In an interview for the Nightboat blog, poet and writer Snigdha Koirala, author of Xenoglossia, speaks with poet Divya Victor, author of Curb, about documentary poetics, the “debts and gifts” of citation, the practice of witnessing, water, and more. Take a look below!
Snigdha Koirala: The act and practice of witnessing is a concern throughout Curb. I was particularly struck by “Blood/Soil,” which grapples with the 2015 police assaults against Sureshabhai Patel in Madison, Alabama. There seems to me a double construction of the witness in this poem: the first being the lyric-I, the I writing on the page, which grapples with the limitations of knowing as a poet/witness (“frothing a writing body to the desk./ My reluctance is quicksand; this lyric lead. I can’t know how/ each fist knots, each knuckle locks”). Then there’s the camphorweed, which you explain in the citation section was blooming at the site of the assault, which bears witness to the violence. Can you speak to the idea of witnessing in your work—the limits and illuminations you encounter? Particularly when you zoom in on minutiae like the camphorweed on the curb?
Divya Victor: The site of Sureshbhai Patel’s apprehension by Madison (Alabama) police officer Eric Parker is haunted by the specter of the apprehension and displacement of Muskogean-speaking Indigenous Americans by Anglo-American and French settlers. Patel’s case shows me that the lawns of suburban America harbor darker stories, always. The hate-crime victim’s corpse or a wrongfully apprehended civilian (in the case of Sureshbhai Patel) cannot be some kind of flag I plant on certain sites to make that land more legible, more open to possession.
Like many of my generation, I was raised in the “see something, say something” culture of the US and Singapore. I am writing in the wake of the Patriot Act, and I am always in the company of young writers for whom compulsory self-expression on social media and the naturalization of criminal phrenology (Muslim Registry, Stop and Frisk) are native waters. So I think about how surveillance, spectatorship, vigilance, monetized public confession and witnessing often slip against each other with violent, reckless results. There are tectonic differences between these, and their subduction and sliding produces the landscape for Curb. My work as a poet is to distinguish between these ways of seeing; my work as a witness is to honor my own reluctance to see and my refusal to claim that “I know what I saw.” How can I unsettle a landscape by looking at it for a long time?
So, for me, witness work begins with the acknowledgement of reluctance and the magnetic weight of refusal that suffuses my whole body. While composing, I repeatedly learn that “I have to write about this” and “I can’t write about this” are the twinned and contradictory impulses that are driving me. This contradiction burns me up, keeps me up, slows me down, drowns me out; this is how I know the writing has begun. I know I am doing the right thing when I am fighting every habit, wearing out every muscle-memory until I am looking again with a new body.
As Adriana Cavarero has written, our acknowledgement of horror registers first as repugnance, as the gaping mouth unable to either scream or vomit. I am interested in the initial silence of that mouth. A silence that is a threshold that we must dare to cross. The United States has created an image of itself by first making monstrous and then eliminating whomever it deems “foreign.” Poetry that witnesses this particular aspect of national character has room for the silence before the screaming begins—poets like Douglas Kearney, Myung Mi Kim, Rachel Zolf, Solmaz Sharif know something about the duration of this arc. The forms that witnessing take in Curb follow that arc—from the mouth agape, drying out and silent, to the wailing throat flooded with salt water of journeys across the Atlantic and the Pacific. What is the form choking takes in a stanza? What is the lineation required for a hiccup? How will a page render my rending from the official documents that inform my sense of historical events?
The work of bearing witness should take into account writing as a problem for witnessing. In Curb, I wanted to keep the forensic traces of the labor required to connect and traverse historical, legal, or news archives. I didn’t want to sterilize the scene. I want to be transparent about writerly difficulty and to invite readerly struggle. Even as a reader, I would always rather a poetry that interrupts our acquiescence to the narratives handed down to us. I don’t want a poetics that teaches a reader how to nod along. So, witnessing is just following these desires. Formally, this meant decentering the lyric subject’s experience of a landscape and finding ways to maintain the spectral evidence (this is Ulrich Baer) of a scene of violence. I have learned that a new suburban poetics of witnessing requires me to let the camphorweed grow wild and to then pluck it and press it between the pages of a book. This was my way of witnessing the eloquent silences at the scenes of violence that define this country.
Curb initially began as an artist’s book that was quite intermedial and intertextual. And quite tactile too, with its accordion fold, the ability to open up completely and take up a large surface of a desk or table. How did this initial form of an artist book shape the tactile, space-theory focus of Curb as a poetry collection? I know you’ve spoken about your interest in reading as a kinesthetic experience. Did that interest inform spacing and textual decisions in the book, particularly with the inclusion of coordinates at the top of each page?
This was the space-theory: moving through space as an immigrant, our luggage is permanently wedged in the flesh. When Aaron Cohick and I were making Curb (the artist’s book), we wanted to make a book with a rhizomatic spine that could expand wide enough to house the South Asian diaspora and yet shrink enough to acknowledge the fetal-shaped and folded interior that subjects of diaspora create when they are reading themselves. The book’s physical form imagines us rising and spreading, and also makes room for the daily acts of soft folding and gentle yielding that keep us safe, wet, touching. An accordion fold book allows for that contradiction as readers travel across an unstable horizon of the book’s horizontal axis. Aaron and I were uninterested in creating a place to “gather” or in fabricating a center; we wanted to make a book that was confident in our splintering, our many partitions, our desire to roam and touch each other across differences in tongues and faiths. The frequency and repetitive pattern of hate crimes in public spaces is as haunting as a ticking second hand; my reactiveness to these is as predictable as a ticking second nature. I came to realize, in making Curb, that I have a relationship with fear that is beyond me, that extends well past what my spine centers me to, something as flimsy as an individual body. I recognized in my response to the news of the slaughter of kith that my nervous system is knotted to others’, like kites whose tails are tied mid-air. So, I wanted a book that moved us through the repetition to introduce connection, again and again, without succumbing to a physical form that would bludgeon us in the making or in the reading of a book.
In Curb’s formal logics of space, density, and syntactic movement, I wanted to create the weather for a journey that no one wanted to undertake and yet had to undergo. Inclement feelings need books as large as the weather. We wanted to make a book of maps back to no one self, but to several us us us. This, to me, is a documentary poetics of immigration. The antithesis of trauma tourism for a self that is seeking the crowd of us. Curb has space for that crowd of us, us teeming and ready to read ourselves on our own terms, across every axis and coordinate.
I was struck by the images and senses of water throughout your book, and I kept coming back to the ways in which it shows up in “Location/Locution”—as integral, or inextricable, from language and utterance. This idea of “haitch”—a variant of the pronunciation of the letter H—as something that swims, that “floats my grandmother’s body,” that is “the length of a coast,” and that ultimately offers itself as an entry point into remembering, or keeping alive, the maternal lineage. How did you come to tracing the relationships between this utterance and water and the (grand)mother? What compelled you to bring these elements together on the page?
Well, Snigdha, you know about water as a defining yet absent force that shapes entire worlds. When I was reading your Xenoglossia, I kept thinking about how Kathmandu valley and the teeming of life and civilization there are evidence of the lake that once was. The fecundity of land as an archive of water. The same goes for our bodies and the way language courses through us, as both thirst and the thing that quenches. When I was writing “Location/Locution,” I was thinking about how I struggled to learn to swim, all my life. I am a coastal baby—I was born at the Cape of Comorin, where the Arabian sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean meet—and have spent much of my life on an island (Singapore). But I never really learned how to swim until I was pregnant. Amniotic fluid made me buoyant; it offered me an interior floatation device. I think of Indian-English this way too—it is language that keeps me from sinking, because I have swallowed and carried the very element that threatens to drown me, which has indeed already drowned so much of my relation to my mother-tongue and my own cultural history. This becomes a method in my poetics—small sips of salt water to stave off a drowning, to keep it (as it were) at bay. Describing the “H” in that poem—just one letter at a time— borrowed and swallowed the letter from my Grandmother’s body. Both the Coromandel and Malabar coasts wet my imaginary— the palm trees, the black alluvial soil, the scents of salt air and fermented palm juice. I have had to imagine my Grandmother’s burial, again and again, at the site where these coasts meet. I have had a very hard time reconciling myself to its inevitability. Imagine the work of moving a body that cannot will itself back home. This is a unique problem of posthumous displacement for immigrants like me and my paati. It is also the problem central to diasporic poetics. A few weeks back, she told me that she wants to be cremated and that I should take her ashes back to this place. When I do so, I know that I will take in a breath and that I will shape my larynx with her H. At that moment of vocalizing, I will breathe her in. On that day, what was water will become air and what was air, water.
The citation section at the end of the book is such an enriching addition. Of course you nod to Sara Ahmed’s idea of citation as an acknowledgement of debt, but I also found the section an extension, if you will, of the poems—one which altered the reading experience as I flipped back and forth between a given section and the notes you provide on it. I wanted to ask specifically about your decision to include IPA translations and pronunciations of non-English letters and words. What prompted it, and how would you say it adds to the larger ideas of language and utterance in Curb?
Cultures are defined by practices and rituals around debts and gifts. The last section of Curb, “Notes and Objects Cited” could well have been named “Debts and Gifts,” because poetic citation is both actuarial and spiritual. Or, perhaps it returns the auratic to the actuarial. It is a kind of bookkeeping that understands how we are materially and metaphysically accountable to those elders who have taught us how to think, write, tell stories that save us. I have struggled to assimilate to Western norms of indebtedness through academic conventions and what is now perhaps the most defining force of our existence in the capitalocene: relations of debt and credit dictated by the World Bank which shapes how we conduct and imagine globalization. That is: what we owe owns us. A few lines from “Milestone 3 (We Are at Ease in Our Silence)”: “Our debts are to the banks / where we wash our children, where trespass / is unknown.” I want to interrupt the received ideas of debt—the most invisible ones—that structure our gaze, which keep us complicit in victimizing what Vijay Prashad has called, as short-hand, the darker nations, even in our art and writing.
In Curb, I am thinking of this in relation to speaking multiple languages, raising a bilingual and biracial child, and the compulsory monolingualism enforced in the United States. And I am also acknowledging this book’s interdisciplinary roots and offshoots. I am performing a dissenting practice of citation that (I hope) can’t easily be absorbed into the ‘compulsory-gratitude industries’ of self-help and Goop-variety white-femme consumerism that’s like “I never say chai tea because it’s redundant, I get it!” Curb’s citational practices emerge alongside the work of other South Asian practitioners who cite and quote as a kind of alertness to how the consumption of South Asian practices and rituals maintain Western white hegemony, economically and symbolically—Vijay Iyer, Chiraag Bhakta (Pardon My Hindi), Shan Vincent de Paul, Rina Banerjee, for instance. Citation allows many of us to rehearse the volitional occupation of our bodies—with different tongues, discourses, thematic ranges, or vocabularies. It is the way I gather a crowd into my chest and hold our collective breathing to curate the rhythms of a poem.
I don’t offer IPA pronunciation guides often in Curb—there are perhaps two instances—but there are other ways in which the “Notes” offer paths for readers who do not read Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati to pronounce, embody, and rehearse words in their own flesh. I believe in teaching what would otherwise remain “foreign” to a monolingual and Anglophone reader; I believe in helping readers rehearse linguistic alienation, inclusion, and translation as a way of experimenting in community formations. Writing English poems that speak in many tongues is one way of divesting from the assumption that language is private property or a result of some racial or national identity. Poetry’s work, in my view, is to teach us how to unlearn what we assume about how language defines and constructs our identity.