Mess and Mystery: Bhanu Kapil’s Twelve Questions

Chen Chen

I have designed this exercise for intermediate or advanced undergraduate students in poetry. It should be used toward or at the end of a course, after students have completed a significant number of other in-class writing experiments. I like using this exercise on the very last day of class because it creates an open-ended, rather than conclusive, atmosphere. This exercise is a celebration of the mess and mystery of writing, and it reminds students that writing is a continual process of experimenting and trying, one that extends beyond this single course.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Begin by reading aloud and briefly discussing an excerpt from Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey St. Press, 2001). Kapil’s collection is structured by a set of twelve questions, which can be found online. Two of my favorites are “What do you remember about the earth?” and “Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?”
  2. Ask students to begin freewriting about a childhood memory—any. This initial, two- to three-minute freewriting is a warm-up, something to get their feet wet and just get back into the rhythms of writing.
  3. Call out the first question, one of the twelve from Kapil’s list. These are giant questions, yes. Students should try to answer the question in relation to the childhood memory (or memories) they’ve been freewriting toward. Associative and lyrical leaps are highly encouraged—Kapil’s own responses to the questions are usually strange tangents, detours, adventures away that are, in the end, adventures deeper toward.
  4. Allow the exercise to cycle through all twelve questions, giving students about two minutes to respond to each one, to attempt incorporating that response into a larger piece. Messiness is okay. Messiness is welcome. Post-exercise discussion focuses on process, rather than product. I talk with students about how we as writers allow ourselves to make mistakes and to be curious about those mistakes, how a quick initial curiosity and way of responding can develop later on.

Example of the Exercise

The following is an excerpt from a piece of mine that began as a lyric essay and has since become part of my next poetry manuscript. In both iterations, Bhanu Kapil’s twelve questions serve as an organizing principle. I should note that I wrote this piece as my own engagement with Kapil’s questions, not as an attempt at the exercise just described. So, I was not working within the time constraint nor did I start off writing about a childhood memory. That said, cycling through the questions was a very messy process. I ended up generating much more than I needed to use in the final version of the piece, but those steps were necessary for getting to where I needed to go.

A Small Book of Questions

after Bhanu Kapil


Who are you & whom do you love?

My fingers smell of lime & his sex. My mouth smells of his mouth. My hair smells of the moment the lawnmower growled by our curtained bedroom window, just as we started touching.


Who are you & whom do you love?

A memory, this memory: my mother saying, So you’re not a boy … & not a girl? I am fourteen & have just told her maybe I’m not gay, maybe I’m bisexual. She seems even more alarmed. I thought she would be sort of pleased. Her son’s not a complete failure! He might still end up with a girl! Marriage! Children! (Grandchildren!) But it seems that fully gay equals more girl than boy. Fully straight equals fully boy, full of happiness. Bisexual equals girl boy boy girl girly boy boyish girl neither both both nobody never anybody too many bodies he’s confused. Of course, if I’m gay, I’m also confused. But this bisexuality is a far worse confusion. Chaos. My mother looks at me like I might sprout a set of octopus arms, or like I might shed my body altogether, become a touchless drift, a gust of ghost.


What is the shape of your body?

Two snails: small, very small, exposed, after a rainstorm, on the front steps of a house in West Texas.


What do you remember about the earth?

The truck window rolls down, the man’s head comes through, he says, I’m so sorry, man, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, man, & his voice grows louder, as though trying to make it all up to me with the volume of his voice. & I say, It’s okay, it’s okay, & even chuckle a little, as though comforting him, the truck, the street, the darkness, the dark. & the whole time I keep wondering, Did he say “man” or “ma’am”? Am I hearing “man” because of that afternoon in Worcester when the bus driver called me “ma’am”? Or that morning at Starbucks: Excuse me, ma’am? Or that evening—I call it “that evening” now—in West Texas, the time I was almost hit by a very large, very red truck, & spent most of the moment afterward wondering, “Man” or “Ma’am”?


How will you / have you prepare(d) for your death?

I walk home calmly. I kiss him.

I kiss him. I forget to tell him about the truck.

Or: I don’t tell him because he’s told me how often he thinks about death, his & mine, & I don’t want to scare him, don’t want him thinking & thinking about what could’ve happened that night, what could happen tonight. How do you tell someone you love them without making them think about one day losing you?

I kiss him. In the moment, I don’t think about why I’m not telling him.


How will you live now?

My mother texts me, calls me, leaves me voicemails, e-mails me, calls. English. Chinese. In the voicemail, she directs me to her e-mail. Please take a look. Subject line: help. I click. I open. I feel briefly bad that my phone’s been on silent all day. Guilty that I haven’t been checking. But I feel glad, at the same time, that I didn’t have to go through an entire conversation just so I could get to the e-mail & start correcting. My mother has asked me to please take a look at the following, to please correct any mistakes, & please do it soon because it is due on November 1, & it is October 30. She is a high school Mandarin Chinese teacher. In the e-mail, her objectives for the 2016–2018 school years. How she plans on achieving these objectives. During which term. The kind of exercises, quizzes. Closed book. I add a hyphen. Closed-book. She plans on putting additional resources in class web site. I correct her: putting additional resources on the class website. I highlight my corrections in yellow. I go through four pages of her writing, her inhabiting this bureaucratic language. I’m bored & then impressed. Her writing in English has always been good, but this document is fairly polished & also wordy in that sleep-inducing way I’m sure her department will like. After an hour & a half of alternating between focus & yawns, I send my completed corrections to her. She writes back: Thanks for your help! I am always not sure when to use “the” or “on.”


Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?

When I tell my boyfriend the story about helping my mother with her writing, I explain, In Chinese, there are no definite articles, no “the.” I’m not sure if there is an explanation for my mother’s misuse or lack of “on.” Sometimes I have no idea which is better to use: “on” or “in.” Place your hope on. Place your hope in. When I search online, most of the sites that appear in the results have to do with passages from the Bible. Place your hope in God. On God. Though I don’t believe in him, it seems rude to place anything on God, even hope. I imagine God, sitting in heaven, weighed down by all the weighty abstractions people continue to place on him. Hope, immortality, truth, goodness, forgiveness, perfect love. Perfect speech.


What are the consequences of silence?

Another memory, another conversation, the same conversation. Are you afraid of women because of me?

I shake my head. I am shaking my head hard (I remember that feeling, shaking my head instead of screaming, though I also did that). I am shaking my head & trying to say calmly, at a normal volume, “I’m not afraid of women. I just don’t feel for women what I feel for guys, I guess.”

I want to answer my mother: No, I’m afraid of you because of you.


Describe a morning you woke without fear.

I walk to school. Everything bright & recognizable. Cactus plant. Dirty car window. This cloud. That. This dog bark. Those birdcalls. That boy in those shorts. These turquoise shorts I have on. I think, Maybe I’ll see that yellow bicycle again, & I imagine seeing it & seeing the girl who dropped everything in the middle of the crosswalk, how quickly she had to move to get everything back in place, climb back on her yellow bicycle, 14 13 12, the crosswalk signal kept counting down, her instincts, 11 10 9, her movements, 8 7 6 5 4, as though nothing bad was happening, could ever, 3 2, happen.



Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the GLCA New Writers Award, the Texas Book Award for Poetry, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry, among other honors. Bloodaxe Editions published a UK edition of the collection in June 2019  . Chen’s work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and The Best American Poetry. He holds a PhD from Texas Tech University and is the 2018–2020 Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University.


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Vanguard: Exercises for the Creative Writing Classroom Copyright © 2020 by Chen Chen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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