Off and on, and in various ways, I’ve been corresponding with Jaswinder Bolina since first soliciting work from him in 2011. We seem to look at certain aspects of poetry and politics in similar ways, even if we come at them from different angles, and so when we published books within a few days of each other—Jaswinder’s third collection of poems, The 44th of July, and my first collection of essays, That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems—the coincidence made for a good occasion to start talking (or, as it worked out, emailing) in a more deliberate way. Starting from the question, why write “entertaining poems about terrible things?” we ended up trying to understand some of the ways poems can intersect with politics, why some poems hurt and offend, and what we can make of a world built on so much injustice.
Jaswinder Bolina is author of the recently released essay collection Of Color, available from McSweeney’s. He has previously published three full-length poetry collections, The 44th of July, Phantom Camera, and Carrier Wave, and a digital chapbook, The Tallest Building in America.
Jonathan Farmer: The 44th of July is A) about American violence, American hostility, the destruction of, hatred of, and indifference to, in particular, people in or from or descended from people from the so-called “Muslim world” (though not only them) and B) a remarkably fun read. A lot of contemporary talk about poetry leaves little room for this kind of combination. Can you talk about the potential value in writing entertaining poems about terrible things?
Jaswinder Bolina: I had to smile at your phrasing here, even if a little somberly. It’s odd to think of fun in the context you’re describing, but yes, that is a very deliberate aim in my work. I should mention, though, that I’m not actually descended from the Muslim world. I’m certainly born of the xenophobe’s dream of that world, but for the sake of clarity, I’ll explain that my family is from the Indian side of Punjab, which is primarily home to Sikhs, in contrast with Pakistani Punjab, which is generally home to Muslims. All that said, I’m from Chicago. The hostility and violence I know best is American hostility and violence even as I’m often regarded as other than American and often mistaken for something other than my actual otherness.
So, you see my trouble: I’m like that tree with the three blackbirds in it, which reminds me that Wallace Stevens is an extremely entertaining and funny poet. I adore his work, and now I’m remembering a blurb on the back of one of Dean Young’s books that says, “he reminds us there’s nothing more serious than the joke”—or something to that effect. These poets, and others, have always reminded me that humor is as vital as anything else, but I also can’t not do what I do. My attraction to the funny, sardonic, or off-kilter is impulsive. I want my work to confront the awful hardness of the world, but in contending with that hardness, I need to find some access point that engages feelings beyond only my anger or my sorrow. Otherwise there’s a temptation to shield my eyes or look away. I suspect some readers aren’t any different. We get tired of so much difficulty, so let’s find the funny and entertaining, too. Let’s see what humor tells us about all the brutality and loathing and murder here.
Of course, you have an essay in That Peculiar Affirmative called “The Goal of Jokes” that’s entirely about humor in poetry. I love that essay, and there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you related to it: at what point does the effort at entertainment in a poem become antisocial? Where does our sense of offense lie? Is it entirely subjective and relative, or is there a discernible threshold past which the effort at song and dance and joke-making undermines the gravity requisite to poetry? Okay, so that’s more than one question, and I’m concluding with a really big sub-question: how is the sacred made profane?
Farmer: First off, thanks for correcting me on my comment about “the Muslim world” and your background. I’m grateful for that. Secondly: Holy shit, man! These questions are brutal!
I’ll start with the first one: “At what point does the effort at entertainment in a poem become antisocial?” I don’t think it does. It can be lazy. It can be careless or offensive of exploitative or just plain cruel. But all of those are still social. They’re just lousy ways of treating people—and treating people poorly is part of social life.
As for our sense of offense? My hunch it’s necessarily subjective and relative, but that doesn’t mean there’s no threshold. The threshold has to do with the people whose humanity—and whose pain—we care about, and what “we” gets to define things, and how much we prioritize pain versus other things art can cause. For most of our history, someone could write a poem that offended African Americans, or Native Americans, or queer people, or other marginalized groups, and yet beyond that group the poem probably wouldn’t have been defined as offensive. That’s less likely to happen now, at least within the culture of American poetry. On the other hand, a poem that’s likely to make someone like me uncomfortable is unlikely to be defined as offensive right now (which can be a good thing).
One answer to the claim that all Trump voters are racist is that not all of them were motivated by racism. That may be true, though obviously racism was the appeal for many. But it’s also the case that if you voted for him, you were at least comfortable enough with the racism to accept it in exchange for getting something else. I think that applies to poems, too. There’s the offense of active cruelty—of treating a group of people in a shitty way. And there’s also the offense of indifference, of the implicit communication that certain people just don’t matter.
I want to squeeze in one more thing. There’s a lot of talk about disruption in poetry, and disruption can be valuable, but it can also be careless—just look at how often big corporations hurt people and communities in order to disrupt and then are celebrated for doing so, often with huge IPOs. A lot of poems are careless about their audience in ways that are analogous to some of these forms of offense. Poems are sometimes celebrated for the ways that they supposedly resist an imagined audience, but it seems that they’re really meant for an audience that already shares their assumptions and celebrates them for the way that they supposedly work on and against an audience that they’ve already refused access to. That seems unhealthy.
Let’s talk about one of the poems from The 44th of July. “Washington B.C.” (there’s an earlier version of the poem here for those who haven’t bought your book yet—but, really, what are they waiting for?) plays with insult and offense and ultimately (and entertainingly) revels in your ability to write off a racist American, to reverse history far enough to make him irrelevant, to conjure a final menace to him within that irrelevance, and to deliciously send up (and strike down) American present and American history along the way. But the poem seems also to know that none of this changes that present and none of it reaches the “you” it skewers. I have some ideas of my own, based on my enjoyment of the poem and on your answer above, but I’d love to hear you talk some about what a poem like “Washington B.C.” is meant to do.
Bolina: It’s interesting that you read “Washington B.C.” as being addressed to an individual. I didn’t mean it quite that way. I mean, that’s a real thing that happened to me—having a slur hurled at me by some asshole—but I didn’t write that poem with a particular racist in mind. I rarely address any single person in any of my poems. I don’t have enough faith in the validity of my perspective to confront anyone so directly, and I remain open to the possibility that I’m either misrepresenting or misremembering or mistaking the other person somehow. As such, the subject of address in my poems is often an amalgam of several people or events. So, in “Washington B.C.,” although the racist in the poem is based on a real person and his real actions, he serves as an image like any other, like the word “tree” in a poem might refer to a particular tree in the poet’s imagination but ends up referring to whatever tree the reader pictures upon reading. As such, the racist addressed in the poem is that racist but also every other racist and the general enactment of racism.
Getting back to your question, I’m not arrogant or clueless enough to believe that they’re passing around copies of The 44th of July at the red-hat rally. So, a poem like “Washington B.C.” isn’t really engaging in a conversation or confrontation with anyone there. It occurs to me that this is a case where poetry resembles drama. We don’t imagine that Willy and Biff Loman are actual people actually having it out on stage. Instead, the play delivers a simulation of conflict, one that has all the detail and texture of actual angst, argument, and anger, but one that isn’t really “about” any particular person. We in the audience know this, and we don’t really expect it’ll “reach” any of the deluded characters it depicts—though I’ve read that its first audience sat in stunned silence for a long time after its premiere, many of them openly bawling their eyes out, so in that sense it did “reach” people. Still, the play isn’t literal or meant to be.
My poem, then, is figurative as well, and it means to offer whoever reads it a box seat to a given moment in the human condition. My hope is that such vantage might offer even a sympathetic audience some cause to reconsider their perspective. In that poem, I attempted to offer this simple revision on perception: neither Washington, DC nor the US nor our deep-seated, intractable conflicts have been around all that long. Building from that premise, the poem asks us to reconsider what we make of ourselves and all that ails us in the unfathomable expanse of what we call history. I don’t encounter enough of that perspective in mass media so I thought I’d toss out my version of it. How that then spreads out into the world, if it does at all, is beyond my control. Maybe it’ll remind us that the red-hat racists are less significant, less threatening than we make them out to be. Or, maybe it’ll remind us how insignificant and inconsequential even being on the so-called “right side of history” ultimately is, and maybe this will offer some new way of being a part of that history.
I wonder what you make of all of this, especially in the context of your essay “All We Can Say: On Politics”? I feel I might be underselling the value of topicality or confrontation in poetry while overselling its potential for epistemological or metaphysical effect. Am I deluded? Should I be picking a fight?
Farmer: I should have been clearer. I’d taken the “you” in that poem to be a character who represents a kind of white American—a stand-in for a sort of person we’ve all encountered and can claim some separation from. There are lots of racists who read poems (me, for example, according to the research on implicit bias), but not many of us are likely to see themselves in this guy. I don’t say that to disparage the poem; I think the poem is fantastic, and part of its pleasure is that it so effectively constructs and then annihilates a villain. It makes a space where it’s possible not only to turn the tables but to drop the table on the villain, crushing him. Rather, I think it tells us about one valid and valuable thing we might get from a poem.
As for the politics chapter, I think of that as a failed essay, but hopefully one whose failure is dramatically appropriate: It’s loosely analogous to the structure of Jericho Brown’s “Bullet Points,” one of the poems I discuss in the chapter. I generally believe in the potential of democracy (though often in a “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” kind of way). And I’m intrigued by the possibilities of public poetry. I wanted to imagine some ways that poems could work around the central boundary of our national politics. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past the problem of centrism in our current alignment, which is that the people most in need of justice are at the margins, and so to move toward the center is also to move away from what justice demands. I’m not sure how we can effectively address this in our politics, so I end up stymied in thinking about what role poetry can play—except, that is, in helping to move those marginalized voices toward the center.
So, should you be picking a fight? I’ll be damned if I know. I do think picking a fight can help the fighters. It depends on what we need and want. But I don’t think you’re deluded. In fact, one of the things that fascinates me in this book is the way that you generate force out of something that feels both clear-eyed and unencumbered. I’ll selfishly point to a poem you published in At Length. There’s obviously a lot of skepticism about poetry here, but that skepticism also seems to invite singing. It’s acid, but not corrosive, to put it in different terms.
After the 2016 elections, you created a way for writers to act within the political system (rather than, say, trying to tear the whole system down). And in your political poems, which sometimes address electoral politics, there’s an undercurrent of practicality. I’m inclined to understand that in relationship to your refusal to forego pleasure in these poems: a sense that the Republicans are really worse than the Democrats, for example, and that such a distinction is worth making. And that immiserating ourselves doesn’t do anything for people who are miserable, though neither does that mean we should look away from what’s happening. Am I hopelessly off the mark?
Bolina: Your (not at all failed) essay does great work illuminating poems like the one you mention by Jericho alongside several others, but just as importantly, its introductory section concisely elucidates the trouble we’ve maybe been circling in much of this conversation. In the essay, you write, “We rarely write or read poems that engage, strategically, with an audience that is persuadable but uncertain about the issue at hand, that treats those who might disagree as potential allies. A poetry of coalition building: how would that sound? And what value would it have? How would it reach those who aren’t already in agreement?”
What you might be picking up on in my collection is a fledgling effort at addressing these very concerns, but that address is indirect at best. I write directly about electoral issues, but these aren’t campaign ads after all, and where there’s ambivalence or hedging or a practical impulse in the poems, it’s born of the fact that I’m not an idealist. As liberal as my opinions tend to be, it’s been difficult for me to walk or talk like a true believer. There are probably a lot of reasons why: being born to working-class immigrants whose survival relied on practicality over ideology, being a minority who learned to capitulate and assimilate long before he learned to critique, taking too many philosophy classes in college, or being exposed to too much of a particular brand of sardonic stand-up; whatever combination of factors led to it, I can’t help but be skeptical and, at times, cynical in my disposition.
Whatever is clear-eyed or unencumbered in the poems, then, is born of an impulse to describe things as precisely as possible. This, as you’ve noted, sometimes means including humor alongside anger or finding joy as party to outrage and atrocity. Where one finds outrage, where one feels that neither fulfillment nor joy are distributed fairly, it feels easy to stake a claim, to object and to cry out for justice. Of course, I might be wrong. There are other ways of looking at things. Republicans and Democrats, zealots and unbelievers, terrorists and diplomats alike believe they’re merely and objectively describing reality, and for this reason, I’m wary that my own sense of truth and justice is as narrow-minded and biased as someone else’s, that my own certainty about a great many things can corrupt me as much as certainty corrupts anyone.
And yet I do feel certain about a great many things: the current crop of Republicans really are worse than the current crop of Democrats; believers really are more dangerous and destructive than atheists; the Cubs really are the best team in baseball; of course I might be wrong. You’re right that I don’t believe in making myself miserable as a means of solving the miseries of others, but I do believe that making distinctions is worth something. I believe in staking my claims plainly, in not claiming objectivity or impartiality. I am partial, and I might be wrong, and I want both realities acknowledged and understood in my work. Egotism begins in certainty. Every tyrant is born of it. And so I prefer to lay my certainties bare and call them, whenever I can, into question. This is a practical response to the misery of others. Maybe it’s the social response too. We shouldn’t ever look away from what’s happening, and we shouldn’t ignore the likelihood that we’re complicit in what’s happening either.
Photograph of Jaswinder Bolina by Elaine Palladino. Photograph of Jonathan Farmer by Caroline Luther.