Brockport Alum Receives Prestigious Poetry Prize

Bhanu Kapil accepting her reward

Bhanu Kapil ’94, a London-born poet and professor, was awarded the 2020 T.S. Eliot Prize for her collection, How to Wash a Heart. The T.S. Eliot Prize is bestowed annually to the author of the best new collection of poetry published in the UK and Ireland.

We know that college can change the trajectory of someone’s life, just as we know the transformational impact faculty can have. Still, it’s nice to learn about success stories that can directly be tied to the Brockport experience, as Bhanu Kapil ’94 can attest.

On January 24, Kapil received the 2020 T.S. Eliot Prize for her collection, How to Wash a Heart. Founded in 1993, the T.S. Eliot Prize, arguably one of the English language’s most important poetry awards, is bestowed annually to the author of the best new collection of poetry published in the UK and Ireland. Previous winners of the award include Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, as well as notable poets Anne Carson, Paul Muldoon, Les Murray, and Sharon Olds.

Judges deemed How to Wash a Heart as “a radical and arresting collection that recalibrates what it’s possible for poetry to achieve.” Heady words that should make all Golden Eagles proud.

Kapil received a Master of Arts in English from SUNY Brockport after receiving a BA in English Literature from Loughborough University in the UK. She was born in 1968, to Indian parents, and grew up in a working-class, South-Asian community in Greater London.

Following is a Q&A with Bhanu Kapil conducted via email.

You were born and raised in England — what made you want to attend SUNY Brockport?

At that time, SUNY Brockport and Loughborough University’s English Department had an exchange program. Two students could attend SUNY Brockport on a fellowship, to do a master’s degree in English, and in exchange undergraduate students were able to spend a semester or a year at Loughborough. I didn’t think of applying, as I didn’t think my final grades would be good enough. As I recall, you had to get at least what was called a “2:1” degree score (something like a B+) to even apply. When I did get my final grades, and realized I could have applied, I was disappointed. But then, one of the two people who had been awarded the fellowship dropped out. I was about to persuade someone else to apply when all of sudden I stopped in my tracks, and was suffused with the feeling that, on the contrary, I was the one who should apply. In that moment, life tilted and nothing was ever the same again.

How would you describe your experience here?

It was the happiest year of my life, or one of them. I felt an almost constant sense of possibility, elation and freedom, unlike anything I had experienced before. I remember (reading) the poems of Lucille Clifton for the first time, lying in the grass beneath the iconic sculpture near the library. Suddenly, I saw that all around my hands, which were holding Contemporary American Poetry up against the sun, was a boundary or outline of violet light! My cells woke up, I think, in the context that the college gave me: to imagine other pathways for my life, for language, and for my relations with others.

Who on the faculty had an influence?

Meeting Tony Piccione changed the course of my life. He dressed in denim, had a cloth bag, drank espresso from a flask, and only came onto campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays. His workshops remain some of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had as a human being. When he spoke about the two kingdoms, and the conduit between them, the part of me that is devotional, that trusts what is unknown as much as what is known, came back to life. I also took workshops with Judith Kitchen, who taught creative non-fiction, then an emerging field. Bill Heyen had a parallel poetry workshop, and there was a strong vibe there too. The entire atmosphere — this was the early 1990s — was electric.

When was the last time you were on campus?

When my son was five (he’s 20 now), I visited Brockport, and I’m so sorry it’s been such a long time. I have such fond memories of Liftbridge, of singing second soprano at St. Luke’s with Janet Brodesser, and eating pancakes at Ingersoll’s diner. It’s all coming back now! I remember an amazing ice-storm in the winter of 1990. I remember tuna melts in the Brockport Diner, consumed at 2 am.

What does the T.S. Eliot award mean to you and your career?

It means that I can ensure my mother’s housing and care, here in the UK. It means that, but it also gives me courage to connect once more with my inner vision, and to embark upon a next work. One extraordinary thing is that, after so long in other places, I had lost touch with so many people: childhood friends, and friends, also, of young adulthood. The night I won, many of them heard me on the radio or saw me in the paper, googled me, and got back in touch. It was like all of life, from all the places where it had been caught, rushing back.

Could you envision a career in poetry when you were studying at Brockport?

I assumed that I would become a waitress, or that I would apprentice as a carpenter (which I did, for one week, in Brockport!) I did not, know, that writing in my notebook and reading poems on riverbanks would become what it has become: a life. I’m remembering a last visit to Tony Piccione, out in the country. He’d built Upright Hall. There was a fire. It was a night. All of us out there, in the woods, crouching down, reading poems.

Where are you currently working?

I taught for 20 years at Naropa University, achieving the rank of associate professor, and only recently took early retirement. Currently, I teach in Goddard College’s low-residency MFA program, and am an artist by-fellow at Churchill College, at the University of Cambridge. I’m also teaching at the University of Vermont, co-piloting a doctoral program in Transdisciplinary Leadership with Matt Kolan and Sayra Pinto, within The Rubenstein School. I’m also a tutor for the Institute of Continuing Education, here at the University of Cambridge. These are my side gigs, now that I don’t have a full-time job.

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