Interview with Tanja Bartel // Charlotte Simmons

Romanticism is a dirty word in Tanja Bartel’s enthralling poetry collection Everyone at This Party. Her language darts between the lives of us all, indiscriminate of social standings or traumas, gently detaching the curtains of a façade before violently tearing it to pieces right beside us. The crapshoot of individual reality is putty in Bartel’s pencil, and I was more than happy to come along for the ride as she tried to make sense out of us; the real us.

Charlotte Simmons: I’m picking up quite the range of emotions in your poems, the most prominent one being cynicism. What sort of lens should readers adopt when they pick up your book?

Tanja Bartel: Cynical, sure, and a philosophical lens. I was angry that someone close to me died of their addiction when I wrote many of these poems—angry at alcohol, angry at our alcohol-obsessed society, angry at myself for being a part of it. I was pre-grieving another loss I feared was coming. I was kicking at positivity culture, those easy answers and inspirational clichés people like to post. There’s an edge to the voice in many of my poems which is the opposite of my timid, people-pleasing personality. I’m a high school teacher, and some of the cynicism and anger comes from seeing the damage done to young people, towards whom I feel very tender-hearted. So, there are several bad parent figures in the poems. 

I guess you could say I’ve seen too much. The poems express a deep distrust in our ability to change our ways. We can’t change ourselves but want society to change. We judge others harshly while letting ourselves off the hook, understanding that our own self-improvements fluctuate. We say, “This is who I am; deal with it,” instead of “This is who we are.” We’re not realistic. Our belief in hope is real though; maybe our self-deception serves to give others hope. We appear happy so it must be possible.

We can’t seem to get our shit together as a human race in the face of all evidence that we could and should. The best we do is lie to ourselves and keep going. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic, I just watch. I make note. 

CS: What was your favourite poem to write? Your hardest (in terms of emotional/editorial labour)?

TB: Both my favourite and hardest (they took years!) to write were the four phobia poems. Each is told by a persona who is a rude, tired school teacher who’s had enough. In truth, I haven’t had enough. I love teaching high school. But I’m constrained by having to be a role model. I envy people who can say what they want. I break loose from that in these poems. It’s my disguise, a way to give voice to things I shouldn’t say, while being almost secure in the fact that poetry is a tiny market. It’s like a single changing room in a mall of clothing stores where I can try on outfits and no one will see me. People can see, though. It terrifies me that my family, friends, and students/colleagues will not know where to separate me from the speaker of the poem. So, the hard part is that they may believe these things happened to me or that I really feel this way. No one ever believes this of a novelist. It’s assumed they used their imagination and that poets are more personal. I’m not sure that’s accurate. 

CS: The poems seem to adopt multiple perspectives from multiple people. Was there a certain way you went about getting into different headspaces or perspectives? If so, how did you identify which ones to go with?

TB: The sources of these characters vary. Some are composites based on parts of people I’ve known well or met briefly. Others are my own flaws exaggerated. Some are pure imagination based on one telling detail I’ve observed. For example, I used to work with a lovely colleague from Argentina who mesmerized me with her stories of teaching children at schools there. She once told me when her own children were small, she used to rearrange their toys while they slept. She wanted them to believe in magic, that the toys came alive at night. I thought it a lovely way to capture a child’s imagination. But I took it to the dark side in one of the poems where a mother does disturbing things with the toys, like line up the boy’s army men on his night stand aiming their guns at him, and standing the girl’s Barbies out on the window ledge as if they’re about to jump.  I went with the poems where I grew a whole imagined story from a tiny, seemingly insignificant, true moment.

CS: I noticed quite a bit of water imagery in your book, including several references to rivers and oceans. Could you talk a little about that and what its meaning is?

TB: I live on a triangle of land between three rivers. And I’m a West Coaster. I do all my thinking and much of my writing while walking, especially beside water. I always thought it was the exercise, but it’s also the nature fix I need. It makes me philosophical. The muddy waters of the Pitt River will keep running after I stop. The grass along the banks will keep coming back when I don’t. Grass is more important than me. I think it’s ridiculous—hysterical!—that a rock will exist longer than any of us alive now. I can’t believe that in this day and age we still die, and trees will outlive us. Nature constantly reminds me of my own impermanence, and its power to defy our medicine, technology, and lifespans. And it’s exactly because nature will outlive us that we better take care of it during our fleeting lives. How dare we wreck it on our way through? We’re confident bullets.

CS: I thought the phobia poems were especially interesting. Could you explain how you identified these phobias, what they are and how you chose to portray them in your book?

TB: The phobias all have, at their core, a terror of aging, losing one’s looks and abilities, or embarrassing oneself. Atychiphobia, for example, is a fear of failure. Gerascophobia is a fear of age-related decline. Maybe it comes from being a public schoolteacher who has to be on every day. It’s a fish bowl profession. I’m my own class clown, which is both fun and humiliating. I’ve gone a full day with my stretchy pants on backwards, the big square pockets on the front. I’ve worn my dress inside out for two classes before I noticed. This morning I taught my first English class with toast crumbs and black seeds spread across the chest of my white sweater from eating toast in my car on the commute. It’s so Lord of the Flies that no one told me. It’s daily horrors like these that keep me awake at night.

CS: What was your ultimate goal with this book?

TB: Good question! I didn’t have one until now. I don’t think it’s possible to have a conscious goal while writing separate, loose poems that end up being herded together into a book. Like most situations, you can’t see it when you’re in it. I now realize, I want readers to consider how much of what we do is a choice, and how much is luck, chance, or overwhelming need. How much choice do we have? Is it that simple? I became interested in this idea in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament—also famous for “Everything is meaningless” and “There is nothing new under the sun.” I found great comfort in the bald truth of these and other lines. The acknowledgement that life is not fair; or, to put it in modern terms, that a horrible person can win the lottery and an incompetent fool will inherit your job when you retire. I felt relief in how bluntly it exposed life. I could stop being surprised. Better to face it. 

If this darkish book offers any hope, it may be that there is comfort in accepting reality and in seeing people as they are—neither good nor evil, all flawed. I came to see that I’m the nothing new under the sun.

Everyone at This Party

Look around.

Everyone at this party is someone’s horrible childbirth story.

We’re either experts or one-trick ponies. Either way, it’s taken our

whole life.

Don’t have a favourite cowboy, prefer freedom to the lasso.

Crickets kick up their heels in the fullness of the exploding heat.

We could hurl a boulder into this slough and it would be there

after every current occupant on the planet is dead.

Grass along the banks greens up, yellows down.

Water, the most easily influenced substance, doesn’t show its age.

Fleeting dandelions that never end. Miracle, but we don’t see it

that way.

Each new sunrise blinds us and we start over.

Same as we were yesterday. And the day before.

Bitchy in the morning, angry to bed.

After we die, people will say we lit up a room when we walked in.


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.

Charlotte Simmons is a recent graduate of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB. She holds a degree in English Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing. She is an intern at Goose Lane Editions, and also writes for The East Magazine. Her play “Lesbians: A Review” was selected for St. Thomas University’s Plain Site Theatre Festival.

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