Interview: Jaswinder Bolina

Interview with Jaswinder Bolina
Interviewer: Timothy Kanke

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Jaswinder Bolina is the author of Phantom Camera, winner of the 2012 Green Rose Prize in Poetry from New Issues Press, and Carrier Wave, winner of the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry. His poems and essays have appeared widely in literary journals and magazines. He teaches on the faculty of the MFA Program at the University of Miami.

Q: Your first book Carrier Wave, Winner of the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry, has the surface area of a square. Your new book Phantom Camera, out this March from New Issues, is rectangular. What shape will you chose for your third book?

Like the first two, its shape will be determined by whichever editor is generous enough to design and publish it. I’ll be thrilled with whatever they do if that happens. If you want a somewhat serious prediction, though, I’ll paraphrase here and say, I know not what shape book III will take, but book IV will look like the bendy, holographic surface of an iPad 12.

Q: Speaking of technology, you incorporate many elements of science in your work. What scientific concept is currently on your mind?

Emergence. It’s this question of how simple parts create—or create the apparition of—complex systems. More importantly, what does the answer to that question mean for consciousness. This is related to that thing I said earlier about the internet, neurons, and brains. If my consciousness is housed in my body which is made up of cells which are made up of atomic and subatomic particles, which side of the operation is in charge: the small stuff or the big system that little stuff is organized into? When you read a bit about quantum physics, the answer gets weirdly complicated. It gets even weirder when you read physicists like John Wheeler describing the observation effect in cosmology and that’s before you even let evolutionary and biological sciences into the mix. What I’m most amazed by lately, though, is how capable our knowledge about these ideas is becoming and how incapable our ordinary perception is at apprehending the reality they describe. That gap in perception makes me think we woefully overestimate our importance in the universe or that the exact opposite is true. You can maybe see how this starts becoming fodder for poetry.

Q: Absolutely. Speaking of complicated situations, what role does clarity play in contemporary poetry?

I’m going to stay away from generalizing about all of contemporary poetry. Generalizations are almost always too inaccurate to be of any use—I’m thinking of that blog post by Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post a couple months ago and that Mark Edmundson essay in Harper’s. I’ll ask instead whether ‘clarity’ refers to the simple measure of how comprehensible a poem is. If so, then it’s just one possible metric of many and it’s too easy. If it’s an assessment of something else, like the combined effect of the inventiveness and lucidity of a poem’s composition, then clarity becomes more of a goal than a metric. A poem like “Merengue” by Ruefle or “The Charm of 5:30” by David Berman features inventiveness at the level of the phrase while retaining lucidity at the level of the sentence. The images in these poems are so forcefully original and their declarations so simultaneously clear that they generate a unique but comprehensible internal logic. That’s a powerful thing. It challenges ordinary logic in a way that actually changes how I experience the world. This is what any good poem does, but I don’t know if it’s a consequence that’s always attributable to clarity. Completely opaque poems by John Ashbery have had a similar effect on me. Ditto paintings by Miró. Maybe clarity has nothing to do with composition. Maybe art just changes the mind and clarity comes later.

Q: Since you’ve brought up looking back on things, what kind of child were you?

Like everybody, I did some things well and others not so well. The thing I remember now is how I never seemed to get tired. I don’t think this is terribly unusual in a kid, but I was mostly the last to want to go home, the last in from recess, the last to fall asleep. I hated naptime. I’d lie awake daydreaming. It was the same at bedtime. Being tired or hungry never made me terribly cranky either. I just wanted to keep doing whatever it was we were doing.

Q: Speaking of things that make you cranky, what is your relationship with rejection like?

Rejection has never much bothered me. It isn’t fun, but it’s like a strikeout in baseball or a finger burn while cooking. If it happens too often it might be time to try something new, but rejection is mostly inevitable. Babe Ruth struck out 1330 times. Julia Child probably had to run her hand under cold water more than once. Not every poem is worth reading. Rejection is a good reminder that my confidence in the merits of my own writing doesn’t guarantee anyone else agrees with me.


Q: Let’s move from cranky to the sublime, name a writer who is currently making you jealous.

The answer probably always will be Amy Hempel and Mary Ruefle in no particular order. They write phrase after phrase so wholly original and enviable, I think sometimes of quitting and taking up podiatry, but I don’t really know anything about feet, so I keep writing, and if I am to keep writing, I want to write like the two of them. Aside from that, I was introduced to the work of Francis Jammes a few weeks ago, and I’ve been throwing a whole lot of jealousy in his general direction ever since.

Q: The writer—dead or alive—you’d most like to bury in the literary basement.

That’s not really for me to say. There’s certainly writing I like and writing I don’t like, but I don’t have any interest in burying anyone. That sounds too much like censorship. I’d rather readers decide for themselves who to ignore. If we’re speaking strictly for the sake of a lame literary pun, I suppose it’d have to be Poe.

Q: I really enjoyed your poem “How to Order a Sandwich.” What poet would you want to eat sandwiches with and what sandwiches would they be?

Now that I’ve mentioned him, I think Poe would be good. Maybe William Carlos Williams or Frank O’Hara. Really anybody who’d talk about something other than poetry, could handle their liquor, and would feel like grabbing that sandwich from a sidewalk cart on the walk between the early bar and the late night one. As for type of sandwich, a Polish sausage with mustard would be fine.

Q: Non Sequitur, Internet meme: Which poem’s speaker would you most like to see as one?

I’ve been pushing this idea I had one night that the internet’s already become a high-functioning artificial intelligence far exceeding the capacities and intentions of those of us who make up its constituent parts. We’re oblivious to this fact the same way an individual neuron has no idea it’s part of the larger apparatus of my brain. I’m mostly joking, but if I’m right, the internet’s old enough and responsible enough by now to decide on its own memes. I’ll simply do my part like a puny human ought to.

Q: I’ve thrown a lot of questions at you, thanks for your time. Just one more quick one: what is the question you wish people would ask about your work?

I’m not really sure how to respond. People should probably ask whatever occurs to them? What occurs to me at this particular moment: How much better would these poems sound if I could get Morgan Freeman to record them? Or Maggie Gyllenhaal? Or pretty much anyone who starred in the Dark Knight? Yes, it was on cable last night.