Jaswinder Bolina’s latest collection, Phantom Camera, is refreshingly complex, rejecting epiphany while embracing subjects as diverse as death and Oldsmobiles, stump speeches and whales. His elegant long lines tumble down the page, carrying his readers through landscapes both real and imaginary. In his widely read 2011 essay for the Poetry Foundation, “Writing Like a White Guy,” Bolina discusses his reluctance to let race enter his work. In the following conversation, we talk about overcoming that reluctance, adopting personas, and capturing the present moment “before the robots take over.”
—Erica Wright for Guernica
Guernica: In your essay “Writing Like a White Guy,” you mention that you consciously avoided issues of race in your first book. In Phantom Camera, “General Course in Linguistics” explores the ramifications of someone shouting a racial slur from a passing car. What was the process like when you began to let race enter your work?
Jaswinder Bolina: I had trouble early on because I found it so tempting to take on the subject of racism as if there’s an argument to be made against it. There isn’t. While bigotry continues to be a fact, any argument regarding bigotry is long over. We know the position taken by the racist/homophobe/sexist is completely untenable on logical, ethical, and scientific grounds, and there isn’t much point in winning an old argument over again. There isn’t anything original in it either. It’s stating the obvious, and more than anything, art needs to avoid the obvious. With “Course in General Linguistics,” I didn’t deliberately go after race so much as I went looking for new phrases. The composition of the poem began with the sentence, “Who has the energy to be a xenophobe at seven in the morning?” I liked the way that sounded, and I hadn’t read it anyplace. It also got me thinking not of how terrible racism is, which is the obvious point, but of how annoying it can be. I approached the subject from that angle, and this made it feel new, but any subsequent claim or discovery in the poem is attributable to its interest in finding a new arrangement of language, not in articulating anything too grandiose about race and racism. I leave those ambitions for the essays. At end, the process of letting race enter into my work looked very much like the way any other subject enters my work. It started with language.
The individual seems to matter most because he’s so irrelevant. I have no idea what to make of the contradictory logic there, and neither I nor the poem have much interest in resolving it.
Guernica: In “Make Believe,” there’s a deliberate evocation of America. It’s not just a child learning about death, but a child in the United States. Why did you want to make that distinction?
Jaswinder Bolina: I’ve read—and probably written—far too many poems that are convinced of their own epiphanies. The alleged insights in such works are generally arrived at after a prolonged meditation on some personal experience, but when studied more closely, the epiphany is a too tidy solution to a problem the poem hyperbolized in order to achieve its effect. This doesn’t make the problem any less real. It just makes me wonder whether the epiphanies are. Anyway, where “Course in General Linguistics” is the kind of poem that engages in that tactic, “Make Believe” is a simulation of it. I don’t actually have a daughter or a wife, and the title doesn’t refer to the game the daughter in the poem is playing. It’s pointing to the poem itself pretending to be a lyric confession. Without a real experience to present, I didn’t feel pressure to arrive at any kind of epiphany. A number of poems throughout the book try this approach. In that one, the tactic permitted me to focus on the broader context (“Now in America”) surrounding the personal experience rather than on the experience itself. This resulted in the idea that, though the confession in the poem is false, the speaker’s crisis is the completely real consequence of his sense of personal irrelevance within the larger context of his life.
At the same time, the individual seems to matter most because he’s so irrelevant. I have no idea what to make of the contradictory logic there, and neither I nor the poem have much interest in resolving it. The aim is reportage, not epiphany. As for distinguishing the situation as one specific to the U.S., I did so because I’m not convinced the U.S. understands its own irrelevance yet. I don’t know if “America” yet understands death in the way other nations do. It’s a mostly oblique claim in that poem, but I think the contention becomes more overt in “The Last National” and other poems that come later in the book. In some sense, the daughter of the poem becomes an analogue for the collective United States.
I want to put words together that don’t usually go together: Oldsmobile and gladiola, Nader and grackle, Topeka and boffo.
Guernica: National identity and personal identity seem to be parallel themes in this collection. So many poems mention America or American markers—Topeka, Oldsmobile, RE/MAX, Ralph Nader, Vanity Fair—and yet the speaker is often caught staring at his own reflection. Would you have been satisfied if the poems only explored one type of identity or the other?
Jaswinder Bolina: I don’t think I would have been satisfied. I don’t know how you can have the personal without the national. I’m getting at something similar in the answer to your previous question. The national gets enacted in the individual and vice versa. I simply don’t see how we can separate the two. To do so is to canonize the self. By this I mean that we tend to assert our individuality when it absolves us of complicity in some collective failing. “Those aren’t my drones obliterating innocent bystanders. Those drones belong to the government.” The self isn’t guilty; the state is. On the other hand, when our individuality seems meek, ordinary, and temporary, we embrace the collective and permit it to make us feel significant. “The swimmer didn’t win fourteen gold medals. Team U.S.A. did.” It’s all too convenient. I want the poems to strive towards something more confused and thus more accurate. More importantly, I want words in the poems that aren’t in anybody else’s poems, or I want to put words together that don’t usually go together: Oldsmobile and gladiola, Nader and grackle, Topeka and boffo.
Guernica: There are several poems that evoke the political process, but none so much as your dramatic monologue “The Reluctant Senator to His Provincial Mistress.” Why did you adopt this particular voice?
Jaswinder Bolina: As with others, that poem started with a phrase. I think it was something like “the humdrum scope of our desires.” I wrote it a few years ago when I was bored with the Tea Party and Occupy, with Fox News and the midterms and all that pundit babble. The speaker’s trying to excuse himself from the arena. I don’t remember exactly when in the writing process the voice became that of a senator’s, but I made the change in an effort to dramatize my own sentiment at the time. I wanted to make it concrete the way a playwright channels a feeling into a character so that the character becomes the feeling personified. Because of the subject matter in that poem, the character became a bit more specific than others and more obviously removed from myself, but the Senator was invented the same way as speakers in my other poems. I tend to think of the “I” as someone distinct from me. Every “I” is a character. I write this way because once there’s some space between I, the writer, and I, the speaker, I’m able to let the language develop in ways that might not have occurred to me were I simply in the business of expressing my feelings. The poem gets absolved of any allegiance to me and is free to do what it wants. That one wanted to be a senator.
It’s a pressure to represent the collective moment: all of us who are here now just before the ice caps melt and the typhoons come and the robots take over.
Guernica: Several of your poems were translated into Russian by Aleksey Porvin. Did you have any apprehensions?
Jaswinder Bolina: Aleksey emailed me entirely out of nowhere. Well, out of St. Petersburg if we’re being technical, but I didn’t know him previously, and I’m still not sure how he found my work except to say I’m grateful for the internet. Honestly, I was so blown away by the request that any apprehension disappeared almost instantaneously. Aleksey’s a terrific poet responsible for some pretty remarkable output as a writer and a translator. Plenty of his original poems can be found in English translation online, and I hope your readers will go looking for them. All this to say that though I can’t read a lick of Russian and have no idea of the Cyrillic alphabet, I was happy to put my faith in him. When he sent along proofs of the poems, I did run them by a colleague in Russian literature who commended them for their accuracy and artistry. As for nuance, humor, and slang—the usual sorts of concerns regarding translation—I wasn’t too worried. Readers tend to know what they’re doing, and I’m grateful that the poems are being read by anyone in Russia at all.
Guernica: Early in your essay “Writing Like a White Guy,” you ask, “Am I a writer or a minority writer?” By the end, you conclude, “when I write, the hammer belongs to me,” which seems to answer the question. Do you still feel pressure to represent a collective?
Jaswinder Bolina: If I do, it’s a pressure to represent the collective moment: all of us who are here now just before the ice caps melt and the typhoons come and the robots take over. I suppose I feel some pressure to represent that, but to be honest I forget about it a few seconds into working on a poem. At that point, the only pressure I feel is to find the next line.