Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press and included work by Bhanu Kapil (“Monster Checklist”) and Ching-In Chen (“bhanu feeds soham a concession”). They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to discuss dreams, threads, fungus, marigolds, soft-tissue sites, and writing as a form of pilgrimage.
Michael Martin Shea: Hi Bhanu! Hi Ching-In! One of the things that’s striking about both of your texts–and part of the reason we wanted to interview the two of you together–is how they’re in conversation with other texts: Bhanu’s quasi-syllabus mentions a variety of other books and thinkers, while Ching-In’s is, in part, a response to Bhanu’s Incubation: A Space for Monsters. Do you see your work as a form of conversation?
Bhanu Kapil: I wrote the “handwritten preface” to Incubation in a cafe, with my friend, the poet Melissa Buzzeo. I put my head down on the table; in that time, she wrote or sketched her What Began Us (Leon Works.) I woke up, ordered some toast and coffee, and wrote the preface as she was completing her book. She took what I wrote back to Brooklyn and pinned it to her fridge; I had to get her to mail it back, a year later, when I realized what my own book could be. This, in fact, was not a conversation, but dreaming, what it is to feel so safe you can fall asleep while your friend is writing a book and to also dream your own book as they are writing their own.
Ching-In Chen: I love this idea of dreaming in place of a conversation. Because I’m the child of immigrants, because I’ve always learned histories and stories and fragments I’ve felt adjacent to and strange against, I frequently place myself adjacent or in a strange way to other texts, words, voices as a means of transforming or activating the original. This process inputs, processes, subtracts, compresses — is a fungus which seeps across the texts on my desk, on my pillow, against the door, in the sink. I extract and then re-combine again — and in that way, I braid some part of me into that narrative.
MMS: That’s really interesting because, to me, this idea–whether we call it dreaming or conversation or something else entirely–is a rejection of the notion that the aesthetic object should be removed from (or at a remove from) the circumstances that created it. And in fact, both your answers and these texts feel very grounded in the means of their production, the messiness and dailyness of being a writer. How does that factor into your creative process?
BK: The simple idea that to stop writing is to lose my grasp of the very delicate gold and black, or red — thread — that is tied — on one end to the roots of an oak tree on the outskirts of London — and on the other — to my pen. Daily writing as a way to sustain that thread’s life, and if you can imagine all the threads and all the pens and all the immigrant or diasporic writers — then what you can also visualize — above or beneath the ocean — is a chrysalis, a carapace, or the wet material of silk, cotton or wool. No, I am just describing what is visible. Beneath that ocean it is a different: matter. I can’t write that, actually, without thinking of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! Or without bringing to mind the loose thread, the thread that becomes a livid worm on the floor of the sea — a color that in turn brings to mind the refugee life-jackets, a pink-orange-red. “There is no such thing as skin” was the first sentence I wrote in the US. Daily writing practice works against this sentence in ways I can’t fully articulate, except to say that the daily writing is very raw, very private, a mixture of dead, dead, and alive.
CIC: I depend on the writing as part of a daily kind of tracking — of compressing sections of the day into ticking moments, of books into poetic lines. It is often the only moment in the day that I pause, becomes a way for me to take notice of my body. When I disregard this practice, I feel my body’s anger at me, a kind of overwhelming pulsing and scatter, perhaps a kind of overstimulation or overaccumulation. I often forget (or ignore) and then have to actively work on gathering this core of energy — and to listen down to the scratch on the page. I have to coax the poem from the body. It’s one of those things that takes a bit of effort if I’m in the daily flow, but if I step away, it takes an extra burst to get back into the practice.
MMS: Ching-In, I think it’s possible to think of your work as not only polyvocal–bringing in voices that are not, explicitly, your own (though that’s a loaded idea)–but also a piece that privileges silence, with the prominent blank space that opens the poem. Can you talk a little bit (and Bhanu, I’d love to hear your thoughts here as well) about silence and the writing experience?
CIC: When I first began writing, I was afraid of silence — there were many ways I was trained to be silent and I rebelled against that expectation. Only later did I recognize that I also used silence as a survival strategy, but it’s also a form of hiding, of not being brave. It’s taken time to understand that I need to wait for who is not there (yet) or has not arrived yet, what’s behind the surface. I’ve had to write to and through and away from the surface, like the first layer of skin which easily slips off.
BK: More and more, I want to face the interior of a space that has, to summarize, a copper and bronze cobra in the pit at the center of it. The doors have slammed shut. I am dedicated to the next hour, which is a silent hour, though, in the tradition of the Shiva temple that I am invoking, one that culminates in flowers — rose water, marigolds — and song.
MMS: On a similar note, Bhanu, your piece talks a lot about how writing relates to the body. So I’ll ask both of you–how does writing relate to the body (physical, political, otherwise)?
BK: Transitions as soft-tissue sites. (That’s how I am running workshop this week: an attention to transitions as sites of touch, encounter, healing, abrasion, circuitry, immunology.) But also: who are the bodies or populations (as my friend Andrea Spain has trained me consider) that show up in what you are writing? I knew I wanted to write the body that doesn’t, always, reach — what we might think of — as an organized or integrated adulthood, for example. Body as political flare. The indigo dye leaking into the grid.
CIC: I love the idea of the body as political flare — as a ruptured site, of seepage (a site of transfer or transit).
MMS: Experimental writing is often talked about in terms of process–that is, against a kind of static aesthetic identity. Whether you agree with this idea or not (which you can discuss too), how do you feel about these texts now that they’re not only published but anthologized? What is your relationship to your own, now-past writing?
CIC: I often have this feeling of distance when I see published work of mine — of feeling almost of estrangement and wonder. I feel that way now when I look at these lines and how they are mutated across the page — Was it my dreaming or sleeping self which made this choreography or arrangement? Often too because I have processed and re-processed the fragments so much, I also lose sight of them as touchstones. And because I’ve seen various versions and re-interpretations of them, I lose track too of where they’ve been and what direction they might be angled towards.
BK: I have the dense image of a cone of salt. One Spring, I saw Terence Koh on his knees, a durational performance, in which he prostrated or crawled around this: cone. A model of pilgrimage. Like that. But also, with five books, I have completed something that was not completed in them, but in my soul. I feel my works to be ephemeral, to be valves. Nutrients, perhaps, for a writing to come that is not my own. I have no relationship with these works. I have, most deeply, a relationship to readers, most of whom came through my blog — a space I recently (see above: cobra space) closed. Or rather, as I said, the doors slammed shut. Why? I want to write a true work of pilgrimage now. Everything I have written up to now is (was): notes, attenuation, a way to keep that thread intact. But now…. well….
MMS: Bhanu, the last line of your piece–which I love–is this haunting question: “How did you fail?” And it’s posed in response to the implied reader’s own work, but of course we hear it too as a form of self-critique. The trope of failure as a necessary part–or step–in any creative process is old, but this seems to be something different–closer to the idea that the failure itself is the goal. Can you expand on what failure means in this context, or in the context of your writing project?
BK: I don’t remember writing this line. Perhaps there is something wrong with me. I want to write a book that brings the physiology of the reader into the space just before it’s — limit — you could say. This is closer to Feldenkrais (my friend, a dancer/performer Laura Ann Samuelson, is teaching me a lot about this, through gesture and movement practices) — than it is to Heidegger.
CIC: That line also reminds me of a line in Douglas Kearney’s manifesto: “My poetry is often guided by the impulse to fail. When this is the case, writing is an attempt to salvage something from the mess.” In this way, I think of poetry as self-destructive in some way, as having the means to dismantle itself from within — both frightening, but potentially liberating if we see freedom as a goal.
MMS: What does monster mean to you?
CIC: The poem is a monster — often ugly and wounded stuffed into a box for presentation, lurking right below the ice. A monster — and its path through a world which hates itself — is also a poem :: a way to eye the world into a manageable line for presentation.
BK: An unassimilable content. An immigrant. Revenge.
Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books) and recombinant (forthcoming from Kelsey Street Press) and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. A Kundiman, Lambda, Watering Hole and Callaloo Fellow, they are part of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation writing communities. They serve on the Executive Board of Thinking Its Presence: Race, Advocacy, Solidarity in the Arts.
Bhanu Kapil lives in Colorado, where she teaches at Naropa University. Her most recent works, Schizophrene and Ban en Banlieue, both from Nightboat Books, comprise a diptych on the immigrant body (though much remains unsaid.)
Michael Martin Shea is the managing editor of Best American Experimental Writing. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.