Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Whatever, Iceberg (Mansfield Press). Her work has appeared in make/shift, EOAGH, Joyland, Prism, Matrix, No More Potlucks, The Best Canadian Poetry 2016 and other publications. Her byline has also appeared in Quill & Quire, The Grid, The National Post, Today's Parent, Bitch and Maximum Rocknroll. Born in Montreal, she currently lives in Toronto with her daughter.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book changed my life by letting me write something else. I say this sarcastically, but I definitely fell into the cliche of putting out a first book that was everything I'd ever written to-date. I was quite young when my first book come out, and I think it let me take myself a bit more seriously as a writer. And in turn probably made other people do the same. I think it also really helped me network; at the time there was a lot of small press stuff going on in and outside of Toronto. I'm very thankful to have had that publication picked up.
This is my third book and it feels a bit less indie, even though it is still coming out with a small, independent press. Even the cover is less crafty. Though there are a lot of similarities between it and my previous books, I think the biggest differences are that this one has a bit more of a narrative running through it, and that I tried to do less (more focus, better quality, I hope!) It's taken me a while to drop the idea that I may never publish again and should share every thought I have while I can. I hope I'm not jinxing myself here.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I always wrote poetry, even as a kid, and it was always miserable. I'd say that for the most part it was also always autobiographical, so in a sense I always wrote non-fiction through poetry (and still do). An example that stands out is that I spent a lot of time grounded as a kid (for no reason; I was a good kid) and wrote this poem that I think still exists somewhere about a lion trapped in a cage. I may even have read this poem on-stage during the talent portion of a beauty pageant as a kid...I didn't win.
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?
With poetry, I don't think I've ever intentionally started a project. At least not one that I've also finished. I tend to write in spurts, and final poems look at lot like my first drafts, these days with many cuts made. Writing prose is different for me, though. When I do personal journalism-type stuff, there's a lot of brainstorming ideas, not a lot of notes. Trying to write a longer prose thing, though, there are many notes, probably more notes than written pages. Maybe that'll change after I've seen something like this all the way through once.
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?
Definitely the former. I admire people who sit down to write a book, but I've never done it myself. Which is odd, in a way, because in my freelance life I definitely write to publish. Often a poem begins with a very literal experience for me: I burn my finger and the blister is heart-shaped, or something. A firefighter texts me a love note on Christmas Day, because he has the wrong number...Apparently this isn't the type of thing that happens to everyone all the time.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like reading. I'm told I read too fast, and I'm not sure that'll change. I don't ever think I'm nervous before, but I'm very shaky on stage. A lot of what readings are for me are excessive intros and anecdotes. People have told me that hearing me read has helped them understand that I'm not always taking myself entirely seriously in my work.
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 interested in intimacy, what it means to admit doing it wrong, how uncool weakness is and claiming it anyway. This book takes up gaslighting some, not a question per se, but thinking on that is a challenge I pose. I think a lot about being let down by "alternative" communities and chosen family, and I think I bring some of that to my work. With this book there are places I challenged myself to write about love without being funny or self-depricating—that's quite a microcosm as far as theory goes, I realize.
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 don't know how there could be one answer to this. I mean, the role of say, a high-profile biographer, and a relatively unknown poet don't seem comparable to me. I don't think writers owe anything to the world at large, or their readers even, but I do think writers need to be accountable to the work they put out. Not just the work, but all of the speaking on the work and public discourse they become a part of as writers.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. I think working as an editor has really helped me appreciate editors and has taught me about being open to edits in a way I probably didn't used to be. I'm sure being embarrassed by things I've published in the past has "helped" too. I really like the editorial process. Which doesn't mean it's easy for me, especially because so often my work is based in reality, if not entirely true.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Heather O'Neill says something needs to happen on the first page of a novel that the will change the course of events for the protagonist forever. (Or something like that.) Maybe that's something everyone but me already knew. I sat in on a week-long workshop Miriam Toews taught, and I think she really helped me calm down about needing to know if I was writing fiction or non-fiction; that was freeing. In the initial go-around of a weekend intensive with Eileen Myles I said that I wanted to start being a writer who had an idea before writing (poetry specifically) and focussed on that. Eileen had read the pieces I'd submitted to the workshop and pretty immediately told me that's not what kind of writer I am. I actually say this in a poem in the new book. Anyhow, in that moment I was like "Eileen Myles thinks I'm a kind of writer" and I'm sure I've been coasting on that since.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
A typical day begins with my daughter asking me why I put clothes out for her in solid colours because she only wears patterns and I should know that. Then I look at Instagram. I'm sure that if I spent less time on social media I'd write more, but I'm not there right now. I'm pretty sure that ever completing a prose project would require a writing routine, so I should probably push myself to have more of one. It's hard because I freelance and have a young kid. I have a hard time starting books as a reader, and I have that same thing getting back into writing something I've put down for a while. But I rarely regret either.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writing groups have been really helpful for me; some poems from this collection came from prompts for those. I think my writing is most stalled when I am, I have a tendency to retreat from the world. Reading seems like the most obvious answer. I like reading debut poetry collections. I like reading writers I know in real life, I think that helps me understand how peoples' voices translate to their writing.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Which home? Pine Sol and Camel Lights remind me of my mother. Wood-fired bagels remind me of Montreal. CK One reminds me of my high-school love. I'm not sure any of those are home, per se, but they're what come to mind.
13 - 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?
I'm not sure I have an answer to this. I watch a lot of trashy TV and it definitely adds a juxtaposition to how I see things. The absurdity of the world at large, and of this type of pop culture. It's a weird but always influence on me. Social media is always this innate sociological study; maybe other people get that from being social, but it strikes me as more of a form because of the consumer relationship to it. I garden and I spend a lot of time in medical settings, waiting rooms in particular. Also not forms, but backdrops, context, imagery.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Ariana Reines' Coeur de Lion is what comes to mind most immediately. I think I really needed permission to write this book, despite kind of (ugh) "branding" myself as someone who doesn't need permission. Coeur de Lion really gave me that. I quote Nelly Arcan's Hysteric in the epigraph of this book; that book did a similar thing. I think Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows is that for my prose project work-in-progress.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write and publish a killer personal essay.
16 - 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?
Like many writers, I don't know that writing is my occupation, much as I like to think of it as a career. I wish I'd done school, because I would have loved to do library and archival studies. I have a theatre background and am sometimes surprised I didn't become a playwright (which I realize is still writing). Sometimes I'd like people to pay me to make brunch.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I came into writing as an outlet for dealing with the things going on in my life early on, and it stuck. There have been lots of something else-es but writing has been a constant throughout those.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Aisha Sasha John's I have to live. And Moonlight.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I'm paused on a novel I've been wanting to write for a long time. I've had bits of it published in Joyland and This Magazine and they've gotten a good response. I'm editing some individual poems. I'm figuring out boundaries around a shorter creative non-fiction piece I want to write. I am slowly trying to wrap my head around archiving many years of radio I either made or was a part of.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;