Bhanu Khapil wins £25,000 TS Eliot prize with collection about immigrants and hosts

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Bhanu Kapil, a British-born writer whose work has been published in the US for two decades, has won the £25,000 TS Eliot Prize for How to Wash a Heart, her first full-length poetry collection to be published in the UK.  

How To Wash a Heart depicts the complex relations that emerge between an immigrant guest and a citizen host. Drawn from a first performance at the ICA in London in 2019, and using poetry as a mode of interrogation, Kapil asks questions about the limits of inclusion, hospitality and care, at a time of increasing hostility against migrants.

How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion Poetry 2020) was described as “a piercing work” by the chair of the TS Eliot Prize judges, Lavinia Greenlaw. She said it brought to mind "what Edward Said refers to as the ‘discontinuous state of being’ of the immigrant. It is related by an immigrant guest, who is staying in the home of a citizen host. Her disempowerment can only be countered by freedom of thought, which in turn is compromised by the ongoing cost of survival. In this piercing work, the heart, like its owner, is excised, emblematised and recast." Compere Ian McMillan said her collection was “about dispossession, about home, about trying to find a home”. It was a pre-recorded online ceremony screened on Sunday night that included readings by each of the 10 shortlisted poets.

Bhanu Kapil was born in England to Indian parents, and she grew up in a South Asian, working-class community in London. She lives in the UK and US. Here is the title poem of her collection:


How to wash a heart:


How to wash a heart:

Remove it.

Animal or ice?

The curator’s question reveals

Their power style.

If power implies relationship,

Then here we are

At the part where even if something

Goes wrong,

That’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

Your job is to understand

What the feedback is.

It’s such a pleasure to spend time

Outside the house.

There’s nowhere to go with this

Except begin:

To plunge my forearms

Into the red ice

That is already melting

In the box.


Background: Did 'the man in the cardigan' have a point? 



◄ Riverwise: Jack Smylie Wild, Parthian

The Call of the Clerihew: ed. George Szirtes and Andy Jackson, Smokestack ►


Stephen Coombe

Mon 8th Feb 2021 12:18

The questions trail right down in this poem, while the answers hang on the wire. Isn't that a most honest way for poetry to be, and the way in which it does best good? Let's all keep asking relevant questions, because that's where common humanity has its proper business.

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M.C. Newberry

Mon 25th Jan 2021 16:44

Here's a brief comment on the subject and its £25,000 prize.
The immigrant seeks to bring change to the host
Whilst the host seeks to keep what is valued the most. ?

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