Shuddhashar: What is it that you strive to explore and convey through your poetry?
Ranbir Sidhu: I don’t think of myself as a poet at all, though I have written, or attempted to write, poetry since I was in my teens at various times. So the idea I might have something I want to explore or express is a little frightening. Is that what I’m doing? But poetry does do something for me. It helps unchain me from set habits in the way I write a sentence, it helps me break my own internal rules, rules I probably don’t even know I have, and it helps introduce a sense of liberty to my writing—genuine liberty—the idea that anything might be possible. This is a kind of liberty that can translate into my other life, the life of me walking around and knowing people. In that sense, it opens doors, doors in my imagination, in my own creativity, doors to questions I didn’t know I wanted to ask. By surprising me, it helps keep a sense of spirit in my writing alive and helps it and me flourish.
Shuddhashar: How do you interpret the present world, and how have current events spurred you to write?
Ranbir Sidhu: A sense of crisis, a sense of emergency, a sense of so many of us trying desperately to hold together a world, our worlds, that has/have already fallen apart, a sense of plunging off a cliff and waiting to hit the ground, a sense of suspended animation, a sense that all the myths are finally broken, lost, destroyed, a sense that no one can ever go back home. All of this pushes me to write, not what’s in newspapers, except perhaps when I see it out of my window, or walking along a street, or try, as I do in some of the poems here, to find the place of America in the contemporary imagination, my imagination. For me, the phrase “current events” includes a flood a hundred years ago or the idea of a surveillance state fifty years in the future. That said, the excerpt from the multi-genre work in progress “Ovation,” which I include here, is much more timely. It was inspired by the speech of Donald J. Trump on January 6, 2021, at the US Capitol, both as a way of interrogating this moment in US history, and also as a way of exorcizing some of its more malignant influences or vapors.
Shuddhashar: What literary pieces – poetry, fiction or non-fiction – and writers have informed and inspired your own writing? How have they done so?
Ranbir Sidhu: Most recently, a I felt a few of the poets I’ve been reading gave me “permission” to write the way I do, which to my mind perhaps isn’t poetry so much as words on a page. I’m thinking of poets like Johannes Görannson and Aase Berg and Bruno K. Öijer. Öijer’s The Trilogy is a magnificent book I keep returning to. As is Görannson’s Haute Surveillance. I was friends in the last years of his life with Agha Shahid Ali, and I continue to return to him again and again, though it terrifies me to think that I might be considered to be writing poetry when I look at his work. I find it hard to think of myself in the same category. Right now I’m reading Yousif M. Qasmiyah’s Writing the Camp, which examines his life in the Baddawai refugee camp in Lebanon, and the life of the refugee and of the camp in general. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, authors like Annie Ernaux, Maria Tumrakin and Svetlana Alexievich, and also works by various small presses. There’s an extraordinary explosion of independent presses at the moment, publishing some of the best work being published anywhere in the world. I’m thinking of publishers like Broken Sleep or And Other Stories or Sublunary or Action Books or Tarpaulin Sky or Wave. You can pick up almost any book by one of these presses and find a small masterpiece. It’s an exciting time to be reading.
Shuddhashar: In what way do your personal identity and experiences shape your poetry?
Ranbir Sidhu: In “Thoughts Toward A Memory of America,” which I’m including here, I look back at the experience of “becoming” an American. It’s a fragment from a longer work in progress, that looks at that experience, of having lived as a brown person in the United States for much of my life. It’s an attempt to understand that intersection, of my own body pulled across the complex political body that is America, how it shaped me and how I think of myself.
Shuddhashar: How do you use structure, language and grammar to accentuate the message of your poetry? Do you subscribe to conventions or break them?
Ranbir Sidhu: I have no training in poetry, so I’m not sure what the conventions are. I’ve found the use of long, unbroken sentences liberating. These long chains of words can seemingly go anywhere, and I find that exciting. I like to start a poem—actually any piece of writing—without any idea where I’m going, with just an image or a voice or a sentence. And then I follow it. I can’t write “about” something. As such, I feel everything I write ultimately is how one word follows another, how one image sparks another. I constantly need to surprise myself, to search for words/images/phrases that keep the work alive moment to moment. If any convention matters to me, it is this, the idea that the poem must remain alive on the page.
Shuddhashar: What is your opinion about the conflicts and solidarities between political poetry and the literary and artistic values of poetry?
Ranbir Sidhu: A brown person who refuses to write about politics writes/inscribes/tattoos a politics of the body, a politics I admire. A different kind of politics. An aesthetic of refusal. A refusal to allow oneself to be named, to be forced into an identity, an aesthetic that bursts out of itself, that claims that being brown is an ordinary state of affairs. That being brown is not of itself political, that we can transcend this idea of a political body. Perhaps what I look for is a political poetry that transcends its own politics, that finds meaning outside of imposed/imagined limitations. But as I say above, I’m not sure I’m a poet, so perhaps these questions are above my pay grade.
I know or think I know the container on the truck below my balcony comes from China and the reason I know or think I know is the boxes being unloaded I mean pulled out by Bangladeshi Pakistani Chinese laborers at two in the morning on a hot Athens night are labeled with Chinese characters or some are and this despite the fact I know that all we know is ultimately wrong that anything known today will one day be proven false that our deepest beliefs will crumble but still I know about the truck the container the men who labor to pull boxes down stack them on hand trucks and wheel them into the alley I cannot see into or the building to my left I cannot see into always one or the other each a mystery and I think of sea journeys romance ships gales songs night the great oceans of the world stretching out before you the endless silence the endless waves Joseph Conrad Herman Melville whales whale ships the slaughter of the sea the Filipino sailors the Pakistani sailors the Greek sailors the Indian sailors the Bangladeshi sailors the Albanian sailors the Syrian sailors men on boats in crowded cabins playing cards in silence smoking cigarettes in silence dreaming of home in silence dancing on tiptoe in silence flying through the night in silence entertaining royalty in silence elaborating on long lost codices in silence drinking tea poured from golden carafes in silence as the wave the great wave the wave we cannot avoid the inevitable wave the wave that rises when we are not watching the wave that will bury our silence in silence the wave the height of a hundred Empire State Buildings as this wave crashes on them in their silence and they are lost because they are always lost the lost men under my balcony their ghosts peopling the nighttime street how their bodies drift in deep currents deep channels deep unknown gorges and press forward through the oceans of the world ever circling.
from “Toward a Memory of America”
Because a car
Because a car at night
Because a levee road
Because fog because two-lane blacktop because love because a cunt between the teeth is worth two in the bush
Because who are we when we’re paint on a mountain when we’re tar on a beach when we’re light on a tortoise shell when we’re lost in a painting the color of loss
Because we die and are not dead
Because cheeseburgers are cheap and mostly crap
Because I said I love you and you said pass the wine
Because I killed a man in Reno and everyone laughed
Because a desert is a city in time is a shard of orphanhood is a vital organ left sliced open by the side of a road no one ever took
Because no one remembers anyhow
Because you said to the clerk before you shot him
Because you sung his name in Arabic and mine in Mandarin
Because nothing is forgotten except everything
Because America died the day Abraham died was born the day the music died no one ever said everyone said
Because I sucked Bruce Sprinsteen’s dick in a toilet in Wyoming and Bruce Springsteen sucked mine and I fucked Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Springsteen fucked me as light swaddled the prairie and we watched day become dusk become night become morning become day as it always did or was it the other way around
Because America I vomited into your mouth as you smelled my armpit and I smelled your asshole and we sank into the fog of each other’s scent and I left my skin on the dance floor
Because America you were born the day I arrived and died the day I left because I never once dreamed about you because who dreams anyhow I mean anymore I mean a hazelnut soy cappucino upturned over your dress
Because Robert Johnson in a Chinatown karaoke bar sings Blondie covers to an audience of one while the owner snoozes in the corner and no one eats kale chips on an Easter Sunday because in China Chateau Rothschild is fed to babies as young as six months because did you see who just walked by on Sixth Ave
Because a mind is a terrible thing to bast
Because Lynndie England in a corner taking selfies in a Nebraska roadhouse the way Rothko walks along a Lower East Side sidewalk against a red while no one paints a bronze sun across a venture capital startup’s leased by the month Chelsea HQ
Because who are we but perspiration on a porn star’s balls because how can we see ourselves except through our reflection in perspiration on a porn star’s balls because did not time stop when on the sixth day God painted perspiration on a porn star’s balls because how else did America make itself except in its image reflected in perspiration on a porn star’s balls
Because it has been said and therefore it will be said again
Because someone always eats the last cupcake in the fridge
Because what’s an immigrant except perspiration on a porn star’s balls
Because I plant this flag and claim America for the Queen of the perspired
Because sweat is the currency of dilapidation
Because I am I gentrify I fructify I villify I nullify I superfly
Because information is a disease is physical is erased is entropy
Because a brown cock dines on porterhouse
Because a black cock shines on you crazy diamond
Because you will be forgotten the day you were born
Because America you white cock doing lines in a Tower Records toilet on a Tuesday afternoon while California oh California sings Joni burns orange and red and who drinks the sky who claims the moon who screams I am I am I am who leaves a trail of old tampons who sucks the blood of the moon
Because who’s seen the Northen Lights from a barrio in Indio because who’s seen the Southern Cross from a bodega in Fort Greene because who’s taken the subway from Brooklyn to Kathmandu because who’s climbed the lesser peaks of the Himalayas because who’s heard the sky clear and cold and blue and sharp and born anew because who has eyes to see
Who gives a shit
Who throws a finger
Who moons the night
Who gives a flying fuck
Who cums on your face for no reason or every reason or no reason and every reason
Who claims to know your faults and there are many there are multitudes they are countless they are infinite
Who breathes through your nose
Who coughs through your mouth
Who farts through your asshole
Who cries yea or nay
Or words to that effect in a glimmer of night or day or morning or afternoon or dawn or dusk or the gloaming of any or none or why bother with language when all it does is shoot you in the albatross because who can say a thing and say they said that thing and believe they said that thing because a thing said is a thing painted in the color loss in a lost room chisel marks on the ceiling of a collapsed cave a thing better said unsaid or someone said but no one cared because who understood as they danced not listening under the ivy whoever said a thing like that screaming under the ivy or above it or around it while walking by it dreaming of it talking of it gossiping speaking behind its back if back it has etc
Nevada Part One
A Motel 6 the neon glow of a Vegas night some dystopia afterglow on a balcony at midnight watching ladies waiting to turn tricks as I drive along washboard tracks at forty thinking Nevada is a state of mind more illusory than most when the trooper spots me eye to eye the brown man crossing borders barriers state lines and worse and pulls out and follows front bumper to tail for six miles or is it six hundred on the Utah side as I pack my tent and car eyeing the coming storm that it might inundate the wash and send me tail over ass spinning down to Arizona and slip among the bookshelves at Tonopah’s only bookstore but finding nothing except a star chart which the owner gives me gratis saying folks come out here to see the stars best place in the continental farthest from from any city any human any artifical burning orbs to blind the soul to that which is above and I’m drinking a martini in the old whorehouse cum fancy hotel rooms decked out a la eighteen-ninety pouring myself into a clawfoot tub a hundred years old when I pull off the highway the trooper sill fucking my tail and take a left toward the salt flats thinking myself the man winning one hundred and sixty on tables at Harrahs or Sands because what year is this after all while Vietnam Sam sits shotgun directing me this way and that you not a cab driver you could be a cab driver the way you drive mister when we reach the alley where he buys the speed meth whatever and the car’s nosefirst in the sand the engine half buried on a track off a track off another track ain’t no one coming for days for sure weeks maybe so I erect the tent pull out the bourbon and start digging when finally I shale the trooper at a gas station and he slides slowly on staring at me the whole time like what kind of creature are you that dared a toe into Utah as she slides along the bannister dressed in pretty much nothing maybe the hot air itself holding a fag asking for a light I don’t have saying that’s a pity ‘cos it sure looked like you had sumthin’ burnin’ in your pants and I kick myself for being an uptight asshole why don’t you fuck the whore Sidhu she wants to you want her but that’s not the man I am and I am therefore not a man not a man in America not a brown man in America is that what it is to not be a man is that why the trooper tailed me to not fuck the whore who comes sliding at you like a puff of sweet air on an airless night and Sam says forty for a quick one one hundred and she stays till morning as I drop him in the middle of some desert-time blasted intersection the corner of loss and heartbreak everything the color of spent desire and ride north thinking of men who pay for the night what are they paying for not just sex or not sex at all but a body a woman a memory of another woman curled up next to them the memory of love perhaps or infatuation or need or safety or themselves squirmed against their mom as a four year-old someone just anyone warm the air made moist by another’s breath the mingled sweat of sleeping flesh the borderless communion of two bodies in the night or drinking partner or junk or coke or more like meth that feeds the need the hunger that makes us that traces back to the womb as once as kids we imagined a world painted it dreamed it thrilled in it and then find ourselves in neon green those motionless backwaters curdled like an old nun’s ass as I use my hands to dig through sand in hundred-plus heat not stopping not a moment hour after hour thinking if I stop I’ll start to think and if I start to think I’ll learn how hopeless it is to be lost in the Nevada desert your car nosefirst in a sandpit and no one not for miles and miles even if you had reception how the hell to explain where you are you don’t know fool Sidhu so dig Sidhu dig like your life depends on it because it did it does it always will but in the end I think why do men go to whores except for this one reason and only this to crawl back into the warmth of the womb the belly of the mom the time before the time before when life was a blank floating happy nothingness and we were unformed not men yet not women a thing of no sex or all sex a being as yet only imagined beyond sex itself and as I dig the sand pours back in and I want to cry but don’t or only at the end of the day lying on my back in the middle of the dirt road I know no one will drive along the sky skimming blue to haze to purple to dark as tears stream down my cheeks and I beg God yes God or god or gods move the car move it an inch on rocks that fly apart each time I slide them under the wheels a car that sinks deeper each time I turn the ignition I will be that American I say god or God the American who fucks a whore the American who spends his days curling himself back into the womb I will spend my days curling myself back into the womb and watch as night enfolds and hopelessness settles in why can’t I be that American the brown man who fucks a whore in the night because America is an exchange it is not money for flesh it is not truth for liberty it is not a gun aimed at a child in Iraq for a gun aimed at a child in a backyard in Boise it is an old drunk on a wet bed in Las Vegas streaming tears into a whore’s lap who sings to him as he cries sings the blues sings rock’n’roll sings the last torch song sings bluegrass sings gospel sings high lonesome sings a single note held for a day for a year for a century until the last star flickers out sings the last whore in the last bed singing to the last drunk.
Because I gave birth to you Childe America the day I arrived and murdered you the day I left I split my legs wide and produced you from my asshole and there you lay in shitbrown afterbirth the child I licked clean because what is a brown man in Childe America what is a Sidhu in you.
because finally God was struck down and killed and all could see God for what he was which was an evil man a wretched man a man who sought nothing but to bring terror and pestilence to his people to bring them to their knees to bring hatred into their hearts to turn brother against brother and sister against sister and all God thought of day and night as he sat on his throne was how to bring misery to his people endless misery rivers of misery oceans storms mountains of misery and now he was dead killed by god with a small g because only god with a small g could kill God and no more would there be the lechers and the cheats and the whores and the child killers and the murderers and the pederasts and the rotten scum the media lords the lesbian democrats the atheists the international bankers the judges the coporate bosses the teachers the union leaders because they were all to be shot stood up against a wall and shot taken to a field and shot carried screaming into a stadium with crowds cheering and fed to lions their bodies hung along fifth avenue as a warning to all that was their fate the fate they knew would meet them from the moment of their birth for they knew always who they were and their crimes and their hateful thoughts and that one day god with a small g would kill God and so it came to pass because was it not beautiful friends neighbors fellow Americans was it not a beautiful day when I god with a small g became your president was it not the most glorious day in all creation when I vanquished God when I stuck a knife in God’s belly when I took a gun and shot God on Fifth Avenue when I called on you my legions my followers my fellow Americans to search out God everywhere and anywhere and wherever you saw Him to shoot Him dead right through the eyes did I not say that and did it not come to pass that the man who came down to Earth so he could be raised by the nicest man who ever lived finally became your rightful god and savior and I said to Abraham kill me a son and what did Abraham say he said you must be kiddin’ and I said no and Abe said what and I said kill me a son or you better run and Abe said so where you want this killing done and I said out on Highway 61 and thats what happened and the police got Abraham prophet of the Jews for killing his son out on Highway 61 put him on death row the poor guy even begged me for a pardon he said you told me to do it you told me me the prophet of the Jews and here I am waiting for the holy chair a sucker born every day because didn’t we rejoice they sent honest Abe to the chair didn’t we party boys and girls didnt we send rockets into the air the day we smote old Abe down