The Hurricane Inside One Household: Rob Taylor interviews Tanja Bartel

A circle of smoking nurses. The power in a newborn’s spring- loaded kick. I’m trying to remain unpunched—I’ve gone decades.

Little Surprises 

A  circle of smoking nurses.  The  power in  a newborn’s  spring-
loaded kick. I’m trying to remain unpunched—I’ve gone decades.
Fearful creatures survive the longest.  A drunk group of you will
never  throw me in a pool  in my new  yellow dress  at a summer
party.  I’ll lie on my back and kick  my  friends.  Grab handfuls of
skin where there is no collar.

from Everyone at this Party
(Goose Lane Editions, 2020).
Reprinted with permission

Rob Taylor: In the acknowledgements for Everyone at This Party, you thank the poet Jen Currin for introducing you to poetry in 2012. That’s a fairly speedy path from introduction to first book. That said, you came to poetry later in life than many writers. Could you talk about your path to writing, and how it eventually brought you to poetry?

Tanja Bartel: I sent my manuscript out to two publishers the day after submitting it as my MFA thesis. One rejected, one accepted! My first time sending out a manuscript, so the publishing part was quick, yes, but the process was seven years in the making.

There’s this misconception that people who publish their first book later in life were struggling to do it all that time. Nope. Some of us simply spent years doing something else. I’ve taught high school since my twenties and raised two children, one of whom has a rare, yet-to-be named genetic mutation, the main feature of which is extreme head-banging and self-injury. He’s severely brain-damaged and at very high risk for sudden death seizure. Focusing on my son’s health and safety has consumed me these past 21 years. I’ve only ever written two poems about this and they’re in the book. I won’t write another.

There’s this misconception that people who publish their first book later in life were struggling to do it all that time. Nope. Some of us simply spent years doing something else. I’ve taught high school since my twenties and raised two children …

I wrote a few poems in a notebook as a teenager and then almost nothing until I was 48. A girl in my high school grad class wrote a poem for the yearbook that was so good, and I was so envious that I quit, believing I could never write like her. Of course I couldn’t, because that was her and this is me. I wish I could tell my younger self that. I wrote another handful of poems when I was 20. I quit again because I convinced myself—and maybe my whole generation convinced ourselves—that unless it leads to a career, don’t bother. It was the ’80s and I wanted to wear the power suit with giant shoulder pads and go to work in a skyscraper. I ended up directing my love of words into teaching high school English in a small working-class town, and I’ve never regretted it.

Many years in, I felt like a fraud though. Here I was telling people to write things when I wasn’t. So, I applied to The Writer’s Studio for fiction; I had a 300-page novel draft I’d written at my kitchen table without the benefit of any courses or workshops. Here’s the weird part: the night before the deadline, I added to my application three of those poems I’d written decades earlier. Imagine my shock when they accepted me for the poetry cohort. I almost declined. If I wasn’t in fiction, I wasn’t interested.

But I showed up anyway and bought all three of mentor Jen Currin’s books before the program started. I’d never read poetry like hers—the surrealism, imagery, subject matter, and strangeness. It made me want to write poetry. I began a process of serious reading, immersing myself in as many different poetic voices as I could. I was the happiest I’d been in years. TWS and Jen did that for me. When she wrote a blurb for the back of my first book, the circle was complete.

Rob Taylor: I’m writing these questions to you from the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody, right near the "end of the line" for the Skytrain (and therefore the edge of the civilized world for many Vancouverites). In Port Moody, our orbit extends a bit further, I would say as far as Pitt Meadows, where you live, and neighbouring Maple Ridge. Your orbit, I suspect, extends a bit further East, likely to Mission, where you teach high school. After that, there’s not all that much left to extend to—Harrison and Hope (and beyond that, as the jokes go, all is lost).

While Vancouver proper has been written about endlessly in poetry, Vancouver’s suburban “outer limits” (and “outer outer limits,” and “outer outer outer limits”) have hardly been explored, with one major exception being Elizabeth Bachinsky’s debut collection Home of Sudden Service, about Maple Ridge. It was wonderful and fitting, then, to see that Elizabeth edited your book. I’m sure that was no coincidence. How did you come to Elizabeth’s poetry, and how did it, and her editorial advice, shape your own thinking and writing about the region?

Tanja Bartel: At the risk of appearing a jackass, it was a coincidence, to me anyway. I didn’t know Elizabeth wrote about the suburbs because I knew of her as an editor and teacher, not as a poet. (She was a guest speaker during my MFA). I bought Home of Sudden Service as soon as she agreed to work with my manuscript, but fear of sliding into her style stopped me from reading it until after we completed the editing process. It’s such an incredible book. She captured details of the outer limits beyond the suburbs so truly. I felt myself inside these poems—the landscape, those teenage girls and boyfriends, the ones who disappeared. So yes, wonderful and fitting!

I appreciated Elizabeth’s ideas for ordering the poems, something I think many poets struggle with. She agreed with my decision to have no sections, but suggested I alternate the poems in first person with those in third person, so the “I” and “we,” take turns, almost like a chorus. I also liked how she suggested I link each poem to the next with a similar image or word, so the end of one poem often connects to the beginning of the next. For me, these echoes create pleasure and momentum.

RT: While I missed those links on a conscious level, I certainly felt them—Everyone at This Party’s dreamlike flow from poem to poem pulled me in. Three major entities move through that “flow”: your father and a friend, both of whom have died, and the suburbs themselves. Do you think of these “characters” as being interconnected in some way, as speaking to one another or setting a collective mood?

TB: My close friend died of her addiction in her beautiful home a few blocks away from me, and the pain of her loss sat beside me when I wrote much of this book. I suppose while I was at it, I also thought of the other great death of my life, my father’s. After both of their deaths, I felt close to that W. H. Auden poem, “Stop all the clocks.” People were mowing their lawns like nothing happened, going in and out of Superstore like zombies. I thought, How dare you carry on?! I went for a lot of walks and the same blank eyes of windows never blinked. The hurricane inside one household, inside one mind, doesn’t show. There’s no real “street life” here, other than dogs walking owners and the power-washer obsessed.

RT: Does a direct current run between “Death” and “The Suburbs”?

TB: Alcohol and death in the suburbs did become a concept for this book, but only after I’d written hundreds of poems first, and this cluster formed. What eats away at you is unavoidable; you can’t help but return to certain ideas and subjects. (Dear reader, most of my poems are death-free!!)

RT: Ha! Death is inescapable in poetry, as in life. An increasingly less common theme in poetry today, though, is religion. It jumped out at me, then, when two poems in Everyone at This Party riffed on the existential questioning of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. What draws you to Ecclesiastes, and does it connect in some way to your thinking about the suburbs (“there is nothing new under the sun”)?

TB: I’m drawn to the Book of Ecclesiastes for its straight goods. It says bluntly, “Look, we’re dying here so don’t get your hopes up—and don’t get all attached. All your hard work will amount to dust, and even if you’re successful, a fool will inherit your money and squander it. Life is arbitrary and people don’t get what they deserve.” Whereas most books of the New Testament come down to love, hope, and purpose, Ecclesiastes dares to hammer throughout, “Everything is meaningless” and “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Maybe I’m weird but this is comforting to me, kind of the opposite of toxic positivity. I like the acknowledgement that horrible things happen to good people and the undeserving win; this is what we all see happening anyway. It doesn’t pretend to make us feel better. I know people who’ve spent years quietly helping others without fanfare, and then fall on hard times, yet a cruel impeached president plays on, enjoying unmerited attention, wealth, and power.

Whereas most books of the New Testament come down to love, hope, and purpose, Ecclesiastes dares to hammer throughout, ‘Everything is meaningless’ and ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’

RT: “Fairness” is very out of style these days, it’s true. What role does religion play in your writing, more generally?

TB: Religion plays a role in the big ideas behind the poems. Some of these poems wonder about luck and chance vs. choice and personal effort, as in these lines from “A Brief Dalliance with the World”:

crows—who are allowed to fly—choose to jerk around
this city instead. Free will not capitalized upon, even with

the means. It makes me wonder how much
choice we have. We can walk, but we won’t walk out.

I wonder, too, whether we are capable of changing our ways. I lean towards No, we aren’t, but I also love finding out I’m wrong.

RT: There’s nothing better, eh? Here’s hoping we both are.

While our destructive, hyper-consumptive ways don’t change, our suburbs do: the Port Moody I grew up in is hardly recognizable now, replaced with high-rises and microbreweries. Pitt Meadows too, is changing, with townhouses springing up daily along the Fraser. Do you think the town you write about in Everyone at This Party will be there much longer? Will any part of you miss it if it goes?

TB: Development continues to multiply beside the Katzie Reserve. I get a bad feeling when I walk along the shore of the Fraser River, where hundreds of buildings have replaced the bush. There’s also some prime farmland where I used to walk with my kids to see the donkeys, and now it’s being paved over for industrial use. I could cry. I’d see coyotes bouncing on mice as part of the scene, but they’re pushed to our yards, and our cats. One thing they can’t pave over, though, is the protected wetland along the Pitt and Alouette Rivers, sanctuary to hundreds of species, and this is what I love about living here. Walking and thinking along these rivers is my writing process.

RT: That’s a hell of a writing process! And it segues us nicely into talking about how you build your poems. The "Current Phobia" poems which recur throughout your book are fascinating: they all have the structure of the glosa poem (where a four-line quote appears as the final lines in four ten-line stanzas), but only one of them actually "glosses" another poem. Gloss-less glosas! Could you talk about the series, and what drew you to using the form (which, in rhyme scheme and line length you are loyal to—more so than most poets) minus its main ingredient?

TB: I was introduced to the form as an optional exercise in Susan Musgrave’s poetry workshop during my MFA, but I became obsessed. The schoolteacher in me was both drawn to and repelled by writing within these “rules,” and I spent a couple of years getting them right.

I read a ton of Canadian poets while mining for lines, which I really loved. Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People was one of the funniest. I used lines from his poem “Dish Bitches” in one of the glosas. Earlier versions of the “gloss-less glosas” did reference other poems, but due to some controversy around one of the poets involved, I decided to rewrite the poems without them. It was unfortunate yet liberating to do my own thing. There is no law that says you can’t write four 10-line stanzas with lines 6, 9, and 10 rhyming, so that’s what I did; I’d grown attached to the form.

Still, I might return to the true rules and come back to an idea I had for a book of glosas paying homage to Canadian poets, or an anthology of Canadian poets “glossing” each other. But of course, the concept is dead now because I said I’d do it. (Never say what you’re going to do).

RT: Oh, do it! I’ve already got a few I could send you. (Ah hell, now when you don’t do it, I’ll assume it’s because you didn’t want to deal with rejecting me. I share a lot of insecurities with teenage Tanja…)

Another form I sense you channeling in these poems is the ghazal, in which poems are assembled out of independent couplets that are only tangentially linked. Many of your poems, including the book’s title poem, are built out of one or two-line statements assembled together with stanza breaks between them, and even when that’s not the case, such lines leap out of larger blocks of text (for instance, “My back seat soaks up the parts of the river / my dog kept,” which opens one of your longer poems, but could easily have thrived as a haiku). Have you always been interested in that length of thought/line? If not, when did you come to it and what did it open up for you in your writing? Am I right to suspect the ghazal played a role in the process?

It fascinates me that even when the mind wanders, it wanders quite efficiently, exhausting a certain topic when the brain perseverates on it.

TB: The ghazal is not a form I have sought out! More likely, it’s my fragmented writing process. I aim to make each line unpredictable, but with those tangential connections. I have always loved and worked from individual lines and aphoristic thoughts. They often come as absurd, blunt statements that I “hear” in my mind like, “The bladder has more say than sleep.” I do a lot of walking to ease my worried mind, and I jot lines while moving. Over time, they start to stack up. They magically coalesce over time, even though written on different days, sometimes months apart. It fascinates me that even when the mind wanders, it wanders quite efficiently, exhausting a certain topic when the brain perseverates on it. (Or maybe it’s because we all walk around recycling mostly the same thoughts every day). I wrote most of my poems this way. The poem that spills out in a single pour is an exhilarating and rare thing, isn’t it?

RT: Indeed, which leaves us futilely chasing that same high for another few months or years, until it happens again… That’s one of the things, I think, that drives people to writing programs: the need for a kick start.

For people looking to take an in-depth writing program at a Vancouver university, the two go-to options are UBC’s Creative Writing program and SFU’s Writer’s Studio, both of which you’ve already mentioned you’ve taken. Many celebrated local writers have passed through one or the other, but you’re the first person I know who’s done both.  Could you talk about that a little? What inspired you to take one, and then take the second?

TB: Being in education, I strongly believe in the idea of lifelong learning—although that gets expensive. While there is a salary increase for teachers who get a master’s degree, it wasn’t a deciding factor. I craved that writing community. I’m a person who is always game, who says yes to everything—readings, speaking, social events. I grieved the end of the Writer’s Studio in 2012 because I felt that I’d found my people. When it ended, I was just getting started; I wanted to keep writing, and there was so much more I wanted to learn. Teaching high school involves overwhelming, relentless giving, which I thrive on, and it is rewarding, but doing both writing programs was a way of filling up again and doing other (overwhelming, relentless) creative work.

Both programs developed in me a focused attention to revision and editing. At UBC I’d spend two months on a 5,000-word nonfiction piece and Charlotte Gill (one of the greatest teachers of my life) would say something like, “It’s good for a first draft.” I’d slither back to the drawing board and keep at it. I developed an addiction to deadlines, but it eventually turned into self-discipline. Writing a book is a self-imposed deadline. So is sending work to magazines, journals, and contests. Once out of the program, these are the things you work for.

RT: As a teacher yourself, is there anything that you took from those programs and brought into your own teaching practice (in teaching creative writing, or more generally)?

TB: Being a student again made me a different style of teacher. And with the new BC curriculum, Creative Writing is now one of several English courses students can choose for their English credit. I teach mostly Creative Writing.

I write with my students more and love to hear them share their work. I’m often folded in half laughing, or so moved by their language I can barely cope. I give more opportunities to experiment and allow revisions after grading. Because I’ve experienced being a student as an adult, I’m closer to knowing what it takes to write on demand. I also know the satisfaction that comes with writing something you’re proud of because you did the intense work of revision.

I write with my students more and love to hear them share their work. I’m often folded in half laughing, or so moved by their language I can barely cope.

I teach more diverse literature and more living writers of all ages now. Instead of the dusty old anthology of dead white guys, I bring in my huge collection of poetry books (not that I don’t slip in some Keats and friends). I sometimes use them for silent reading; why does it always have to be a novel? It’s the best when someone spontaneously reads out a poem they liked. I’ve even had them study a whole collection and write about it. There’s the potential to learn more about precise verbs and nouns, style, and image from this kind of immersive experience. I absolutely love teaching Kayla Czaga’s first book, For Your Safety, Please Hold On. I have a few copies in my classroom. Her young age at the time of publication has made the idea of writing and publishing real to many of my creative writing students. Her poems are accessible yet use language in such a brilliant way—and she’s hilarious. Humour in poetry is unexpected for students because they see poetry as a dry, serious endeavour. I fight against their belief in the undecipherable “hidden meaning,” telling them, “You don’t know what the poet was thinking at the time, so don’t even try. The words are all there on the page. Trust your eyes—and a good dictionary app.”

RT: “The words are all there on the page”—oh, I love that! Is there anything from your high school classroom that you wish could be brought into writing workshops?

TB: One thing I’d love to bring to writing workshops, but which adults might find annoying, is more spontaneous reading aloud—not only when it’s your turn to be workshopped. Many teenage writers enjoy performing to an audience, to test out how their work sounds, to see the response. What great feedback if everyone laughs! Writing is, after all, for entertainment and intellectual engagement.

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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.

About the author

Rob Taylor’s next poetry collection, Strangers, will be published by Biblioasis in Spring 2021. You can read more of his interviews here.