KIRUN KAPUR '97 & JIN JIN XU '18
Kirun Kapur '97 currently teaches in the English department at Amherst College. Her latest book Women in the Waiting Room was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and is now out from Black Lawrence Press (2020).
JinJin Xu '17 is currently an MFA candidate at New York University, where she received the Lillian Vernon fellowship and teaches hybrid ballet/poetry workshops. Her debut chapbook There is Still Singing in the Afterlife was selected for the Own Voices Chapbook Prize.
*This interview is excerpted from a conversation between Kirun and JinJin during our Authors Talk event on November 15, 2020. After the event, we asked the authors a few supplementary questions regarding their time at Amherst.
JinJin: Congratulations on the recent release of your second poetry book, Women in the Waiting Room! What was the process of moving from your first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist, to your second book?
Kirun: The biggest difference for me was that I had more faith in the writing process the second time around. I was able to not know what I was doing for longer, and to let all the possibilities be open for longer. Because as soon as I know what the shape of a poem is going to be, or what it is going to be about, all the possibilities collapse and the lively mysterious heart of the poem is limited. Also, I made my first book slowly, over many years with a lot of starting and stopping. I made my second book in a much shorter amount of time, with a lot more concentration.
JinJin: Your new book explores the twin forces of silence and speech. Can you talk more about the role that silence plays in your poetry?
Kirun: While writing my first book, I was motivated by silence. The book was about the partition between India and Pakistan and the stories that families carry as a result of that. Consequently, those poems were motivated by the things I felt people could not say. In my second book, I wanted to make a shape for a different type of silence. Silence can be a kind of pressure and oppression that we have to speak against and break in order to be who we are or say what has happened to us. But also, on the flipside of that, silence can be incredibly protective and nurturing. It can be the space out of which creativity comes, and in which healing takes place. So this time around, I thought about how I might make some space for that on the page. I worked a lot on fragmentation, and particularly, on opposing fragmentation and form.
JinJin: Can you talk about your poems “Hotline”?
Kirun: “Hotline” started as fragmentary bits that I was writing on the side for myself, without really thinking of them as poems. As I grew more interested in shaping silence on the page, “Hotline” became more central to what I was doing. But I had to be careful to not make them into documentary poems. I worked for many years as a crisis counselor, including on hotlines, and because confidentiality is so crucial to those organizations and the way they work, it was essential that I did not represent any individual in those poems. Details had to be either invented or so ubiquitous that they applied to hundreds of people that I spoke with over a decade. As I kept working on “Hotline”, I wanted the lines to blur between the speaker and the listener and the reader, so all of them would become interchangeable people. I love the slippery wonderful exchange of our identities and selves in poems, and I hope that is at work in these poems too.
JinJin: You have been teaching at Amherst for the last few years. What has that been like?
Kirun: If you told my younger self that I would be at Amherst at all, let alone in this capacity, I would not have believed you. As an Amherst undergraduate, I did not study Creative Writing and took maybe one English class. So it remains a pleasure and a surprise that I am here and that I get to spend all day talking about poems.
JinJin: How has the transition to Zoom teaching been?
Kirun: Zoom works pretty well for teaching writing and poetry. I do miss the little interactions you have in the classroom—those five minutes before everyone settles down, when everyone sees what everyone else has brought as a snack, and when students shuffle through the door at the same time. These moments help students know each other a little more. Community and trust is so important in a writing workshop, and I miss those little parts that have really helped build community. But we are doing our best. I try to initiate low-stakes goofy conversations that help us open up and say unnecessary yet inspiring things to each other. That way, my students feel comfortable sharing their poems and talking honestly about them.
JinJin: What is one piece of writing advice you would give to aspiring writers?
Kirun: The phrase I say most often to my students is, “What are the bodies doing?” People have the idea that poetry is cerebral, but actually, poetry is a physical process. The first thing poetry does is choreograph your breath and work the bellows of your body, chest, and throat. I am always after my students about what the bodies in the poems are doing, as well as what their bodies are doing when they read and breathe the words.
JinJin: How has your creative process changed or adapted during Covid?
Kirun: I am used to spending quite a bit of time alone. Now that I am locked in with my most beloved people (I feel very lucky that that is the case), I am struggling with the fact that I am not alone enough to know where to start. I cannot hear well enough to catch the beginning of something. I have really been relying on productive habits. For example, I free write for twenty-five minutes every day, without stopping the entire time. A lot of junk comes out of this—to do lists, complaints, worries, a lot of the silly behavior your mind is doing whether you know it or not—but it allows me to purge the noise of my brain and the beloved noise of the people around me, so I can catch some unsuspecting word. I am also using writing prompts now, which I do not usually do. The prompts help me jumpstart my writing process, now that I am without the contexts that I usually work in.
AAAN: How was your time at Amherst as an undergrad? How did it shape or influence your journey as a poet?
Kirun: Although I was writing poetry throughout my time at Amherst, I didn’t study it. Poetry felt deeply private and desperately important—not suitable for the classroom. Most of my poetry “education” at Amherst really came from friends who recommended books, shared their poems with me and debated literary ideas late at night in various common rooms. That may be one of the reasons I’ve come to believe that community is essential for poetry. Good literary friendships are so important. You need trusted writer-friends to tell you (gently) when your work isn’t what it should be and to have faith in you when you doubt yourself. Your friends will prop you up and cheer you on, talk you off the ledge and read your ten-thousandth draft. Their miraculous work will inspire you. I was lucky enough to begin several of my dearest writer-friendships at Amherst. While I didn’t study English or Creative Writing at Amherst, I was also lucky to have wonderful professors at Amherst in other fields. Some of my happiest classroom memories come from Professor Staller’s Art History classes. Sitting in the dark, looking at luminous images and listening to her talk cemented my belief in the power of art. Thinking about visual art helped me articulate the many ways we struggle to find a form (in paint or in words) for what’s mysterious and true.
AAAN: How did you experience your Asian or Asian-American identity while at Amherst? Did any Amherst classes make a difference in this?
Kirun: I’m sad to say that if there were any classes which addressed Asian-American identity at Amherst during my years there, I did not know about them or take them. It wasn’t visible in the curriculum then. I did take several classes about Asian art and religion. I was passionate about the subject, but the courses often left me feeling like I was looking at myself through the wrong end of a telescope—somehow both distant and scrutinized. There were very few Asian-American faculty then, but I did take a course on Sufism with Professor Jamal Elias. I can remember when he read out the roster on the first day—it was the first time my name had ever been pronounced correctly in an Amherst classroom without many interventions! One of the joys of teaching at Amherst now is connecting with Asian and Asian-American students. They are so much wiser and more articulate than I ever was—so much clearer about what and how they want to study. I’m honored that I can part of their inquiries and discoveries.
Kirun: Congratulations on the recent release of your first chapbook, There is Still Singing in the Afterlife. What has the writing and publishing process been like?
JinJin: It has been a whirlwind. In a way, I feel lucky that it happened during this period of nothingness, with little else going on in my life. I did not know exactly what my chapbook was about when I was putting it together for the chapbook contest. I did, however, have a feeling of which poems belonged. For example, I knew which poem needed to open the chapbook, I knew which poem needed to end it, and I knew what the heart of the chapbook would be. So a lot of the work was just filling in the gaps. I compiled my poems and submitted my chapbook without overthinking too much. But once I won the contest, I did not feel ready to release my chapbook. So I sent it to a bunch of friends (some from Amherst!) and thought deeply about what the heart of the book should be, which did not turn out to be what I expected.
Kirun: How so?
JinJin: There are two poems in my chapbook called “To Her Brother Who is Without Name” and “To Your Brother Who is Without Name”. They are written to my friend from Amherst who passed away when I was still a student there. In the three years after his death, I worked on many iterations of these two poems. I also got really close with his sister during this time and at some point I realized that I was actually addressing these poems to her. These two poems feel really heavy and important to me, and I ended up building my chapbook around them.
Kirun: A lot of your work crosses boundaries in different ways. You combine English and Chinese, horizontal and vertical text, film and other texts. Can you talk about your interdisciplinary work and the way you think about perceived borders and your movement across them?
JinJin: So much of my work is driven by intuition. I feel lonely a lot in my writing communities because writers are so confined to the texts themselves. Sometimes my intuition is to figure out how to physically embody what I want to say, whether through film or performance or voice recordings. I do not have a formula for what a poem needs to be. Instead, I am trying to discover all the ways it can belong in the world.
Kirun: Did your Watson fellowship inspire any poems in your chapbook?
JinJin: Not directly, actually. Throughout my Watson year, I spoke to dislocated women all across the world and recorded our conversations. At the time, I thought of myself as a container or vehicle to gather all these stories, but I did not yet know how to insert myself into these stories. During my first MFA year, I tried to transcribe the voices onto the page, but I always felt somewhat disconnected from the actual voice. But it is through that process that I really figured out my position as a writer in relation to other people and experiences, whether they are larger than myself or close to myself. For example, while writing the two poems about my friend that I mentioned earlier, my Watson experience helped me think about what it means to address the poems to my friend’s sister who might not want to talk publicly about the situation. It also helped me understand what it means to be the sole person to remember some of the memories my friend and I shared and how to transcribe those memories.
Kirun: How has your creative process changed or adapted during Covid?
JinJin: During the first few months of Covid, I felt uncomfortable doing anything creative. It did not feel right to enter that space. Instead I wrote these Pandemic Diaries. . I was inspired by the writer Fang Fang, who documented everyday experiences during Wuhan’s lockdown. I was also inspired by the exiled Chinese writer, Yan Lian Ke, who said, "If we can’t be a whistle-blower like Li Wenliang, then let us at least be someone who hears that whistle. If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories.” This felt really important to me. I have always had an intuition to archive and preserve things in memory or documentary form. Now, more than half a year into this lockdown, the most difficult task is remembering how to think for myself while living with my parents. I don’t know if this is relatable to you all, but I feel like my borders are slowly dissolving into my parents so I am trying my best to keep myself intact.
AAAN: How did your undergrad years at Amherst shape or influence your journey as a poet?
JinJin: I took my first poetry class during my freshman year. In that class, we learned to write in forms that ended up alienating me from poetry—I had the hardest time hearing the syllables or counting out the meters, and I felt trapped by how a poem should sound or look. The page itself felt like a restriction. I did not know how to make space for the clashing rhythm of Chinese and English, the breath in between words, the way a sound lingers on the page like the tail of a dash, the glitch in between images and words. It was my first time in an American classroom, too, and I felt like I was constantly over-explaining myself, with the heat of my classmates’ gaze on my back. I remember writing a poem called “Strawberries In Winter.” The class discussed this as a metaphor, and I was confused until I realized that while I had strawberries in Shanghai in the winter, in the United States, strawberries came of season in the summer. So, even the most harmless, mundane thing ended up being mis-interpreted, and then, explained, and exoticized as a “Chinese” thing. It was the loneliest feeling.
It took me many years to return to poetry. In the interim, I learned to make poems through classes in printmaking, sculpture, filmmaking, LJST. I really loved the open curriculum. Yet, I found myself ultimately devoted to language, which is how I found my way back to poetry, but this time with more ways to imagine and embody the very inarticulateness of language, its inherent fallibility. With each new poem, I am still reaching for something that can intuit its inarticulateness.
AAAN: Thank you for sharing about your transition into the American classroom. On a similar note, how did you experience your Asian identity while at Amherst?
JinJin: I came to Amherst from Shanghai without ever having lived in the United States, so my experience was more of a growing understanding on what it meant to be Chinese in an American setting. As I learned to find home in what I most cared about—writing—I realized how my exile into this new language echoed my feeling of strangeness in this foreign landscape. At Amherst, I took classes with Professor Basu and Professor Rangan and Marilyn Chin at Smith. I also sought out Kirun when she arrived my senior year. It was important to me to have professors who are not only Asian, but international too. The Asian American identity was unfamiliar to me, and I still feel somewhat awkward identifying with it because I do not want to take on an experience that was not my own—at least, not in the beginning. That has gradually changed as I have now lived here for seven years and so much of my current self came into being on this land. Again, I find myself coming into being through my writing—which often finds itself into conversation with other Asian diasporic writers. It is in realizing who I am writing for, and with, that I am understanding my place amongst others in the Asian American community.