How To Wash A Heart

BookHow To Wash A Heart

How To Wash A Heart

Pavilion Poetry


March 26th, 2020

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Winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize 2020.
Poetry Book Society Choice, Summer 2020.
Bhanu Kapil’s extraordinary and original work has been published in the US over the last two decades. During that time Kapil has established herself as one of our most important and ethical writers. Her books often defy categorisation as she fearlessly engages with colonialism and its ongoing and devastating aftermath, creating what she calls in Ban en Banlieue (2015) a ‘Literature that is not made from literature’. Always at the centre of her books and performances are the experiences of the body, and, whether she is exploring racism, violence, the experiences of diaspora communities in India, England or America, what emerges is a heart-stopping, life-affirming way of telling the near impossible-to-be-told. 
How To Wash A Heart, Kapil's first full-length collection published in the UK, 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 that is both rigorous, compassionate, surreal, comic, painful and tender, by turn, Kapil begins to ask difficult and urgent questions about the limits of inclusion, hospitality and care.


'Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart catches the thinning smile of that ancient human ritual: hospitality. In a time of increasing hostility against migrants, Kapil demonstrates how survival tunes the guest to its host with devastating intimacy: ‘It’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever.’ In these lines an ancestral trauma pours from the heart of the unwelcome across a warzone, a threshold, into a spare bedroom edging its occupant out. Ultimately what Kapil teaches us is that although the heart might be where desire, gratitude, even love exist, it is an organ to which, like a country, we may never fully belong.'
Sandeep Parmar

'This joyous, occasionally furious, collection explores the limits of hospitality… Kapil establishes an astonishing presence, emphasising process over product, welcoming the reader to participate in the ritual of her poems’ making.'
Sammi Gale, i

'Brilliantly relentless… Kapil’s words sit brilliantly between the intellectual and the bodily. The eponymous phrase of this book returns again and again, to be held up to the light in different ways. Violence, exile, love and the world of literature drip out in the answers to the opening question.'
Andrew McMillan, Poetry Book Society

'Responds with brilliant acuity to the prolonged stress of the immigrant experience... In this series of precise, destabilising poems, Kapil skilfully amplifies the pressured immigrant heart, showing how precarious it is to exist in colour in a white space.'
Joanna Lee, The Guardian

'How to Wash a Heart addresses the world of lockdown with uncanny prescience, capturing its fragmented texture and vectors of distraction, and the constant intersection it reveals between personal and political precarity.'
Dai George, Wales Arts Review

'Lots of the books are forgettable. This one isn’t. It sounds like nothing else I’ve read. Initially disorientating, it soon clarifies into a novelistic tale about charity and hypocrisy, the story of an immigrant welcomed as a “guest” into the home of a woman who grows resentful of this new arrival’s friendship with her adopted daughter.'
Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph

'Bhanu Kapil’s work exceeds beyond the page; it is felt somatically, it moves and it pulses and tremors and it tears... the collection’s raw, understated tone draws attention to the harmful systematic and clinical processes of immigration.'
Alycia Pirmohamed, The Scores

'Bhanu Kapil’s brilliant and formally innovative How To Wash A Heart is a bold singular work… that lays bare the struggle of the immigrant… Kapil does this with a quiet brutality and stylistic flair.'
Juliano Zaffino

'In this emotionally-complex, lyrically-innovative, and thematically-rich collection, hospitality becomes a way of exploring the classical literary themes of arrival and departure, forcing them into a space where the question of belonging is perennially unanswered.'
Devina Shah, The Poetry School

'A brilliant and complex book, urgent in its message, How To Wash A Heart deserves (and requires) a wide and attentive readership.'
Seán Hewitt, Irish Times

'These books [How To Wash A Heart and The Olive Trees’ Jazz and Other Poems by Samira Negrouche] are gems. Both authoritative in the best sense of the word; stridently reflecting worlds of their own – that we know, and yet have never read described in this particular way, according to the contours along which our hearts move.'
Khairani Barokka, The Poetry Review

'How To Wash a Heart brilliantly dissects power, both ethnic and economic... It is a wise, thought-provoking collection which burrows under the skin.'
Katrina Naomi

'How to Wash a Heart asks extremely difficult and delicate questions that open a space for dialogue. It is also a beautiful book to hold and read. If only our public debates had Kapil’s subtlety, refinement, and distinction. How to Wash a Heart has already won an award in my heart, by merely beating, striving, pumping blood.'
David Morgan O'Connor, RHINO Poetry

'The book’s final pages, both the end of the sequence itself and the paratextual material, are devastating. How To Wash A Heart confronts “the link / Between creativity / And survival” – arguing that creativity is necessary for survival, but sadly not sufficient – more skilfully and innovatively than anything else I have read this year.'
Dominic Leonard, The TLS

'Bhanu’s book is kind of like walking into a kaleidoscope of heritage... It’s not like other books this year, subtle, nuanced and in the astro-plane only really wild poets get into. If the book was in a pub it would be the lady with the trolley full of black bags, you always wondered what was in them and now you can find out. Go on, go have a peek, let the words wash over you, let them roll through you and when you come out you will have the stench of something new and precious.'
Arji Manuelpillai, Out-Spoken

'How to Wash a Heart with its urgent salutory lessons about ways in which immigrants are unhoused and unmade punches above its weight of 44 pages.'
Gail Low, Dundee University Review of the Arts

'Kapil’s memorable protest depends upon her ability to overturn poetic expectation. She is never conventional… [in How To Wash A Heart] an assertive beauty surfaces from turmoil.'
Kate Kellaway, The Observer

‘Bhanu Kapil is a major writer, producing works that make you think and feel differently about the world, that end up wiring your brain differently. She explores racism, violence and the psychological effects of diaspora and uncertainty on the body of the immigrant in a poetry that is at once innovative and relatively comprehensible.’
Steven Waling, Magma Poetry

'This book speaks of the wider experience of the refugee or immigrant. Notions of home and love change over time and become distorted so that the narrator becomes alienated both from their current situation and their own past. The poems capture perfectly the loneliness of being a guest in someone else’s home and in a country that is not your own. The conflicting emotions of such a situation – gratitude, indebtedness, confusion, discomfort, anxiety, fear, anger. [...] This is a beautiful, furious heart-rending book – utterly compelling.'Julia Webb, Under the Radar

'It is noteworthy, then, that How to Wash A Heart began its life in the UK, published by Liverpool University Press’s Pavilion Poetry. This represents a pivot in Kapil’s practice: after decades of living and working in the United States, she has also returned to the UK, a move that has coincided with her receiving greater recognition in her home country. [...] How to Wash A Heart speaks deliberately to the specifics of Britain: its racism, and its reception of immigrants. [...]

What I love about Kapil is her concision, arrived at through processes of sifting which refuse to be rushed, which challenge us all to fully answer the question: What do you inherit, and what do you reproduce? The power of Kapil’s writing lies in her ability to evoke violence with a gentle touch. [...]
Her books are spaces to rest, to lay down your armfuls of things. Now that she finds herself back here, on the near ground of Britain, it will be a joy and a wonder to see what she makes of it and our barrage of inheritances.'
Stephanie Sy-Quia, The White Review

'The poetic energy here doesn’t lie in the vocabulary but in the controlled fear that stalks those line breaks, interrupting each sentence as if the guest is choosing her words carefully, aware that someone may be listening behind the open door. [...] How to Wash a Heart tells a story about the ‘inclusive, complex, molecular’ chemistry of temporary host-guest bonds. But it produces that reality effect by hosting a series of unwelcome images that Kapil the artist can’t expel. [...] Kapil is both dissident and artist, of course: an agitator who won’t allow self-congratulation in through the back door, and the female artist using her body as a lightning conductor to pick up the violence latent in a place, or in her audience.'
Peter Howarth, London Review of Books

Author Information

Bhanu Kapil is the author of five books of poetry/prose: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works, 2006), humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), Schizophrene (Nightboat, 2011), and Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat, 2015). Her blog can be found at She is also the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry, 2020.