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"I tried to be ruthless": poet Kirun Kapur on editing a first manuscript

The Sillerman First Book Prize is now open through December 1st. To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, poet Kirun Kapur discusses her award-winning book Visiting Indira Gandhi's Palmist, and all the 'glinting' in the manuscript that didn't make the cut. 

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

Putting together the manuscript was an uneven, chaotic process. About a third of the book accreted very slowly over many years. I abandoned the process more than once (I tried to abandon poetry more than once). Apparently, I was working on a geological timetable. I don’t know if I couldn’t leave the book or if the book couldn’t leave me, but, at a certain point, my Precambrian era had passed and in a quick burst of fury and energy, I cut away over half of the manuscript and wrote new poems that would become the center of the book.

Finding the right order for the poems was, once again, a slow process. The poems leapt around in time, location, culture and history. Because the poems came from different creative periods of my life, they also varied widely in form, tone and texture. I wanted to find a shape that could preserve those leaps and disjunctures, yet still hold together. I worked to make the shifts in time/tone/location into the rhythm that governed the book. The result is a long book—nearly twice the usual length of a first book—with many forms and modes crashing in to each other.  

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

Absolutely! I always have one or two tics going. I get obsessed with certain words, images or sounds and they turn up repeatedly in poems, until I annoy myself (or a new obsession strikes). In the book, the words “hands” and “glint” showed up often and images of fire appeared repeatedly. For me, it’s time and context that tells which tics are fruitful and which aren’t. I ended up removing many “glints,” (which came to feel decorative and contrived over many re-readings) and spaced out references to hands and fire (which are connected to thematic questions of violence and survival) to create rhythm, variety and an echo. These days, when I notice a tic, I try to leave it alone for as long as possible. I may end up removing the word or image, eventually—I might even ditch the poem entirely—but for the time being, it’s pointing the way.

How did you decide which stories or poems to include in the collection?

I tried to be ruthless. I cut everything that wasn’t contributing to the voice and vividness of the whole—even if it might have seemed a good poem, in another context. I cut anything that seemed weaker, anything that didn’t sing.

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

I wish I’d known that self-doubt (even crippling self-doubt) is part of the process. It doesn’t go away (at least not in my case), but you figure out how to live with it, how to write through it, with it, from underneath it. Now I feel that every poem is a little dance with doubt.

Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

Not really. Every poem feels totally new to me, with its own rules and needs, which I have to discover. Manuscripts are the same. Some days, I think the fact that I’ve done it once before makes it a little easier to believe I’ll find the way again. Then, the next day, I’m staggering around in the dark, feeling no more likely to find the way than I did before I published anything. Possibly, the feeling of being lost, even the terrible discomfort of it, is important to construction of all kinds, at least for me.

Visiting Indira Gandhi's Palmist won the Antivenom Poetry award. How did you hear the news? What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I was in California, visiting my family when Dana Curtis from Elixir called to tell me the news. I’m embarrassed to say that I was actually asleep!  I answered the phone, but it took me more than a few moments to sort out what was happening.

What is your favorite part of your first book? 

I think it might be the long poem “First Families: The Pandavas.” Writing that poem showed me how the whole book might come together, moving around in time and switching contexts. Many of the opposing forces of the book— families and nations, speech and silence, mythic time and present time, love and violence—coexist in that poem.

In the poems "Girls Girls Girls" and "From the Afterlife" there is some sense of attempting to uncover what it means to be a girl, or what it means to be "the right kind" of girl. What is girlhood in your work? Why does this exploration feel germane to you?

Just recently I was reading somewhere and realized four poems in a row (one from before the book, one from the book and two recent, post-book poems) contained the word “girl.” So it’s a good question—one I’d like to know the answer to, myself! I suppose that’s why the word keeps cropping up. I don’t know the answer and I’m still following the thread of it. I grew up in an environment where being female meant you were both policed and imperiled. One of the phrases I remember most distinctly from my childhood is “it’s different for girls” or “it’s different because you are girl”—a phrase that has proved to be both true and false. Personally, I went through phases where I didn’t feel I had much in common with the “girls” around me. Yet, some of my deepest relationships and experiences have felt distinctly “female.” Maybe, girlhood is territory that feels rich in emotion, full of contradiction, with dangerously high stakes. That’s the kind of territory I want for a poem. But, honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe once I grow out of the word, I can tell you.

You write in both lyric modes and narrative modes—do you have any sense of why you do which, and when? 

Usually, I let the poem show me which mode it needs. A set of words or sounds often seems more inclined toward one or the other. However, for me, the two modes aren’t always so distinct. At the heart of many narrative poems is a transformative lyric moment and many lyrics are grounded by a line or two of narrative framing. In Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist, I tried to let the movement from narrative to lyric and back again be part of the shape and rhythm of the book. One of the things that book taught me is that I don’t want to speak in only one way.  Lyrics often feel pure, private, mysterious—closest to song and prayer. Narratives admit other voices and contain the old impulse to ensure the survival of the tribe by preserving its stories. Both modes feel essential to me, especially when they talk to each other.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a long sequence of poems, about illness, friendship and the connection between speech and survival. The sequence might be the center of a new book, but I’m not sure yet. I’m still in the dark, staggering phase of construction. 

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, The Christian Science Monitor and many other journals. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and Brandeis University and has been awarded fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell Colony. She is the founder and director of the New England arts program The Tannery Series and serves as Poetry Editor at The Drum Literary Magazine, which publishes exclusively in audio form. She was recently named an “Asian-American poet to watch” by NBC news. Kapur grew up in Honolulu and now lives north of Boston. She teaches poetry at Amherst College.