A Poet Grappling with the Limits of Language
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 12:56
James Cash '96
This year Kapur published “Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist,” her debut collection of poetry. She dedicated the collection to her parents, Mary Therese Breton and Inder Lal Kapur.

The first poem in Kirun Kapur ’97’s recently published collection is called “Anthem,” and it’s a fitting beginning to a book that is often striking in its lyrical intensity.

“Love begins in a country / Where oranges weep sweetness / And men piss in the street.”

It’s a stunning opening, moving swiftly from the general to the particular, and evoking a set of images that stay with you long after you turn the page. Try reading it aloud: It’s only when you hear Kapur’s words spoken that you get a sense of the potency of her language, the aching intensity of those long vowel sounds.

When I speak to Kapur, Skyping her at her Boston home one Thursday afternoon, it’s easy to see where those beautiful sounds come from. Kirun Kapur talks like a poet. She speaks very articulately and with a rare kind of self-possession. Her words often seem carefully considered, although she rarely pauses before answering a question. And she’s at her best when she’s talking about big ideas, leaning into the camera and speaking quickly as she discusses history, religion and the limits of language.

Each of these ideas makes up one of the many threads that come together in Kapur’s debut poetry collection, “Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist.” At its core, it’s a book of family stories: Kapur writes about Cain and Abel, about fictionalized versions of her own parents and about the Pandavas, the family from the Hindu epic poem the “Mahabharata.” But it’s also a book that’s conscious of its place in history, weaving together stories of India’s 1947 partition with headlines from more recent news.

Kapur’s poetry manages to be both intimate and expansive, destroying any boundary between the personal and the political.


Kapur dedicated her book to her parents, Mary Therese Breton and Inder Lal Kapur. It was only fitting for a book that’s “very much about family,” Kapur told me. And it’s clear that Kapur’s parents have impacted her writing far beyond the scope of this book. She hopes that one of her next projects will be a translation project in collaboration with her father, a native Urdu speaker.

Kapur, who grew up in Hawaii, said that her parents instilled a love for language in her from an early age, although she had no idea where that love would lead her.

“When I was 5 or 6 I was interested in writing poems,” she said. “But it wasn’t something I did all the time or with the idea that it would be what I did when I grew up.”

Beauty and Mystery

Even when Kapur came to Amherst, poetry was far from the first thing on her mind. She double majored in art history and religion — two disciplines in which “mystery and beauty are essential,” she said.

She hadn’t planned on studying religion, but after accidentally enrolling in a class, she was hooked. Reading the writings of Augustine and St. Theresa had a profound effect on her. Both thinkers, she said, were deeply concerned with “questions about what’s true, questions about how you articulate experiences that don’t easily conform to language.” These were questions that would go on to inform her own poetry years later.

“Suffering, death, love, beauty — these are things that are very hard to find language for,” she said. “We often resort to cliches to express them. And the hard work of poetry is finding fresh language for that not only to describe it but to make the reader feel it on the page.”

This struggle to find the right words is evident in Kapur’s book, especially in those poems in which she tries to find language to describe unspeakable violence. She’s reaching for something almost spiritual, trying to communicate the incommunicable.

Maybe this is what all poets are doing in the end, but with Kapur you feel it even more acutely.

Art history professor Natasha Staller noticed this theme in Kapur’s essays for her Amherst classes as well.

“She embraced the sacred, the mysterious dimension of art — which is so often overlooked,” Staller said.

Staller remembered her student as being “fiercely ambitious” in her academic undertakings.

“She’s a passionate learner,” Staller said. “She has the rage to know.”

In college, Kapur found herself surrounded by friends with a similar intellectual passion.

“One of the things I loved about my friends at Amherst was that they had a kind of omnivorous intelligence,” Kapur said. “They were interested in everything from obscure facts about the Byzantine Empire to what was going on in ‘The Simpsons.’ And they brought the same nerdy, joyful intellectual spirit to everything.”

Kapur’s literary gifts found an outlet when she and some friends started a literary magazine, which they called A Further Room. One of these friends, Julia Gray ’96, remembered that Kapur’s college writing stood out from the crowd.

“All her stuff was very sophisticated and political,” Gray said. “It’s sort of cheesy to say retrospectively that someone was wise beyond their years. But when you’re kicking around in college, adulthood is in short supply, and Kirun was always very adult and very real — beyond her peers.”

Telling the Truth

For a while, Kapur thought she might want to pursue art history in grad school, but near the end of her college years she changed her mind.

“I think I knew the things I cared about,” she said. “I knew that I still cared a lot about the life of the mind, that I might be interested in some sort of graduate program, that words mattered to me. But I didn’t know exactly how those things would come together.”

She spent some time after college traveling and working as a journalist in India, where she wrote for the now-defunct feminist magazine Manushi.

“It was a fascinating crossroads of writing and politics and social work,” she said. But the experience made her realize that she did not want to be a political activist.

“I like shades of gray too much for the kind of clear, definitive stances you have to take in that kind of field,” she said. “But I think I also found a lot of the causes that matter to me still, and that I hope sometimes poems can speak to.”

Many of the poems in “Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist” have political overtones, not only in their content, but also in epigraphs and footnotes that Kapur includes to reference historical events. For Kapur, this is a natural part of her work as a poet.

“I think in American poetics there tends to be a bigger divide between politics and poetry,” she said. “I think in general in America we divide things. And I think in other parts of the world you don’t see that as much. You can just look around the world and see leaders who are also journalists or who are also playwrights. And you don’t find that so much in America. So I find the distinction between those worlds somewhat artificial.”

Kapur’s poetry defies categorization — but that’s the point. It resists binary distinctions between the past and the present, between the personal and the communal, between the specific and the broad. She melds these categories effortlessly in poems like “Polaroid City,” in which a father tells his daughter a story about fleeing the violence that preceded India’s independence movement.

“I feel that all poems are an attempt to deal with reality, and that’s in some form political all the time, whether or not we’re identifying that as political at the moment,” Kapur told me. In writing her book, “I certainly was aware that there were historical overtones, some of which were political. But I think poems have to tell the truth, and I’m not sure that’s a political endeavor.”

The Public Poet

Considering how fluidly Kipur’s poetry moves between the public and the private, it’s not surprising that in both her day jobs she’s highly concerned with the public role of poetry.

Kapur is the poetry editor for The Drum, a literary magazine that publishes exclusively in audio form.

“I think of poetry as something that is spoken, that has to do with the body of the speaker,” she said. “The sound of it is crucial to its life.” For that reason, The Drum felt like a natural fit.

She also serves as executive director of the Boston-based arts organization The Tannery Series, which she co-founded in 2010 with a friend. The program organizes literary events for a general audience, with themes like “Love, Lust and Loathing” and “Are You Cool?” Kapur said that she and writer Dawne Shand were inspired to start the series after noticing that poetry readings in Boston were often sparsely attended.

“I started thinking: Where are all the people for poetry?” she said. “We live in Boston — it’s a town that cares about the arts, it’s a town that cares about intellectual things. How come we can’t fill a room for literature?”

Soon after that realization, the Tannery Series was born. Since then, events in the series have filled many rooms.

“At the last program, four or five people came up to me after and said, ‘I’ve never been to a reading before, but this was a lot of fun.’ It was a poet they had never heard of in a little bookstore, but there were 100 people on a cold night talking about poems,” she said.

Kapur said that in her own poetry, too, she’s deeply interested in “the connection between speakers and readers and in between poems and readers.”

Her friend Mark Vanhoenacker ’96, a fellow writer, said that ever since Kapur started a literary magazine at Amherst, she’s been interested in the public role of literature.

“I think Kirun is as dedicated to her own writing as she is to the larger idea that literature matters most when it’s read or heard,” he said. “That’s something she learned at Amherst, and that I learned from her.”

Terry Ermini (not verified) says:
Sat, 10/24/2015 - 18:54

I thoroughly enjoyed this article about the beloved daughter of a beloved high school friend - the one I have had the most frequent and intimate contact with throughout the years. I met Kirun, way before she went to Amherst, at her grandmothers memorial service. She told me that she was interested in poetry and that her interest had been sparked by a book of poems her grandmother had given her. This article reveals an insightful, sensitive, engaged woman and in many ways a kindred spirit. Thank you, Sophie, for your thoughtful portrayal.