Jaswinder Bolina is an American poet and essayist. His first book Carrier Wave was awarded the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry and published by the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University in 2007. His second book Phantom Camera was awarded the 2012 Green Rose Prize in Poetry by New Issues Press and will be published in spring 2013. His recent work has appeared widely in literary journals and in The Best American Poetry 2011. He is currently on faculty in the Department of English Language and Literature at Ohio University where he was awarded a 2011-2012 Postdoctoral Fellowship.
Your essay "Writing Like a White Guy" is a really compelling examination of what it means to be both a poet and a minority in a society which insists so much on conflating race and class. Your parents immigrated to the States from Northern India in the seventies, and since then have achieved what sounds like the always-elusive American Dream: a comfortable living, a quality education for their son, etc.; but the state of race relations in America is such that they, and you, will always be an "Other". And yet you write that the poet's "first question isn't one of class or color. The first question is a question of language." How have you dealt with this tension between your background and your career as a poet?
I didn't arrive at poetry with a desire to say any one thing in particular. What I did possess was a fascination with the way poets make a gut-punch of language. If you know the first two lines in the sixth section of Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"— "Icicles filled the long window / With barbaric glass."—you'll know something of what I mean. I've still never seen a window described so vividly or so viscerally. The feeling I get reading that might be the same feeling an amateur gets watching Blake Griffin dunk a basketball. It's some irreducible sense of wonder spiked with a desire to emulate: "That's impossible. I think I can do that." I can't dunk a basketball. But, when I read Stevens, when I read any number of other poets, I say, That's impossible. I think I can do that.
This is what I mean by the poet's first question. When I write, I rarely know what I'm writing about when I get started. I start out concerned almost exclusively with language rather than with subject matter. I start with a phrase or a description. This is mostly because when I read poems I admire by others, I'm not so impressed by their subjects as I am by the utterly original and unexpected permutations of language that comprise those poems. It's these component parts that make a poem's subject new. There is, after all, not a whole lot that's particularly mysterious about a window pane, but there's plenty compelling about "barbaric glass."
When it comes to language and race, I'm reminded of Bob Hass' line, "Big subject. Big shadow." While he's talking about love and not race in that poem, the line feels apt. Race is a very big subject that throws a very intimidating shadow, and very few poems are equal to it. It's just tough to reconfigure language in a way that's striking enough. My background—whether this refers to my race or class or some other aspect of my identity—might make for compelling subject matter, but I can't write poems about it until I find that striking language. Without such language, even something compelling as alienation can be so much less interesting than something mundane as an iced-over window. Without the new language, we risk winding up didactic or, worse, boring. We risk stating the obvious.
When I do manage to write anything about my background, it isn't because I mean to at first. It's because in the effort to write something new, the phrases and descriptions I'm working on start to take up orbit around the subject of race. It isn't intentional. In other poems, that same effort results in language that accretes around entirely different subjects. I once started with the line "It's true I voted for Nixon." I don't know where the line came from, but in the final draft, Nixon got replaced by Nader (neither of whom I ever actually voted for), and the poem wound up being an apology to an ex.
The more I encounter literature by women writers and writers of color, the more I am struck by this idea of language as power - powerful as a means of oppression (I think of the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie and her speech "The Danger of A Single Story", where she describes how damaging the dominant narrative of Africa as war-torn and impoverished has been), and powerful as a means of throwing off oppression. In "Writing Like a White Guy", you speak of language as a hammer; however you decide to wield it, you say, the important thing is that it is yours. Can you describe your journey to claiming language as your own? When did you first discover its power, and that it was something that you actually could claim?
I think the power in language arises out of using language in ways that surprise people and arrests their attention. So much of what we do as a species is comprised of and embedded in language. This means everything from actual conversations to all those voices in our funny little heads to the things we write in books and magazines and in Twitter and Facebook feeds. When something becomes so pervasive as this, we can cease to notice it at all. We also forget that it's a remarkably powerful tool, if not the most important one.
Most of us first become truly aware of the authority and limitations of language when we argue. Ever get into a heated debate in which it seems like you simply can't explain yourself clearly enough, that no matter what you say your opponent can't comprehend your point of view? It gets so you feel like you're speaking Swahili to a Scandinavian. Usually our only recourse is to raise our voices or to start cursing at each other, but neither of these is particularly powerful mostly because people are cursing and yelling all the time, whether it's on the street or on Fox News. I think language's power comes from the way it allows us to express something so vividly, so uniquely and succinctly that it can be understood and, at its best, can become unforgettable. I don't know that I've pulled that off yet, but I know of plenty of folks who have. I need only say, "I have a dream," and much of the planet knows what I mean. Of course, this aspect of language can just as easily be used for crass profit, political or financial. Frank Luntz and legions of advertisers have done pretty well with it in this way too.
Noticing all of this came largely from reading. We were assigned Slaughterhouse Five my first year of high school. In it, Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim retells the story of Lot's wife, how she's told not to look back while fleeing from Sodom. Vonnegut writes, "But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human." Reading that the first time put a lump in my throat. It still sometimes does. I can't tell you exactly why, except to say that it expresses something that I entirely—but at the same time not quite fully—understand. I can still picture where it is on the page in that book, which is to say I never forgot it. That might be when I first became really cognizant of the power of language, that it could hit you hard as anything. I'm still learning how to claim it for myself. Every time I think I have it, someone comes along and takes it away by saying what I mean to say better than I can. So it goes.
When did you first begin to call yourself "poet"? I imagine it takes a real process to get to the point where you can confidently claim that identity in front of your family, or the person sitting next to you on an airplane.
I still feel a bit weird about that one. When people on airplanes ask, I say I'm a teacher. After all, I don't actually make a living from being a poet. There simply isn't any money in it. I do, however, have a job as a university instructor, and I care a lot about it. …I don't answer this way in every context. It's just that it seems people on planes start talking to each other because they're secretly worried the wings will fall off and the whole thing will end up in the side of a mountain or forty feet short of the runway. More to the point, when we ask what a person does, we're trying to gauge where they are on the socioeconomic scale relative to ourselves because commonality permits small talk, and small talk gives us something to think about other than the likelihood of death relative to the impossibility of flight.
That said, there's a false modesty in not owning up to the poet thing. If you own a haberdashery, you're a haberdasher. In this sense, I read poetry, I write poetry, I publish poetry, so I'm a poet. I don't say it with any bombast. It's just a fact in the same way that I'm an omnivore, even if I only rarely declare aloud, "I'm an omnivore!" to anyone on a plane. As for my family, I think they respect what I'm trying to do. The difficulty has been in getting them to believe that what I'm trying to do is possible. I suspect having a poet for a son or a nephew isn't something anyone exactly plans on, but at least there's some whimsy in it. Let's just say they tease me plenty, but they encourage me more.
The theme of Mandala Journal this year is Exodus. In choosing the theme, we had in mind ideas of movement and evolution - not only geographic, but also intellectual and spiritual. How have you seen this idea of Exodus play out in your work, or your development as a poet?
I'm nervous about claiming anything I've done is akin to 'exodus.' That's a big word with a lot attached to it. I suppose I hesitate to think of simple changes in my work or thought as being as epic as exodus. I'm more willing to claim 'evolution,' meaning adaptive change over time. There's been plenty of that in my writing. As a graduate student, I got a chance to work with the poet Brenda Hillman when she spent a few days doing a residency in Ann Arbor. During a meeting with her about my poems, she said something along the lines of, "This is good and all, but where's the politics?" This is one of those moments I look back on as being fairly significant. I hadn't much considered taking on political themes, and that meeting with Brenda sent me down a ten year stretch in which I increasingly began to find a political context for my poems. Up until her calling me out, I wrote with a strong sense of interiority. My subjects were largely personal or abstractly intellectual, and the style of my writing was fairly unconventional with regard to form. Over time, I've begun writing in a more discursive style because it's allowed me to engage with sociopolitical themes more easily. The evolution is fairly evident between my first book and the second one due out early next year. In no small part, it was a desire to answer Brenda's call to the political that began that evolution, and I suppose this attempt at placing the personal within the global is still the thing that fuels ongoing changes in my work.
I'm glad you've mentioned evolution, because that's what really struck me about your poem "How to Order a Sandwich", this idea of evolution and its end game. You trace the entire course of human evolution with just a string of stark, lovely phrases, and at the end, the pinnacle of all that evolving is... what, the illusion that we're not alone? A good sandwich? It was pretty disconcerting. Can you talk a bit about where you're coming from with this piece?
My intention in that poem is to contextualize a given human moment. I'm mesmerized by the scope of what needed to happen—and happen in a very specific way—in order for me to be here doing what I do, whether that means writing poetry, ordering a sandwich, or feeling mopey. A dose of humility goes a long way when I begin to feel too lousy about some small thing in my life or too proud about some other equally small thing. I think everyone suffers from moments of disproportionate self-importance, and though these are common, they feel dangerous because of where they can lead. When I think of tyrants or tyrannical personalities, I think these are people who've lost sight of how contingent we all are. The egotist believes too fully that there's something inevitable and indispensible about his/her self. I don't. The poem attempts to enact why.
In "We Were Blundering Around in the Darkness", you use a lot of word usage examples from the Oxford American Dictionary. Can't say I ever fully understood the poetic possibilities of dictionary entries until now. How did this piece come about?
I tend to look words up a lot. I don't simply mean words I don't know. I look those up, of course, but more often I'm looking up ones I already know. Language is the essential thing in poetry, so we need to be precise about it. I think the dictionary is for the poet what the electron microscope is for the scientist. Both offer a means to achieve a more exact observation. Even writing this, by the way, I needed to look up—for about the 500th time—'precision' and 'accuracy' to remind myself of the difference between the two. I want to be sure I'm saying precisely what I mean to be saying. Trouble is, definitions themselves can feel a bit abstract to me, so the usage examples in dictionaries are especially helpful when I need to get my head around a subtle distinction.
The "Blundering" poem started when I looked up 'incidental' for about the 500th time. I wanted to remind myself of the essential difference between a thing 'incidental to' something versus a thing that's simply 'incidental.' One of the usage examples for the word in this particular dictionary is, "the incidental catch of dolphins in the pursuit of tuna." It was a bizarrely lyrical thing to find in the dictionary. There's something clinical about it, but it struck me as really emotive. It feels somehow resigned to slaughter. I wrote it down thinking I might use the line somewhere in a poem, but after coming across it, I began paying more attention to every usage example I encountered. I thought I might use them piecemeal in various places, but at some point I began rearranging and looking up words more deliberately. Gradually, a monologue emerged. It's an attempt to woo this character Trudy, and it might be one of the sexiest poems I ever wrote. I guess there's more lust in the dictionary than I would've thought.
Christine Pardue is a sophomore from Cleveland, Georgia, studying English and English Education. After graduation she wants to teach middle school English, but she strongly suspects that her fate is to be a children's librarian. She is a DJ at WUOG 90.5fm and a brazen reader of young adult fiction, and her favorite poet is Walt Whitman.