Andy Fitch with Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil Rider
Bhanu Kapil

Last summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Kapil’s book,  Schizophrene (Nightboat). Recorded November 1st. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: You’ve described this edition of Schizophrene as a mutation of its predecessor. Could you discuss what has changed, and the motivations or circumstances behind those changes? What only can be arrived at through mutation? How does mutation-based composition facilitate and/or complicate your ongoing efforts to develop a book or sentence or narrative that “never arrives”?

Bhanu Kapil: Before you called I tried to find a copy of Schizophrene. Fittingly, I found one that is neither the first nor second edition, but a literal mutation that Lucas de Lima sent to me with a letter. Hang on. I shall open it. It says: “Enclosed is an occult copy of Schizophrene. Hope you don’t mind me saying that I love both versions of the book. So did most students, who thought the repeated pages were intentional, as did I.” Around page 19 this version repeats. Following the line ” ‘Reverse migration. . . ‘ Is psychotic,” the book just starts again. But not only does it restart. It condenses and excludes some sections. Perhaps 100 similar copies have circulated. Lucas has written about it on the Montevidayo blog. Though my own emphasis upon mutation comes from the thinking of Elizabeth Grosz, as communicated to me by her protégé Andrea Spain. Andrea and I will teach a workshop on this topic next summer at Naropa. From Grosz I take the notion of non-reproductive productivity. The larger the number of generative acts that do not result in “progeny,” the faster a species’ outer boundaries evolve. Mating need not involve childbirth. The mutations always occur in another place, a place not visible as a boundary, but which precedes a boundary. This pre-space or activity vibrates with the limit of what that space will become. Schizophrene, in its notebook form, presents both an installation and a staging ground. In fact the bulk of this project does not reside in the finished book, but in many notebooks and documents that contain my research on psychosis, immigrant experience, touch.

AF: Trauma circulates throughout Schizophrene. How does the aesthetic or logic or working-process of mutation relate to traumatic structures of thought—those that endlessly delay, defer, yet never fully depart from overwhelming memories or experiences or scenes?

BK: I can answer your question in one word: Pakistan. This word contains within it images never seen by me, but which persisted in stories told to me. At some point I understood that the bloody fairytales my mother told at night derived from this other scene—the primal scene that opens Schizophrene, of the women tied to the trees. This scene did not happen at the border, though here we encounter a problem: How do you write into the space preceding conjugation, that mixture or rupture of vital forms? Because this image of the women, of their evisceration, continues to appear in a context devoid of all markers of place. The image itself repeats, in an attempt, I sometimes think, to break down, to become a part of history. In addition, this image (less an image, perhaps, than a scene) always will remain a partial one. Why? Because a family member (my mother) observed it through a hole in a cart. My family member hid beneath straw and hay, and looked through the hole. Curation here amplifies a glimpse of the body, organ life, sacrifice, to the max. The viewer cannot look away. A breach keeps happening—whether life is given, taken or returned to that observed body. So this circumstance evokes the trauma vortex, to read “breach” through Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing model. To exit, one must build the counter-vortex: a capacity for pendulation, titration (the way a fragment starts to oscillate or shake). In Schizophrene’s final minutes, an ochre shard, held up to the sky, begins to stream a fire/water mixture (energy). For me, this registers an anti-clockwise movement, an initiating gesture of a new structure.

AF: Both the process-oriented nature of your mutational writing, and your reflections on the legacies of colonialism, partition, racism, track some sort of multi-generational echo or silence. “Information,” you say somewhere, can become “a grave.” But as your cannibalizing of previous versions suggests, a grave need not mean the end of affect. Have you, for example, in your psychological studies, encountered the concept of trans-generational haunting, as developed by Nicolas Abraham and Mária Török? Could you describe how such haunting informs not only the content of your work, but the specific forms that it takes? And you’ve already suggested how mutation might accelerate and intensify processes of decay. But Schizophrene also seems to track those moments when traumatic mutation becomes a future-oriented source of growth, of life—for the individual or culture or species.

BK: Just now, in Vancouver, I met Gail Scott, and she spoke about Abraham and Török’s project, about the broader exchange between experimental prose and cross-cultural psychiatry, which has happened for me through the work of Dinesh Bhugra and Kam Bhui, who consider the same (non-white European) clinical subject (the schizophrenic) as I do. Yet rather than recall Abraham and Török’s structure of the crypt, Schizophrene sets a trap. I wanted to create the conditions under which I could write a subsequent book, an anti-colonial novel, Ban. In Schizophrene’s next iteration, Ban (the figure) emerges from that vertical, triplicate space of the notebook—expelled, I sometimes think, by the force of this notebook hitting the earth. Ban embodies an orbital of soot and ash moving at high speeds around London, a body perennially orbiting, not yet born and never born and dying off before given an existence. In a way Ban already has vanished. I recently returned to some sites that appear in Schizophrene, to a post-social architecture, an architecture that did not retain the specific cultural memory I associate with it (as if someone had taken a spoon and scooped out bits of it and poured concrete and planted ivy in the background). The alleys I recall have been boarded up and surveilled. New immigrants have arrived: Croatian, Romanian, Polish. This all seems normal enough. But how can you trap something no longer visible, traced as “Asian”? That world of the race riot, that place depicted in Schizophrene, has disappeared—over-written by further narratives of arrival and destruction, though the question of species life remains. To return, for example, to Schizophrene’s emphasis on the “monster body”: what if you get born in a country, yet are never considered a native of that place? I needed to document this monstrous individual before she too has gone, before I have gone—the person who could write her. Already it felt strange to write the history of a surface. I wanted to write a surface that deflected a content. So I did.

AF: Well in terms of questions of the body, questions of arrival, can we pivot from mutation to questions of touch? Touch factors strongly into your own description of how this book operates. Your acknowledgments suggest the intent to create a therapeutic discourse of touch (specifically “light touch”). We can get to the mechanics of how this text touches. But less benign forms of touch also appear throughout the book. Schizophrene opens by suggesting that chronic, quotidian stresses of racial oppression most commonly trigger schizophrenic breakdowns—that this apparently lighter, daily contact in fact becomes the most corrosive. Then later you describe schizophrenia itself as a much more active process: “touching something lightly many times.” Could you parse the conceptual reversals at play here?

BK: Yes, I feel I could have written something much more comprehensive but wished to sustain the rhythm and value of not being touched, along with its corollary—a very light, repeated touch. I didn’t want to exaggerate or appropriate modes of psychosis, yet did want to enact schizophrenia’s negative symptom, anhedonia (signaled, in part, by a pulling away from touch). In addition, when considering what re-establishes the rhythm and cadence of a functional nervous system, I drew upon my own training as a bodyworker. My practice combines integrative and structural processes, with a particular focus on supporting clients as they progress through long-held traumas caught in the body as patterns of movement, breath and color (energy). As a writer working on contraction and crisis, on the history, let’s say, of a particular society, I attempt to loosen something interred in the body as memory, as an image, an intensity that cannot be borne. As a bodyworker, you create a spiral that deepens a limb into the body. You amplify the site of contraction. Then through shaking, vibration, tonifying actions, you bring the limb out of its socket. You take, for example, the arm and spiral it in, all the way to the gestural root, then wait for the person to make a brief internal study of colors, images, information. Finally, after spiraling this limb back out, you lightly realign the structure or posture, pressing on the bones or stretching the fascia along a diagonal plane. Similarly, Schizophrene’s small patches of intensity get worked through—to an ultimate softness with a lot of space. And given trauma’s chronic rhythms, I try to touch not only this reenacted originary scene but whatever else in the body connects to it. I hope to mimic, to elicit and create something new from that rhythm, all without retraumatizing the subject, the body, the historical figure that I describe.

AF: How does this all play out for the reader? The discourse of touch I know best comes from Roland Barthes, from his reflections on the punctum—this unintended/unaccounted for prick of recognition, this coproduction of an elusive, unmotivated affect. But when your acknowledgements announced a spatiality of psychosis (again I think borrowed from Elizabeth Grosz), I began to envision, or to feel, that you deliberately had constructed a poetics of touch through choreographed shifts in perspective, syntax, idiom, sound, formatting. Those all seemed important to this poetics of touch—even font. Do these various fronts suggest where touch happens for a reader?

BK: Well when I gathered up the original discarded manuscript from my garden, with no intention to write but simply to retrieve it, I sensed too much space. I sensed too much space in the garden and in the notebook—which, eroded, had become a dirty white blocked-out smear with a few sentences here and there still visible. Those charred, stripped, oily sentences had survived a winter treatment. Something about taking each of these singular sentences (reading them, transcribing them into the next notebook) resembled the successive, calibrating touch I spoke of earlier. I recall also the left-to-right (yet rotational) eye movements that happened as I copied out the sentences, a vagal orientation or settling that happened there. One form of bodywork I have received, and received during the writing of Schizophrene, called “brainspotting,” provokes a discharge of post-traumatic states through eye-movement therapy. The therapist’s “wand” pauses at the place where your eye movements “glitch,” then spirals in. Through this brain spot you let the images come without describing these to your therapist, until you can’t see them any more, until they dissipate. So this seems less a punctum, perhaps, than a glitch—a discharging of memory that does not rely upon “disclosure,” as the disability activist and poet Petra Kuppers has put it.

AF: I’d love to get to individual sentences. But first I also love the garden-based creation myth that surrounds Schizophrene, which you’ve cultivated in this compelling way. In that garden, when re-confronted by the abandoned text, you describe it as a screen “repelling the ink or the touch.” Later in this originary scene, you refer to a “curiously rigid” page. Again this raised questions about different types of touch that happen. As you constructed Schizophrene, did you conceive of the individual page as a basic unit of meaning, a point of contact for the reader? How does this instantaneous visual touch relate to the sentence’s or aphorism’s or prose block’s durational touch? Do distinct temporalities of touch deliberately get interwoven?

BK: Perhaps some sentences do embody impact—that other kind of touch that moves closer to violence. Yet I don’t think I set out to construct prose blocks from this soft-tissue language or philosophy. To put it as simply as possible: I wrote from the sentences that had persisted. These became a frame for the opening sections. Also I kept some sentences available for when a terrible pause or blanking-out occurred in my writing process. Again such sentences stayed legible and the larger work got built around them. In this sense, each fragment generated its own environment, its own span of time.

AF: Here could you discuss a bit more broadly the types of inquiry, the types of research, in which Schizophrene’s narrative “I” engages? I especially mean the descriptions of interstitial institutional spaces—as you cross an endless hall, let’s say, on your way to interview a scientist or something. You won’t yet have arrived. You’ll describe this state of being on your way. Do even those passages offer some abstracted form of haptic investigation, touch, contact?

BK: I have been “on my way” since early childhood, with the endless journeys from London, the layovers in the Middle East or Russia, that other kind of existence a person had in 1970s airports. Sometimes we’d visit my uncle, a civil engineer from Delhi, who worked in Baghdad. Because of a delayed flight we would camp in an airport for days. I can picture Moscow’s pale blue, slanted rain through the airport glass. Or my family lived near Heathrow Airport, and as a teenager, I’d go to the airport with an empty suitcase and hang out near the flickering flight board in Terminal 4, pretending to check my flight time—glancing up, now and then, from the poetry of John Donne or Ezra Pound. Though I can say, returning to your question about chronic elements and the rhythms of these sentences: such parallels (to the lags or architectures in Schizophrene) did not arrive deliberately. Nor do those processes finally complement each other. They resemble each other, but not toward any fixed point.

AF: Here should we look at some individual sentences? I have the manuscript you sent a while back.

BK: I have my mutated copy of Schizophrene.

AF: I don’t know how our pagination will differ. I’ve opened to page 5.

BK: I should have a page 5 in this copy. Yes.

AF: You know I think our pages can’t be the same. But I can read the sentence: “And the line the book makes is an axis, a hunk of electromagnetic fur torn from the side of something still living and thrown, like a wire, threaded, a spark towards the grass.” What types of touch or touches does such a sentence offer, impede, redirect? How do dynamics of touch play out here?

BK: Extracted, this sentence provides a representation of dismemberment. I had not intended it that way. Though out of context it describes a body still alive, but with its boundary membranes devastated, perhaps the image of someone being eaten. Everything I write contains this cardinal image of a woman tied to a tree with her viscera hanging out, yet still alive. This image repeats without variation, not just in the cultural war I discuss but in other wars. But you also have asked about touch. Here the sentence’s commas become quite important to me. They suggest a witnessing touch. Does my own body touch them? No. I don’t think so. I touch the gelatin membrane that bounds this livid scene, this scene I myself did not live through. I sense myself outside that sentence, as if I didn’t write it, yet those commas allow me to maintain contact with the scene’s inassimilable content.

AF: Here’s a passage that likewise enacts and/or records the most fleeting of cognitive/experiential phenomena: “I walk the long way to the Tate from the Pimlico tube, a fact more intense each time I repeat it in my mind. An erotics. A mad progression that exceeds a central frame, like seeing something then falling down.”

BK: Yes. How strange. I just returned to the Tate, from a different direction, reversing that walk, two weeks ago.

AF: I loved that lacuna in “seeing something then falling down”—like Rousseau as the Great Dane hits him, in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Your phrase catches this quickest of moments, yet also contains a delay. Maybe that’s too vague.

BK: Returning to this sentence, or part of this sentence, I can remember what I had read at that time, Marguerite Duras’ The Ravishing of Lol Stein, with its idea that you might collapse in the middle of a walk, like Sebald’s narrator in The Rings of Saturn. That scene of potential collapse also hints at madness, at the rupture of a cognitive node. And I don’t know how to put this in words, but I picture myself as a child, lying beside the fountain and letting it rain on me for a very, very, very long time. Or now in Ban, my novel, a girl lies down on the pavement during the opening minutes of a race riot. Why? Because I like to analyze the slow-motion gesture/posture/event that brings a body to the world’s floor. The body’s capacity to stop time’s forward movement or progression interests me. When reading a narrative that deals with traumatic events, we know what time will bring. We can’t stop it. Yet, as a writer, one can enact a form of social (and/or neural) delay. Perhaps, in such a moment, something else can arrive, something that could not, and did not, arrive back then.

AF: In terms of porous borders, of migrations, I appreciate how one text of yours will trace its origins back to another—for example in how you’ve described the anti-colonial novel Ban arising from the act of preparing Schizophrene for publication. Amid these intertextual emergences, do you wish for all of your books to touch in some way?

BK: Yes, I think so, though I also wish to write works that feel more sustained. An orange-red sunrise opens Schizophrene, as the ferry approaches the coast of Great Britain. These colors introduce gametes. Re-combined, they will become the butterfly at the close of the book, or the orange spot on the butterfly, but also the flame at the end (emitted by the clay shard). That recirculation of materials depends upon a visual, sensory decay. And this takes us back to touch. I wish to write beyond fragmentation. I wish to create an embodied work of art, with sentences resembling nerves—throbbing on the riverbank. I want to take those nerves and build a nervous system that’s both visceral and vital, capable of receiving and giving touch in turn. Schizophrene emerges at the borderline of human and monstrous aims.

AF: Though amid its mutational composition, I do note interpersonal or relational processes shaping the book. You describe Melissa Buzzeo’s The Devastation, for example, as “accompanying” Schizophrene. Can you elaborate on this mode of accompaniment? And given your generous engagement with any number of peers (in terms of blog posts, interviews, etc.), could you provide some sense of how your work accompanies which contemporaries?

BK: Melissa works on abiogenesis, the notion of life arising from inorganic matter. She asks what it means to track such phenomena through narrative, through what happens in a sentence. Or following a society’s devastation, how can it begin to love again, to touch again? How do you form a community with always at its center this kind of creaturely life? With Melissa I can discuss such topics all the time, and also with Andrea Spain, who works on anti-colonial literatures—on racism and its chronic effects. I also find broader communities quite important, such as the Bay Area community. I’ve learned much from their Marxist/performance art aptitudes, as well as from Amber DiPietra and the disability community, from Eleni Stecopolous and the curations connected to her Poetics of Healing. The Politics and Poetics cluster at Santa Cruz, led by Andrea Quaid (with its own connections to the avant-garde Los Angeles communities of CalArts and Les Figues) also has helped very much. The cross-conversations between queer or trans communities and disability communities have been the best conversations, because we discuss what obstructs movement, what compels it and what allows us, again in Petra Kuppers’ words, to proceed from disclosure to discharge. We talk about the body, in other words. And with my own learning community at Naropa and Goddard, with my students, I incubate the books to come.

AF: Could we close with the final ” ‘o’ ” that ends Schizophrene, which again seems to come from outside this project, binding it to other texts and to the world?

BK: Yes, that ” ‘o’ ” comes from a scene in Humanimal. I became obsessed with the mouth—the moment at which the wolf-girl’s hair, as she flees, gets caught by a dominating hand, and her mouth (its soft tissue, lips and teeth) opens to an “o.” That’s what I hear and see at the end of Schizophrene. I hear a wolf’s howl.


Bhanu Kapil lives in Colorado where she teaches through memory, the monster and experimental prose at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. She also teaches in Goddard College’s low-residency MFA. She has written four full-length works of poetry/prose: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Incubation: a space for monsters, humanimal [a project for future children] and Schizophrene. For the last three years, she has been incubating performances and notes for a novel of the race riot: BAN.

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