Bhanu Kapil wins TS Eliot poetry prize for 'radical' How to Wash a Heart

Judges praise the British-Indian poet’s ‘formidable’ collection, exploring the dynamic between an immigrant and her white, middle-class host

Bhanu Kapil has won the most valuable award in British poetry, the TS Eliot prize, for her “radical and arresting” collection How to Wash a Heart, in which she depicts the uncomfortable dynamics between an immigrant and her white, middle-class host.

In the collection, Kapil’s immigrant guest addresses her liberal host, exploring how “it’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever”. It beat works by poets including JO Morgan and Natalie Diaz to the £25,000 prize, which counts among its former winners Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney.

Chair of judges, the poet Lavinia Greenlaw, said How to Wash a Heart had been chosen unanimously by the panel – herself and the poets Mona Arshi and Andrew McMillan.

“It’s formidable,” Greenlaw said of How to Wash a Heart. “It has extraordinary, uncomfortable dynamics within it, but it’s a really invigorating, and testing, read. We are aware all the time that these figures are emblematic, and that they’re speaking to universal tensions within what feels to some like an act of generosity, and feels to those receiving it far more complicated.”

“As your guest, I trained myself / To beautify / Our collective trauma,” Kapil writes. And later: “I understood that you were a wolf / Capable of devouring / My internal organs / If I exposed them to view.”

Kapil has said that the inspiration for How to Wash a Heart was a photograph she saw in a newspaper, of a couple in California who had opened their home to a guest “with a precarious visa status”.

“What caught my attention was the tautness of the muscles around the mouths of these hosts. Perhaps they were simply nervous of being photographed. Nevertheless, the soft tissue contraction of those particular muscles are at odds (when visible) to a smile itself,” she said in an interview with her publisher.

“I didn’t know I was going to write a book, so swiftly, and so I didn’t retain that photograph. Nevertheless, I immediately began to imagine (fictionalise) a story of hospitality, of being welcomed and welcoming in, that is also ‘at odds’ to the situation itself. For me, this was also a way to write about the discrepancy between being in spaces that, outwardly, present themselves as inclusive, open to outsiders or minority presences, but which, in the lived experience of inhabiting them, is excruciating.”

The voice Kapil has created, said Greenlaw, “manages to fuse vulnerability, rage, humour, desire, incredible incisiveness about their own state and nature and the other’s state and nature”.

“This is a unique work that exemplifies how poetry can be tested and remade to accommodate uncomfortable and unresolvable truths,” said Greenlaw, adding: “It’s a book that one of the judges said, ‘Every time you start it, you have to finish it.’ There’s nothing like it.”

How to Wash a Heart is Kapil’s first full-length collection published in the UK, by Liverpool University Press’s Pavilion imprint, although she has been published in the US for the last two decades. Kapil was born in England to Indian parents, grew up in London and now lives in both the UK and the US.

Last year, Kapil was one of eight recipients of the Windham Campbell prize, which awards $165,000 (£141,000) to unsuspecting writers in order to encourage them to continue their work free from financial concerns. At the time Kapil, who had never won a poetry prize before, told the Guardian that she had been balancing writing, teaching and caring for her elderly mother during the coronavirus pandemic: “Sitting in bed, wondering about the future, I’d said, aloud, ‘Help’ … I felt as if what I’d called out had been received. And I am not a religious person.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
British-Trinidadian dub poet Roger Robinson wins TS Eliot prize
Judges praise A Portable Paradise for finding evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life’ in the bitterness of everyday experience

Sian Cain

13, Jan, 2020 @7:30 PM

Article image
Sharon Olds wins TS Eliot poetry prize for Stag's Leap collection on divorce
New York poet unanimous winner of £15,000 prize as judges praise 'grace and chivalry' in her writing

Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer

14, Jan, 2013 @7:30 PM

Article image
2016 TS Eliot prize won by Jacob Polley's 'firecracker of a book'
Jackself, described by chair of judges Ruth Padel as ‘incredibly inventive and very moving’, takes prestigious £20,000 honour

Claire Armitstead

16, Jan, 2017 @7:30 PM

Article image
'A star is born': TS Eliot prize goes to Hannah Sullivan's debut
Poet’s ‘absolutely exhilarating’ first collection Three Poems takes £25,000 prize

Sian Cain

14, Jan, 2019 @7:30 PM

Article image
Duffy wins TS Eliot poetry prize

Carol Ann Duffy, whose new collection Rapture is one of the top-selling poetry collections in the UK, last night won the £10,000 TS Eliot poetry prize.

John Ezard

17, Jan, 2006 @10:17 AM

Article image
Forward prize winner Vahni Capildeo shortlisted for TS Eliot poetry award
The Trinidadian writer joins Alice Oswald, Ian Duhig and Denise Riley among the final 10 vying for the UK’s richest poetry prize

Alison Flood

20, Oct, 2016 @12:09 PM

Article image
David Harsent wins TS Eliot prize for poetry for Fire Songs
Creative writing professor takes home £20,000 prize for his 11th collection of work after four previous appearances on shortlist

Maev Kennedy

12, Jan, 2015 @7:36 PM

Article image
TS Eliot poetry prize goes to Sinéad Morrissey's Parallax
Belfast's first poet laureate joins the ranks of Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott as winner of prestigious £15,000 award

Alison Flood

13, Jan, 2014 @8:26 PM

Article image
TS Eliot prize announces 'intensely political' shortlist
Prestigious £25,000 award selects 10 collections showcasing ‘poetry’s ability to engage with language when it is being debased’

Alison Flood

18, Oct, 2018 @11:06 AM

Article image
John Burnside wins most controversial TS Eliot prize in decades

Scottish poet's Black Cat Bone beats strong shortlist in contest mired in protest over City funding

Maev Kennedy

16, Jan, 2012 @7:29 PM