Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kirun Kapur on "Light" and "Melon Cleaver"

“Light” and “Melon Cleaver” (and the other poems in this sequence) are based on stories I’ve known my whole life, stories central to my family’s history and identity. So, when I began writing them, I knew (more or less) the narrative I’d follow. This had never happened to me before. Usually, I write like a character from Grimm’s: I fumble in the forest, intent on a path that’s been eaten by birds. For once, my path should have been clear brick, not bread crumbs—but I felt even more lost than usual.

For one thing, I had a commitment to the literal truth—never a good situation for poets. I don’t believe a poet is any more obligated to tell the literal truth than a novelist. The lyric “I” is a work of fiction; if bread crumbs lead away from facts, she must follow. However, these stories didn’t belong wholly to me. They’d been lived and retold by my father, uncles and aunts. I wanted to tell them the way I’d heard them.

Context posed another problem. The poems revolve around the dissolution of British India. Many Westerners are unaware that India and Pakistan were once one country, let alone that their 1947 partition induced an enormous migration (the largest in modern history), notable not only for its size, but for its brutal communal clashes. I felt the need to provide background information, a sure way to strangle the life of a poem.

I also had in mind an admonition: a poet I admire once advised me to avoid direct depictions of violence in poems; he found them manipulative, an assault on the sensibilities of the reader. He admired (as I do) poems where a single bird in the town square can evoke the horrors of 20th Century European history. In the stories I wanted to tell, a direct experience of violence within a close community was the single most crucial issue. Could I address that kind of violence explicitly?

I thought the answer might lie in a broader framework. I spent months researching the major events of 1947: the Truman doctrine was proclaimed; Kalashnikov designed the AK-47. The partition of India and Pakistan was just one thread in a chaotic, bloody blanket. By weaving the events of 1947 into my family stories, I’d hoped to slip in the necessary background information, blunt the violence and use historical material to provide contrasts and surprises. This grand idea resulted in a glib, list-laden bit of verse, reminiscent of a pop song: “We Didn’t Start the Fire. . . .” I shelved the project for almost a year.

Then, I happened to be at a reading where a poet read several sestinas. I came away thinking about repetition: a word or phrase paced and repeated becomes an incantation, a ritual, a structure. Isn’t that exactly how the telling of these stories had worked in my family? And what about variation, the breaking of expected repetitions? Might it enact retelling, misremembering, the rupture of family structures and rituals?

I began to sense the path, the shape of a poem: a pantoum, with its circular structure and its spell of repeated lines. The repetition and variation of whole lines gave me a way to build up information organically, to create an intimate world and then break it. As I worked, I found the form providing a second voice, locked in conversation with the old, immutable stories.

21 comments:

  1. Both of these poems are so beautifully written! I'm glad that I read this blog post after reading the poems and not first. It's helpful to know the background, but the first reading was so much more powerful with not knowing. Thank you for passing along your family's stories!

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  2. I loved hearing you read these beautiful poems, Kirun. Thank you for sharing your work--and for sharing the work that went into their making. Your personal essay, like your poems, are filled with a genuine mix of identity and intrigue--no easy thing. I deeply respect that you are re-imagining the lyric "I", given our postmodern environment, while still being true to the classic realities that shape you. How should we frame ourselves in the world today? What is identity without history? Is there a frame(work) not worth breaking? You certainly have captured the several senses of the word "refrain" here --to keep on *and* to keep from. And you have done so with poems that compel re-reading and that are well worth remembering (in or out of melon season). Thank you again, and thanks to BPJ for dedicating such a space to poetry.

    Frederick Speers

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  3. this was a lovely essay in its own right. love the insights into the poet's working process. can the author or any other experts out there say whether there's such a thing as nonfiction poetry, or how other poets have chosen to deal with truth vs license?

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  4. These are both great. I know what you mean about family stories. The key isn't necessarily the truth, but keeping true to the language and the people telling the stories that make them real to us. - Tina

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  5. Thanks, friends and readers, for all your kind words.

    Amy--I know just what you mean. Mystery is a powerful part of poetry and background information and biography are often at odds with it. Still, I can never resist learning more about the maker/making of mysterious objects. I'm reading a biography of Joseph Brodsky now, with mixed feelings.

    Mr. Speers--Yes, I was very much hoping to capture both senses of the word 'refrain'--what you hold back and don't say, as well as what you are compelled to say over and over. It seems to me that this is one ways "I"s--literary and otherwise--get made.

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  6. Anonymous--This is a great, complicated question; I hope others will weigh in on it. Many poets deal with historical and biographical material--material that would be considered non-fiction in another genre: Homer had Troy, Melville struggled with the American Civil War, Marilyn Nelson has made a stunning sonnet sequence about the murder of Emmett Till; confessional poets, like Plath and Sexton, famously mined their own lives for material. Then, there’s the recent trend toward cross-genre work, an even more direct mixing of poetry and non-fiction: I’m thinking of writers like Ann Carson, who blend poetry, prose and scholarship into an astonishingly affective whole. Still, I find myself reluctant to use a term like “non-fiction poetry.” This isn’t because poets are likely to deviate from the literal truth and thus enter the realm of fiction or falsehood (the opposite of non-fiction?). I think it is because a poem has obligations beyond its most obvious subject, which non-fiction does not have. The occasion for a poem may be a civil war or the poet’s mental breakdown (i.e. topics we think of as non-fiction), but the transmission of this information to a reader, however accurately, does not make a poem. In her book "Fables of the Self" (an apt title for this discussion), Rosanna Warren has an instructive comment on this point. She’s responding to Melville’s poem, “The Portent,” which is about the execution of John Brown. She writes, “Where to start? With the action the poem contemplates, or the action the poem is? In the poem itself, they fuse: historical event becomes event in the mind of the reader through the event in language.” What I've tried to do, with the form of these poems, is create an event in language, which would make the historical/personal details live in the reader’s mind. In a separate forum comment, Tina also touched on this point, mentioning the importance of fidelity to language rather than fidelity to fact in bringing a story alive. The difficulty is that creating an event in language, requires uncertainty, silence, obfuscation--all of which are antithetical to the explication we generally associate with non-fiction.

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  7. Tears were flowing like Ganga Ma as I read your powerful, brilliant words and listened to your voice....Crystal clear images of pain filled voices whispering in the dark. Buried memories fluttering around inside. Have to be let out and shared.

    Dhanyawad !!!!!

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  8. Kirun, these poems are so fabulous and moving, and I laughed out loud at the Billy Joel reference - neither is in the "We Didn't Fight the Fire" risk zone. There's an unflinching quality to your "I" (both in the essay and the poems), one that balances bravado and vulnerability in a uniquely successful way. I think there's a brand of truth (whether literal or not perhaps not the question) that's achievable only in a first-person poem, and only when the meter and rhyme are immaculate and unpretentious, as they are here. The combination of your uncoy "I" and lyrical lines creates a truly genuine and original voice. And the stories, perhaps told down and kneaded, are nevertheless fresh and resonant with the present tense. More, more! Your fan, Rachel DeWoskin

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  9. These are such moving accounts of Partition. It was such a huge and catastrophic event for the Indian sub-Continent that you're complete right, people don't know what it must have meant. Having lived in India, you are aware that the wounds of Partition have still not healed and that it is only now that it is beginning to appear in poetry and the arts. These are wonderful poems for conveying the brutality that exploded out of everyday life.

    Thank you very much for them.

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  10. I have never heard of this poet, but the poems were wonderful. Very haunting. I don't know the background here either, but it didn't really matter to me. A lot of the poem seems to be about telling and hearing, which I can relate to, even without knowing about India. Thanks BPJ.

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  11. Everytime I read these pantoums, I'm amazed by their spareness, and how it creates an unbearable tension. In your essay, you mention sestinas and pantoums as forms that seemed to convey the essence of the story you wanted to tell. I'm curious as to how you think of form? Do you write strictly in form? How do you think about the new formalists and the language poets in relation to your own work?

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  12. Anonymous (with Ganga Ma): Dhanyawad to you for reading and for your warm, kind words.

    Anonymous (with Sub-continent): “Brutality that exploded out of everyday life” is a perfect way to put it. What was and is so shocking about the violence of Partition is that it took place on such a large scale and yet it was not the product of a large war machine. There were no battlefields. This violence was waged and suffered between friends, neighbors and relatives in town squares and kitchens, on local trains and around village wells. For the most part, it wasn’t anonymous violence, as in so many conflicts. Aggressors knew each other. In many cases, they knew each other’s entire family, sometimes going back generations. Some of the other poems in this sequence address this a little more directly, but I hope some sense of the intimate nature of the violence lingers in all of them.

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  13. These are wonderful, moving, beautiful poems, but they're not pantoums, despite their frequent and very effective repetitions.

    The pantoum, like any other formal pattern, has a set of limitations that characterize the form: the repeated lines must follow a certain order, for instance, and must be either identical in each repetition, or at least much more close to identical than these are.

    That fact, in itself, doesn't diminish at all the quality of these fine poems, but there's no point to calling something--even something very good--an X when it isn't an X.

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  14. Rachel: Thank you for your generous comments. Yes, I agree, there is a particular kind of truth found only in first-person poems. Maybe it has something to do with the sense of vulnerability you mention? You’d think that a third-person perspective would convey greater objectivity and, thus, a stronger sense of truth, but when a poem’s first-person voice is powerful, you are wholly convinced by it (however internal and limited its perspective). Many of my favorite Louise Gluck poems strike me this way--the truth of the poem is carried in the conviction of the voice.

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  15. Love your poems - they combine the precise and athletic lack of sentimentality I've always admired with a rhythmic lightness that glides smooth on tongue and mind. It's both horror and pleasure alight in a tussle, and for me this offers room to contemplate the event, whether of history, of poetry, or of reading.

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  16. Dawne: Thank you, these are good questions, all. The way a poem sounds, the way it feels when you say it aloud, these things matter a great deal to me. Poems are physical--line length and caesuras direct your breath; meter determines your pace; your mouth is compelled to move in a certain way in order to say the words as they’ve been written. It’s form that does all that. Sound builds a structure--not just a sonic structure, but one of meaning. It suggests correspondences between words and ideas. There’s a Derek Walcott poem where he’s rhymed “Storrow Drive” (a main thorough-fare in Boston) with “sorrow.” I never see a sign for that road without hearing the echo of the word inside it. So, I do believe in the importance of meter, rhyme and form. I just don’t feel compelled to deploy them in a traditional way. Even here, where I had a traditional form in mind, I’ve deviated (as another post points out) wildly, intentionally and happily.

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  17. Anonymous (with X): Thanks for your generous and accurate words. You are right, I have not written pantoums, precisely. For the most part, I followed the pantoum’s pattern of repeating lines (quatrains with the second and fourth lines of each stanza repeated as the first and third lines of the next), but I dispensed with rhyme scheme entirely, opting more often for inside, vowel and slant rhymes. I also played fast and loose with some of the final stanzas. I was at least as interested in breaking the form as I was in following in it, as you can see in the variation. It might be more accurate to say that the pantoum form functioned as an armature or as an orienting architecture.

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  18. Jeffrey PethybridgeOctober 8, 2010 at 12:47 PM

    I love the cinematic quality of the "Melon Cleaver" even as it makes a shape that is pantoum-esque, I mean whoever thought they'd read a movie in the shape of a pantoum! And I greatly admire how the repetition (and variation) of the line "as if a comet had passed overhead" in the first occurrence accurately represents the uncle's wonder at the killing and in the line's second occurrence the line becomes a kind of critical shadow of the very fact that people can regard the spectacle of a killing as a wonder. And I really appreciate how this nuance of meaning–-which is both subtle and crucial to the poem's ethical force--could be appreciated in your voicing of the poem.

    However, I'd like to draw you out further on the point of representing violence directly. The poet's admonition against it is so blatantly ahistorical that it must really be the mark of other anxieties. For sure there are ethical problems involved in the aesthetic use of violence, but this not unique to explicit depictions of violence (in poems). And what of the consequences if the admonition were adhered to, we'd have a poetry incapable of representing violence directly, a poetry incapable of showing the catastrophe for what it is. And this is not meant to offer a new admonition against metaphor, allusion, evocation and all the other indirect forms speaking to the facts of violence. When is ever good for the poet to turn her back on the world as it is?

    And what about all those poems where the single bird in the town square becomes the sign that indexes the catastrophe of 20th Century European History--how does this occur? is it strictly speaking thru the work of the poem? or does some context sponsor a reading that imbues the bird with such significance?

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  19. If I may: To Mr. Pethybridge's point I would say it should be difficult to represent anything directly in poetry, which tells the truth--but at a slant. Or, in the words of Kenneth Koch, "if you want to write a poem about your dead grandma, write about wolves running through the wood." I would imagine this art of transformation must include the facts of violence, death, separation--all kinds of emotion. True, WCW has a brilliant poem about the death of his (English) grandmother which has a very direct line or two in it. And there are poets who also fancy themselves reporters. But, I would argue, what the poet in them records is more seismic in nature, a needle on the drum, and not purely a descriptive account of the destruction on the ground. This is not a turning away from the world but a centering of the self within its chaos to pinpoint and trace the waves that run beneath the surface.

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  20. My thanks for these last two comments (Jeffery Pethybridge and Fredrick Speers), as they do get directly to the heart of the dilemma. Of course, poetry must represent the things of the world indirectly, as all speech must. We have no choice in this: the word “bird” is not a real bird, however evocatively the creature is described. A great deal can be said on this point alone (how are the thing, the word and the meaning related?) but, in this case, I am more interested in what a poet chooses when there is a choice about indirect representation. Take Koch’s “grandmother,” for example. I’m sure a wonderful poem could be made about a dying grandmother in which the main action centers on wolves in the woods. This, I imagine, would be a poem that focuses on the effects of death on the speaker/reader or, perhaps, on the way the natural world enacts our losses and sufferings--the seismic effect, as Fred Speers puts it. However, what if there were something particular about the grandmother’s death that the poet felt to be essential to the meaning: perhaps, the way survivors endure by obsessing over small details of a death, or perhaps the way some deaths are more acceptable to us than others? Must we always choose the seismic effects over other meanings? And why would a more direct approach (a poem which directly depicts the grandmother drawing her last) mean the seismic effects are lost? I am not convinced that direct depiction leads to mere reporting any more than I am convinced that indirect depiction is a turning away from the world (clearly, that’s not what Pethybridge meant). Each approach yields a different effect. It seems to me, the world is so magnificently strange that we need all the approaches available to us.

    I believe Jeff Pethybridge is correct in assuming that the poet’s admonition was motivated by ethical concerns. In particular, the poet noted that violence compels a response from readers that they may not wish to give or that the language of the poem may not earn. A weak poem may rely on violence for its drama rather than generating the drama in language; even in a strong poem, violence may so overwhelm the reader that it may crush the distance between reader and subject, experience and meaning that metaphor and other poetic devices require. While I agree that this is a wise admonition, containing legitimate hazards, I believe that poetry must try to find a language for violence, especially for that space where metaphor seems to fail to contain experience.

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  21. It seems we are allowed some extra time here. Time for me to express my admiration for these wonderful poems; surtout the silent anatomy of trauma in 'Melon Cleaver', the delicate balance of the poem, a lulling by the pantoum-form, like of heat, a queue, and then the unspeakable violence slicing into it like the blade of a knife. The use of the italics is superb. The poem moving and unforgettable, like the (sad) event. I also liked your comments a lot.

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