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Jaswinder Bolina: Poet Interview

Please join me in welcoming Jaswinder Bolina to the Poetic Asides blog!

Jaswinder Bolina

Jaswinder Bolina

Jaswinder Bolina is an American poet and essayist. He is the author of the chapbook The Tallest Building in America (Floating Wolf Quarterly) and the full-length collections 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 from the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University).

His poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, been included in The Best American Poetry series, and been translated into Russian for inclusion in the Russian literary journal Polutona. His essays can be found at The Poetry Foundation, The State, Himal Southasian, The Writer, and other magazines. They have also appeared in anthologies, including the 14th edition of The Norton Reader, Language: A Reader for Writers, and Poets on Teaching.

Learn more here.

Here’s a poem I really enjoyed from his collection Phantom Camera:

If I Persisted for Seven Lifetimes, I'd Spend Six of Them with You, by Jaswinder Bolina

but something in me would
desert you

the way I lie
awake and wait for the turbine

of your breathing
to whir steady and deep

until in your sleep
I feel simple again

like myself
and reckless again

outside the road is the apparition
of a bridge deck suspended

by cones of light
from the lampposts

a drone of rotors and axles
semis about

the slow groan
of departure

but our two snifters sit
in the sink

so a prowler come
purloining might picture you

glad and drinking beside me

our toothbrushes dally
and crowd each other daily

in a cup in the bathroom
so he might wonder

at our life as trajectory
pristine and decoded

and on hearing the warp
of a floorboard

the murmur of our bodies
stirring above him

he might think to drop
deftly out of a window

with a few items to sell
or to barter

for airfare and a room
overlooking a square

so he might step out
of that room

onto his balcony
alone in a foreign light

and feel simple again

feel reckless and modern
and himself again


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What are you currently up to?

I've recently finished up work on my third book of poems and am sending it out to publishers in hopes someone will pick it up. Beyond that, I'm working on several essays while doing my regular teaching and reading. I've also gotten more deeply involved in community organizing in the aftermath of the election. It feels like a dire time in the U.S., and I'm finding it extremely difficult to ignore the political part of life right now.

Phantom Camera, by Jaswinder Bolina

Phantom Camera, by Jaswinder Bolina

I loved reading Phantom Camera. How did you go about getting this collection published?

Thank you for reading and for your generous praise! Publication has always been a bit of a mystery to me. So far, the best I've been able to come up with is writing the poems, eventually collecting them into a manuscript, then sending the manuscript around to university-sponsored book contests and independent literary presses. That's what I did with Phantom Camera.

It wound up a finalist at something like 14 book contests over the course of two or so years before finally landing the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press at Western Michigan University. For that prize and publication, I'll be forever indebted to the poet and editor William Olsen who saw the manuscript fit to print and spent meticulous hours on line edits to tighten up the individual poems and the book as a whole considerably. Thanks, Bill!

Your first collection, Carrier Wave, won the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry. Was it easier getting the first or second collection of poetry published?

The first go-around, I didn't really know what I was doing. An earlier draft of Carrier Wave had served as my MFA thesis at the University of Michigan. I continued working on it for about three years after receiving my degree, sending out various drafts to contests and open reading periods along the way. When Lyn Hejinian selected it for the Colorado Prize, it came as one of the great shocks of my life. Still, because I'd never written a book before, I suppose it felt impossible and easy all at once. I simply didn’t know how the process worked.

With Phantom Camera, I was more acutely aware of the ups and downs because, by then, I held preconceived notions and expectations. I suppose that second one felt more difficult because I thought it would be easier, if that makes sense.

In the end, I don't imagine that it was really any more difficult or any easier. I simply had to grapple with the anxiety of high expectations. In many ways, my expectations are even higher the third time through, so the great challenge right now is in tempering them.

For the individual poems, do you have a submission routine?

My only routine is that I don't send any poem out unless I feel I could read it in front of a roomful of poets I admire without feeling embarrassed. Additionally, I wait until the poems begin to feel at least a little alien, like I can't quite remember how I came up with some turn or image or another. Once that happens, they feel ready. At that point, I'll pick a few journals that I've read many issues of and admired, and then I send the poems to those places with a brief, two or three sentence cover letter and hope for the best.

Carrier Wave, by Jaswinder Bolina

Carrier Wave, by Jaswinder Bolina

I love the various forms the poems take in Phantom Camera. Is this something you like to play around with when composing your poems?

That's absolutely something I focused on in, both, Phantom Camera and Carrier Wave. I tried to force every poem into an appearance on the page that differed as much as possible from the poem preceding. It felt like the variations in physical form pushed me into refreshing the content as best I could with every new piece. This was meant to be a defense against monotony or redundancy. I'm not sure how well it worked, but that was the idea.

In the new book, I'm actually less concerned about form in that global sense and focused far more on phrase and line break, on the combinations of words in a line. Now, that seems enough to propel me forward into the next poem.

You also teach. How does teaching writing help (or hinder) your own writing?

The only way teaching ever hinders anything is in the time it takes up, not so much in the classroom, which is almost always fun, but in the reading of student poems and offering of feedback, in the preparation of lessons and syllabi and the like. Trying to find writing time during the semester can get tough, but I usually find plenty.

Beyond that, teaching is a tremendous resource for my writing. Spending a few hours talking or thinking about poetry nearly every day tends to generate ideas for my work. This isn't to say that I'm taking ideas from the things I'm teaching or from the student poems I'm workshopping. Rather, having my head in the game, so to speak, readies me for producing my own poems once I get to working on them.

One poet nobody knows but should. Who is it?

Honestly, I feel like there are more poets that I don't know and should than there are those I know that others don't. Did that sentence make sense? What I mean is, there are so many poets publishing right now—it really is something of a golden age in that respect—that it can be difficult to keep up.

That said, I think everyone should have a look at Sarah Galvin's work. I also know for a fact that Amy Meng's book Bridled, which should be out in the next year or so, will be amazing. Ditto Virgin, by Analicia Sotelo.

If you could pass along only one piece of advice to fellow poets, what would it be?

I'm really not one for doling out unsolicited advice. Students looking for help are one thing, but all those poets out there in the world should keep on doing what they're doing regardless of anything I have on offer. I might not agree with all they do. I might find some of their work baffling or annoying or dull. But, I certainly do find some of it spectacular and inspiring. Keep writing. The rest will take care of itself.


Robert Lee Brewer is the editor of Poet’s Market and author of Solving the World’s Problems. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


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