Bhanu Kapil has won the most valuable award in British poetry, the TS Eliot prize, for her “radical and arresting” collection How to Wash a Heart, in which she depicts the uncomfortable dynamics between an immigrant and her white, middle-class host.
In the collection, Kapil’s immigrant guest addresses her liberal host, exploring how “it’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever”. It beat works by poets including JO Morgan and Natalie Diaz to the £25,000 prize, which counts among its former winners Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney.
Chair of judges, the poet Lavinia Greenlaw, said How to Wash a Heart had been chosen unanimously by the panel – herself and the poets Mona Arshi and Andrew McMillan.
“It’s formidable,” Greenlaw said of How to Wash a Heart. “It has extraordinary, uncomfortable dynamics within it, but it’s a really invigorating, and testing, read. We are aware all the time that these figures are emblematic, and that they’re speaking to universal tensions within what feels to some like an act of generosity, and feels to those receiving it far more complicated.”
“As your guest, I trained myself / To beautify / Our collective trauma,” Kapil writes. And later: “I understood that you were a wolf / Capable of devouring / My internal organs / If I exposed them to view.”
Kapil has said that the inspiration for How to Wash a Heart was a photograph she saw in a newspaper, of a couple in California who had opened their home to a guest “with a precarious visa status”.
“What caught my attention was the tautness of the muscles around the mouths of these hosts. Perhaps they were simply nervous of being photographed. Nevertheless, the soft tissue contraction of those particular muscles are at odds (when visible) to a smile itself,” she said in an interview with her publisher.
“I didn’t know I was going to write a book, so swiftly, and so I didn’t retain that photograph. Nevertheless, I immediately began to imagine (fictionalise) a story of hospitality, of being welcomed and welcoming in, that is also ‘at odds’ to the situation itself. For me, this was also a way to write about the discrepancy between being in spaces that, outwardly, present themselves as inclusive, open to outsiders or minority presences, but which, in the lived experience of inhabiting them, is excruciating.”
The voice Kapil has created, said Greenlaw, “manages to fuse vulnerability, rage, humour, desire, incredible incisiveness about their own state and nature and the other’s state and nature”.
“This is a unique work that exemplifies how poetry can be tested and remade to accommodate uncomfortable and unresolvable truths,” said Greenlaw, adding: “It’s a book that one of the judges said, ‘Every time you start it, you have to finish it.’ There’s nothing like it.”
How to Wash a Heart is Kapil’s first full-length collection published in the UK, by Liverpool University Press’s Pavilion imprint, although she has been published in the US for the last two decades. Kapil was born in England to Indian parents, grew up in London and now lives in both the UK and the US.
Last year, Kapil was one of eight recipients of the Windham Campbell prize, which awards $165,000 (£141,000) to unsuspecting writers in order to encourage them to continue their work free from financial concerns. At the time Kapil, who had never won a poetry prize before, told the Guardian that she had been balancing writing, teaching and caring for her elderly mother during the coronavirus pandemic: “Sitting in bed, wondering about the future, I’d said, aloud, ‘Help’ … I felt as if what I’d called out had been received. And I am not a religious person.”