The Body in Verse
Bhanu Kapil and Jonah Mixon-Webster are poets who write into the interstices between genres and bodies. In their books, both writers build worlds that feel at once fragmentary and replete—full of ellipses, yet dense with creaturely life—and explore notions of home, resistance, and monstrosity. For Kapil, who is British Indian and splits her time between England and the United States, the long, essayistic prose-poem is a space free from fictitious borders and colonial logic. Like the characters she favors—who exist often at the intersection of multiple identities and even species—each of Kapil’s six books proposes new ways to shirk the invisible strictures of grammar and nationality.
Language is a similarly fluid medium for Mixon-Webster, whose poems and essays often take his native Flint, Michigan as both subject and setting; his debut collection, Stereo(TYPE) (2018) exposes numerous axes of systemic racism—physical and economic violence, public health crisis, the literature of white supremacy—through a kaleidoscopic array of modes. Weaving from poetic dialogues and “FAQs” to erasures and dream sequences, his work, like Kapil’s, offers a radically hybrid alternative to state-sanctioned categories.
For this special issue, Kapil and Mixon-Webster—mutual admirers of one another’s work—exchanged letters on a Google doc about family, linear time, and somatic practices.
From: Bhanu Kapil
To: Jonah Mixon-Webster
I moved house today, in England, and my body feels like a fox body or a tree body, something not different from the outside of this apartment complex at the edge of a wood. I’ve been texting with my friend Aaron Brown in California all week. He wanted to know how I handle what he calls “the affective visceral lapse” that happens in conversation when the person you’re talking to changes the subject abruptly. And how this happens, in particular, when the conversation approaches a difficult topic, the history of racialized violence, for example. My computer charge is about to run out, but it’s what I want to make a note of here. To think about. Perhaps you could tell me a story from the in-between? I’m so tired tonight, as this full moon rises over the fens.
(Though now it’s morning.) Just came in from an early walk with my mother. We watched the sun come up; she said: “Bhanu, you went mad for poetry when you were a baby.” She recalled my nursery teacher, Mrs. Anderson, beckoning her just as class was about to end. “What has Bhanu done now?” asked my mother. “Something horrible?” “On the contrary, Mrs. Kapil,” said my teacher, “look…” At the age of five, I was standing on a table reciting improvised poems about the sun to a class of about twenty other children, occasionally pausing to ask them questions. Mrs. Anderson took out her guitar to accompany me and…well, here we are. I took a photograph of my mother telling me this story as the sun rose this morning.
Perhaps for me there never was an in-between; perhaps it was always like this. At the same time, I feel impacted, in the last few years, by a kind of disillusionment with the avant-garde or experimental communities where I found a welcome when I first began to write and publish in the United States. I feel sick when I think about some of the things that happened in contexts I finally found the strength to step out of. I want to find a way to be with others in a new way. We’ll see. I feel as if I have been in service to whiteness, and that: must stop.
I’m curious about other ways to be with others, and with poetry. What feeling hopeful again, about poetry, might look like/be like. What is it like for you?
What a glorious image you’ve captured. It’s stunning and starlight-falling all over over there, and as I sit on a bench beneath a peach tree in the backyard of my new residence in St. Louis, the peaches gone, only pits encircling the trunk and roots, I am considering how the starlight itself brings us to a type of togetherness—as if, no matter the distance or the temporal discontinuity, we are all sitting beneath the same star, together, right now, as I listen again to the imagined voice of your mother tell the story of poetry moving beyond from you early on, as the peach pits gather themselves among us.
Your story and your appraisal of your history and presence with poetry makes me think of how once certain tastes and commodifying trends develop within an artform, the body that produces art within it is put in certain and constant danger of being usurped. Whiteness operates in a similar manner in regard to avant-gardist practices, even those which have informed the generative sound work that I started doing after hearing Steve Reich’s work and then hearing Steve Reich’s soundtrack on Robert Nelson’s Oh Dem Watermelons (1965). But I think that’s just how the obvious elitism of the institution of avant-gardism works and is, constantly recentering and serving whiteness in its most artful forms. In a lot of ways, poetry is and was The Great Conversation, as Vievee Francis described in a workshop she facilitated. Though I would say I like to think that this Conversation is more than another battleground for the culture wars, I do think it is still precisely that. I do feel that poetry, especially poetry that explores the deep affects of embodiment can help to achieve not only a togetherness between individuals, but also a togetherness of the self. The experience and energy of integration, expansion. Even now, my body thinks it’s aloft in…
It’s emotional to read your words in the three poems you recently published in Harper’s: “I am not speaking of a cut, / nor the way my gut caves into a split.” What are the somatics of a body that does not come to be? Not the body but its imprint, “whatever’s left of my body,” as you write.
Is somatic inquiry a vantage point, a way of writing after it’s already done? In fact, I’m averse to the word somatic as a means of giving value to the capacity to perceive and then describing something more vividly than the next person. The next poet, I suppose. What’s emotional, then, is that you reverse this mode of propagation; imagery doesn’t precede sensation, but rather, it constitutes a detritus, an afterwards that hasn’t happened yet, and yet has always already happened right now. How an “image of loss” is composed of what’s been retained, and collected. By whom? I’m so moved by the sorrow and tenderness, the grief and the care in your poems, dear Jonah. Your “rearward.” The way, though your sentences and lines move forward in time, something is also being sucked backwards: To where? To what? To whom? What is the zero point of narrative time? Who’s there, waiting for you? I have this strange sensation, suddenly, of your poems as being observed, tended to…by whom? Do you ever have the feeling that there’s someone there, at the perimeter of the work?
I’m trying to remember what was going on during my last attempt to discuss some of these switches and narratives, and how they’ve spun up, winding through the imaginaries and concretions of somatic work. I’ve lost it since then. Perhaps what went aloft really went. But these echoes spreading between us, even in our sharing of these stories, give me a sense that whatever we are getting at lies within some profound ineffability.
Since I feel as though I live in a mostly haunted body, issues of time disturb my senses and get performed through the language in my work. Sometimes, time is absent altogether, or is confounded by reversals, other negated presences, stoppages, concatenated voices, and yes…I’m never unaccompanied in the work. I don’t ever really know how to describe it, but something is differently activated when I use my body to work. It is like an antenna, picking up stations or phrases, or memories, other voices, by the exact way I might sit in a chair sloping, or if prone in a closet. It’s quite strange.
I’ve been moving more belongings from Flint to St. Louis, and while moving my books, your collection Schizophrene falls out of a slant of other books to the floor. Lifting it from the rugspores, I flip it open with my thumb to “4. ABIOGENESIS,” and I see I have it already highlighted, and the text is ever-telling, and I re-read the section and get re-struck by the bookended meditations, the experience of its experience unfurled from its semiotic re-renderings:
To flux, to squat: a conjunction of living and non-living matter. In a book without purpose/with a dead start. But with the body displaying signs of early spring: pink bits sensitive to being touched, like a Jain woman crossing the street in her linen mask and with her pole.
Abiogenesis: To flux and squat in an inhabited place, risking something.
Is it a right thing or a mad thing not to want to re-connect, to avoid reading or writing because of what those will bring?
I think it is both right and mad not to want to reconnect, to avoid reading or writing because of what they must bring. I’m regaining my speaking engine, now mostly concerned with the contingencies and predications of our speaking. The togethernesses and the disavowals, the clarities and trepidations of such clearings. I’m considering this in our echoes and ineffables. Our communications of and with a body, thinking of it now as a type of abiogenesis inherent within the possibilities of language, its endosomatic implications and exosomatic evidences. The tears that have fallen in the middle of this exchange and how they might always fall after.
And, of course, not always tears. I’m writing to you now with a smile beyond many miles and many screens and many data particles that bind us to these machines…Albeit, smiling. It has been a great pleasure to partake in this kind of somatic praxis, and I have and will be changed by it. We are in this moment of celebration, and living life as it lives now, I want to smile. (“I want to smile” was not the clause I intended to write…) I am in the middle of a meditation, bathing in a sample loop of Anita Baker’s “Whatever it Takes,” and I looked up and that sentence was there. And now I want to share with you and everyone.
Perhaps this is a body’s gesture toward togetherness, a smile. Other matter could also suggest this: tears, a hug, a language. Whatever the case or cause of this practice of togetherness, I believe that we are here with each other.
It’s the equinox today. Something tilts away from the sun, or towards it. Here with you, yes, in “the idea of the dream,” as you wrote, elsewhere. I hope we get to drink tea one day, or coffee, in the Endosomatic Café. The one where we don’t have to speak—or perhaps where we’ve paused our conversation to write in our notebooks like it’s 1921. But where? Maybe we don’t have to time-travel. I’ll meet you on the steps of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, just before we visit your soundwork, which has just been installed there.
There’s more to say. This is a beginning. Love to you.
I cannot wait until we are able to sit across from one another again smiling or reciting poems extemporaneously as you once did in school. If even in imagination, still the most brilliant company!
Here’s to beginning beginning beginning and beginning! All love & light back!
This conversation appears in the Winter 2020 print issue of The Yale Review. Purchase a downloadable version of the issue at the low rate of just $5, and get writing by and conversations with Anne Boyer, Julia Cho, Samuel R. Delany, Aleshea Harris, Bhanu Kapil, Yiyun Li, Jonah Mixon-Webster, Namwali Serpell, and Maria Tumarkin.
Bhanu Kapil is an artist by-fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge. She is the author of six full-length works, including How To Wash A Heart and Ban en Banlieue. She teaches at Goddard College as part of the low-residency MFA in creative writing.
Jonah Mixon-Webster is a poet and conceptual/sound artist from Flint, MI. His debut poetry collection, Stereo(TYPE), received the PEN America/Joyce Osterweil Award. His works are featured in publications including Callaloo, Harper’s, and The Rumpus.
Images: photo of Bhanu Kapil; photo of Jonah Mixon-Webster by Marsha E. Eagle.