELD, Prairie Schooner, The Christian Science Monitor and many other journals. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and at Brandeis University and is currently a visiting writer at Amherst College. Kapur has been awarded fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell Colony. She is the director of the New England arts program, The Tannery Series, and serves as Poetry Editor at The Drum Literary Magazine. She was recently named an “Asian-American poet to watch” by NBC news. Kapur grew up in Honolulu and now lives north of Boston.
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