Tanja Bartel holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in numerous venues including Geist, the Antigonish Review, and the American Journal of Medical Genetics. She lives in Pitt Meadows, BC. Her debut collection, Everyone at This Party is her debut collection and came out last spring. In this interview, the poet discusses her writing style, the Canadian poetry scene and her upcoming appearances.
Read Emma Rhodes review of Everyone at This Party here.
COVID-19 derailed a lot of in-real-life opportunities for writers. And this is continuing now for a third publishing season. Yet book buying is up across the globe. So there is a silver lining. When the smoke clears, will you feel invigorated to get out there and share your book – despite it being a toddler?
Yes, I will! We’ve all lived through this disconnected time and I finally have hope of better days ahead. Spring is here. The sun keeps coming. I have some online readings lined up— Toronto in April and the Winnipeg International Writers Festival in May—as well as reading outdoors at a Vancouver park (if Covid permits) this summer.
Poems which are based on real life are written because of something that cannot be changed. Your poems that deal with anger towards self-destruction, substance abuse seem necessary, a normal human reaction. But is it cathartic? I ask this because in my own work I revisit the same ghosts many times over because I just can’t find any solace. I can’t rest. Thoughts?
Thanks for this. These are the poems no one dares ask me about. Cathartic? I want it to be, but maybe it’s compulsion or the best fuel for my imagination. I’m driven to exhaust a subject before I can write about anything else. I read somewhere once that we tend to recycle the same thoughts over time. I jot down lines on my phone notepad while I’m walking, and find similar ideas revisited from months past when I scroll back through them. Maybe this is what people mean when they say they have a “concept” for a poetry book. There are definitely ghosts that swim circles in my head. Some are people I will never forget. I continue to revisit who I was, who I thought I was, who I really am.
What was it like working with EB on your debut collection?
Elizabeth Bachinsky is a joyous person and fun to work with. By strange coincidence, her book, Home of Sudden Service, which is now one of my favourite books by a BC poet, is set in the same place as mine, Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows, BC, which is a large rural area outside Vancouver. I didn’t read her book until after working together. It was remarkable to read poems about these odd, uncelebrated places. I’m so grateful our paths crossed. I appreciated her ideas for sequencing my poems as a collection. I don’t have separate sections, so she suggested alternating first person and third person poems (as a sort of chorus), which alternate, loosely, between the private hurricanes within the speaker and the struggles of others. I learned a lot about line breaks: how the hinge of one line can swing forward to the next line and back to the previous line, and how a poem written in a long column can be a different poem in couplets, for example.
What was the first and last poem you wrote in this book?
“Subdivision” comes from a mountain of three hundred poems I wrote in one year (2012), when I started writing poetry for the first time as an adult. I consider the rest great practice. That one tiny prose poem is the heart of my whole book. It was the seed that grew into a larger concept. I just realized this. I guess I always want to write about the dark underbelly of the clean suburbs. The last poem in the book, “Whisper Street,” is the last poem I wrote for the book during the editing process. It ends the book with a tiny flash of hope.
Your poetry straddle two distinct universes: contemporary confessional and a more ethereal lyric approach. What are your feelings on these two nuances?
I guess they do! I wasn’t conscious of what I’d done. Poetry seems to come from my reptilian brain and the gut, whereas all my other writing comes from the logical brain. I often don’t see the connotations and meaning in my poems until after they’re published. I wrote it, how could I not know? So who’s confessing? Me/not me. Sometimes the speaker is a persona or character; sometimes my true self, or some exaggeration of my shadow self. It’s a way of confessing and obfuscating. The wildest, least realistic parts are true. A friend used to say, “When I tell the truth, no one believes me.” I think of that now.
As for the ethereal lyrical, as you put it, it’s a mystery. I’m intrigued by the writing brain: how some people hear a writer voice; some see the words move across their mind screen; while others experience neither, only images. I’m one who “hears” what I call an undervoice, a narrator who speaks my lines in a blunt, deadpan way, and in a deeper voice that doesn’t exactly match my personality. None of us know what other writers experience! I want to ask everyone. How do you know which words to write down next?
Who are some of your favourite poets in BC and the rest of the world?
Too many to list! Jen Currin’s four books of poetry–I’ve read them all– and find myself returning to them as almost a home base. I’m a huge fan of Kayla Czaga for her quirky humour and personal and relationship poems. A book I have read several times over is Laura Matwichuk’s Near Miss. It’s brilliant and captures all my terrors. And Nancy Lee’s—What Hurts Going Down grabbed me by the throat. I’m looking forward to Rob Taylor’s latest, and Jen Sookfong Lee’s first book of poetry. Beyond BC, I’ve recently enjoyed fellow Goose Lane poets, Chris Hutchinson’s most recent and Jessie Jones’ debut. I love the wildly energetic poetry of Tanis MacDonald, the aphoristic lines of George Murray, and look forward to Calgary poet, Micheline Maylor’s The Bad Wife. I like Jericho Brown, Mary Ruefle, Charles Simic, Carl Phillips, Ocean Vuong, Kaveh Akbar, Ada Limon, Alex Dimitrov, Dianne Seuss, Mary Karr, Kim Addonizio, and Ilya Kaminsky. I have a deep love of Keats. I used to have to read a couple of poems in Elizabeth Willis’s Turneresque before I could write. I read a lot of lit journals and greatly appreciate the accessibility of a huge range of poetry online.
Poetry may be the only genre now that almost always has evidence of a publishing path before the book is complete. Novels and story collections are sometimes the first publication the fiction ever sees nowadays. Many of your poems were first published in journals. Do you think this will be the case for your next book? How important are journals and magazines as it relates to your work?
Poets get those frequent little dopamine jolts, like the casino experience of winning and losing the same twenty bucks repeatedly. I don’t know if I could delay gratification the length of a novel. I love lit journals and read piles of them in print and online. I haven’t submitted anything to a journal in over a year. I’ve lingered in a state of paralysis since Covid-19 arrived. There’s a sense of futility because of the scale of this crisis; in the context of a global pandemic, I’ve shrunk. It’s been grim working full-time as an essential worker (high school teacher). But this April, I’m beginning to get my fire back. “Poetry repairs your heart even as it splits it open,” Virginia Woolf said. Poetry repairs. That goes through my head a lot now. It’s a state of mind where it’s possible to fill up again. I’m feeling less depleted already as April begins and my annual online writing group begins. We are Canadian women poets from every province, from Victoria to Fredericton. Every April we do the NaPoWriMo challenge (30 poems in 30 days), and much of my entire year’s writing has begun there in recent years.
What advice would you give a 20-year-old poet who has never published a poem but who you can tell is desperate to publish?
I would tell them not to rush to publish. While they may believe their work is ready, it could probably use time to gel. But then there’s American poet Max Ritvo, who died in his 20s; his work continues to stun me. But I’d tell young poets to write hundreds of poems first, so they have the luxury of choosing the top one percent that is publishable. Early readers who only gush with praise and encouragement are important too because they are the reason some people keep writing. Constructive criticism can come later. When a writer is ready, they should approach skilled readers for specific, constructive feedback. This is why I think writing courses and workshops are important.
What advice would you give someone twice that age who has never published a poem and wants to jump into this business?
Exactly the same advice. I was this person, so I know that while you have so much experience and a greater vocabulary to express it, you need just as much feedback as the younger writer. Perhaps when you’re older, you’ve acquired the baggage of being a people pleaser. Taboos have settled in. You feel nervous of what others will think of you and how your mind works. It’s necessary to regain a sense of wonder and imagination that a lifetime of bad advice, relationships, and jobs have crushed.