Tanja Bartel is a writer and high school teacher. Her work has been published in various journals such as The American Journal of Medical Genetics, Geist, Grain, the Puritan, the Antigonish Review. Everyone at This Party (Goose Lane/icehouse poetry, 2020) is her first book. She lives in Pitt Meadows, BC.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Already, with my first book, I’m feeling a greater sense of community. Fellow poets and writers are pulling me in closer. There are offers to read together, online bonding with other poets I’ve never met in person but whose work I adore. I like it. We all want to be a part of something. My recent work feels like a continuation of my new book, except that I’m focusing even more on prose poems.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
The first and only thing I’d written was a mystery novel I wrote at my kitchen table when I was in my mid-40s. I’d taken no writing workshops or courses. I applied to be the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University with the first 20 pages of my horrible experiment and, and, because they required a second genre, I tossed in three poems I’d written in my early 20s that I scrounged from an old notebook. I was accepted into the poetry cohort instead of fiction. I was so disappointed that I considered not taking the program if it meant being in poetry. But I showed up anyway. This turned out to be life-changing in the best possible way. I found my thing. I’ve never written fiction since.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Fragments and copious notes on my phone and laptop come quickly, then slowly grow and improve. I did write a whole other poetry collection very quickly (before this one) that I never sent out. It wasn’t good enough. Now I take my time. I consider it an excellent writing exercise.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem usually begins with a deadpan voice speaking one line to me in my head. The line is usually an image or an aphorism. It’s often a blunt, ridiculous statement. I jot it down on my phone’s notepad. They start to stack up, these random lines, and I start seeing a pattern or a developing idea. Often, lines written on different days in different months end up together. I can look back and see that I was thinking of certain ideas over a long period. It’s rare that I write a poem in a single pour but it’s fantastic when it happens.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings! I would love to do more. I love the feel of people gathered together to hear good words. That feeling of community. I love the chemistry in a room of people and the idea of call and response. In reality, though, most of us sit politely in dead silence and this can be unnerving for the reader. Preparing for a reading helps me figure out which poems sound better out loud and which are better seen in print. Not every poem sounds good out loud.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m not a theoretical thinker or very academic in my approach. Poetry comes from my reptilian brain. If I’m trying to answer anything it’s questions about the arbitrary nature of life--luck, chance, choice, and personal effort. I spend a lot of time wrestling with whether people are really capable of change. I lean towards no but I’m trying to prove myself wrong. I want to be wrong. It’s cool to be hopeful and positive, so I pretend to go along to fit in.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’m not sure the role of the writer is any different from anyone who makes anything—and we all create something because it’s human nature. We are drawn to the things that satisfy something in us, whether it’s art, family, books, buildings, social groups, etc. Writers fuel conversations and expand ideas. It’s all about ideas and thinking publicly, which is contagious and prompts others to think about important things too. But we also have to be entertained. Thinking deeply, imagining, and escaping are forms of entertainment.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I thrive on it. It’s essential and only helps make the writing better. I love feedback and seeing things through other eyes. It pries me out of my own limited view.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
That famous Picasso quote: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” It’s true much of the time.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Both come easily but I tend to write poetry the most, almost daily, as a natural outgrowth of my thoughts. It’s a commitment of only a line here, a line there. One grain of sand at a time feels effortless. Whereas non-fiction requires a purpose and a commitment, and the reasonable expectation that it’s going somewhere, such as a contest or themed issue. I’ve only ever sent out two pieces of non-fiction and one was published and one was shortlisted in a contest, so I should probably do more.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write when I can and when I feel like it. I feel like it the most when I’m walking or at night. I’ve never written a single word in the morning. I’m a high school teacher so rushing to work is my reality. I’m a night owl. Night thoughts are more free, surreal, crazy, less logical, and not self-critical. Daylight is for revision and self-loathing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Change of scenery. Literally. Walking around my town or along one of the three rivers I live near—I rotate my walking routes. I work full time, and would love to travel but it’s hard for me to leave our severely disabled son (who can’t travel) behind, so I have to rely on switching up settings and experiences.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Manure, from surrounding fields and farms. It was my mother’s favourite smell because it reminded her of her home in Finland. I carry an inter-generational fondness for farm smell. It connects me to my pre-Canadian roots.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Nature, but I don’t write nature poems. I think about people when I’m walking alone in nature; I think about how they talk, their wording and sayings, the cliché things people say a lot. I love idioms and common expressions because we didn’t speak English in my home growing up. I’m extremely attentive to language and vocabulary. I’ve always been self-conscious of my vocabulary because I didn’t hear my parents say English words. This has never left me and I’ve paid close attention to words ever since. It’s partly fear of not understanding something, like a code.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Poetry Magazine, Geist, The Paris Review (especially the interviews). I’ve got a huge collection of poetry books and often have two novels on the go—one print book and one audiobook. I read lots of crime fiction, mystery novels and literary fiction, both contemporary and classics. Some poets I frequently re-read for pure pleasure are Mary Ruefle, Jen Currin, Ocean Vuong, Elizabeth Willis, Frank Stanford, Kaveh Akbar, George Murray, Mary Karr, Charles Simic, Patricia Young, and Kayla Czaga.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Have intimate poetry dinner parties where we sit around my table and eat and drink and talk poetry. I keep not inviting anyone to do this for fear they won’t want to come to my house. I’m a good long drive, or complicated transit route, east of Vancouver.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
The other occupation is what I do for a living. Most writers need a day job. But now I realize I can do both. After teaching high school English for two decades and never writing myself, I started to feel like an imposter and a hypocrite. I was asking other people to write when I wasn’t doing it myself. It felt dishonest. I started doing my own assignments and writing with my students when I gave them a prompt. I love teaching as much as I ever did and writing has made me a different style of teacher than I was.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is free and you can do it anywhere. Same reason I walk. It’s free and no special equipment is needed, so no excuses either. I grew up in a working class immigrant family so there was no money for extras like lessons. Those early experiences can affect your whole life. I was always writing in my head and telling myself I didn’t have time. Eventually you can’t take it anymore and have to put it down somewhere, for relief.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
Prose poems. I’m reading The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (which I highly recommend!) so I can think more deeply about one of my favourite poetic forms. Prose poems tend to bring out less personal poems in me for some reason. They lean towards humour and absurdity, bits of narrative, and a touch of the surreal—but also horror.