When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I was lucky to grow up in a house where poetry and storytelling were loved. My father knew lots of poems by heart and lines of poetry, in both Urdu and Persian, were frequently volleyed, both as praise and as penance. My dad was a marvelous storyteller. Every night, the whole family would pile into my parents’ bed to listen. He told us about his childhood in India, but he made up stories, too. He invented his own version of Curious George, which featured a jet-setting monkey who was constantly embroiled in international incidents, lighting Fidel Castro’s beard on fire and mixing it up with sheiks in Abu Dhabi. Listening to a much-loved voice in the dark is still one my favorite experiences in the world and it informs my sense of what a poem can do.
I began writing poems as a kid, mostly when I was bored or in trouble. My earliest memories of making poems are from my grandmother’s house. There, I was regularly both bored and in trouble (dirty footprints on the wall, inexplicable collapse of shelves in kitchen). When my grandmother ran out of patience with me, she would install me at the dining table with pen, paper and orders not to touch anything else. I have a notebook full of (embarrassing!) youthful poems to show for it.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
When I was younger, I loved to write late at night. Midnight to 3am was my time. I felt energized by a profound sense of privacy. These days, that’s not feasible. I fit my writing around other obligations (work, family etc.). Every day is different. Sometimes, 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. But I love the idea of rituals. Someday, I will have an elaborate writing ritual involving silk and tea and long silences.
Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea, or elsewhere?
It’s different with every poem. Some start with an image, some with a phrase, some with set of sounds. Some poems take months or years, while others come all at once and are over quickly. Usually, I start on paper and then move to the computer once the poem really feels like it’s underway. Sound matters a great deal to me. I repeat lines or phrases to myself, out loud, as I work. No matter where a poem starts, it’s only once the music of the lines seems right to me, that I begin to feel the poem might have a chance, that it might come to life.
Which writers (living or dead) have most influenced you?
Oh, an impossible question! Too many to name. I don’t think you can write poetry without many other poets, living and dead, inhabiting your lines and mind. The longer you write, the more company you have. Here’s today’s, partial and haphazard list: Mirza Ghalib, Eugenio Montale, Elizabeth Bishop, Arundhati Roy, Anna Akhmatova, Hart Crane, Anne Carson, Anita Desai, Robert Hayden, Jorie Graham, Isak Dinesen, Lucille Clifton, Louise Gluck, Mir, James Baldwin, Carol Maso, W.B. Yeats, Edwidge Danticat, Marguerite Duras, Agha Shahid Ali, Rita Dove…
What excites you most about your new collection?
One of the things I wanted to explore in Women in the Waiting Room was the tension between speech and silence. So often in life we find ourselves struggling to speak. In the face of grief or violence or illness, it can feel impossible to find the right words, impossible to make ourselves heard and understood. Silence can feel like a force we have to overcome—even break—in order to be ourselves or express the truth about the world. However, equally, silence can be incredibly protective and nurturing. It can be the space out of which creativity comes and in which healing takes place.
Poems are a wonderful embodiment of this tension. We’re accustomed to thinking of a poem as an act of speech, but silence plays such a crucial role in poems, too–the abyss of white space at the end of a line, the mysterious pause of the caesura, the breath we draw before we speak the very first word. What excited me about working on this collection was finding a space for that tension on the page. I worked with form and fragmentation, trying to forge new, expressive shapes on the page for what feels impossible to say. When you open the book you’ll see that—on one page there are neat couplets, on the next an explosion of words and white space making something new. There’s lots of call and response, echo and reverberation in the book and I hope, ultimately, silence and speech come together in song.
Sample poem from Women in the Waiting Room
Let Me Be As a River
nothing but motion, muck-
mouthed, mud hearted, brackish,
all dirty at the lip, with rise and fall
that exposes hull-gouging stones, no
curiosity about source, no knowledge
of destination, just willingness
to bear anything right to the end,
silver as fish skin, one hour
wrinkled, two hours smooth,
duck-fouled, trash-choked, silent
then gossiping under a full, red moon;
let me be dredged
when the leggy girls go missing,
used for a slow cruise, churned
for speed, reeking of the unseen
ocean or veiled in the scent
of pine trees, a fog in the head
then clear as the tip of a pin,
enough beauty to draw blood,
enough anger to strip the banks,
enough fullness to carry
the pleasure boats high.
Kirun Kapur’s latest collection, Women in the Waiting Room, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and is out now from Black Lawrence Press (2020). She was 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 ) . Named an “Asian-American poet to watch” by NBC News, her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares and many other journals. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and Brandeis University, and has been granted fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell Colony. Kirun serves as Poetry Editor at The Drum Literary Magazine and lives north of Boston.