Bhanu Kapil’s “radical and arresting” collection wins TS Eliot Prize

Bhanu Kapil has won the 2020 T. S. Eliot Prize for her collection How to Wash a Heart (24 January).

Judges Lavinia Greenlaw, Mona Arshi and Andrew McMillan chose the winner from a shortlist which included an exciting mixture of established poets and relative newcomers including three debut collections, work from two Americans, as well as poets of Native American, Chinese Indonesian and British, Indian and mixed race ancestry. Nine publishers were represented, more than for many years, with five titles from new or recently-established presses.

Chair Lavinia Greenlaw said:

‘Our shortlist celebrated the ways in which poetry is responding to profound change, and the stylistic freedom that today’s poets have claimed. From this impressive field, we unanimously chose Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart as our winner. It is a radical and arresting collection that recalibrates what it’s possible for poetry to achieve.’

Kapil explores themes of migration in the collection as well as the complex relationship between an immigrant guest and a citizen host. In an interview with her publisher she says the inspiration for the collection came from a glimpse of a photograph she’d seen in a newspaper.  “In this photograph, a couple in Berkeley, California had opened their home to a guest with a precarious visa status.” The author of five previous books, Kapil said that with this collection she wanted “to write a book of poetry that became less poetic the more it went on.”

Born in England to Indian parents, Kapil grew up in a South Asian, working-class community in London. She lives in the UK and US where she spent 21 years at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is the author of six books of poetry/prose: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works, 2006), humanimal  (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), Schizophrene (Nightboat, 2011), Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat, 2015) and How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion Poetry 2020), her first collection to be published in the UK, which was a Poetry Book Society Choice.

Bhanu will receive the prize money of  £25,000 and each shortlisted poet will receive £1,500 in recognition of their achievement in winning a place on the most prestigious shortlist in UK poetry.