By Alexis Pooley
Tanya Davis was the 2011/12 Poet Laureate of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her creative collaboration with Andrea Dorfman, the videopoem How to be Alone, has had more than 5 million views on YouTube, garnering Tanya new fans and supporters from the world over. She regularly receives commissions to pen poems and speeches and has worked in this regard for such bodies as the Canada Winter Games, the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women, CBC Radio, and the National Film Board of Canada. She also works and performs as a songwriter and musician and has released 3 full length albums, picking up awards and nominations for each one. Her first book of poetry, At first, lonely, was published in 2011 by Acorn Press.
Your work has often sidestepped traditional, singular genres in order to merge and embrace multiple genres and has attracted a widespread audience. When you first began your career did you ever have concerns, not in your work or in your creative vision, but in your work finding an audience?
I had a few concerns, sure, but they didn’t overwhelm me. At the end of the day, I’m not that strategic, in the business-savvy sort of way. I make art for joy and fulfillment and because it’s the kind of work I’ve come to realize I do best; that is, in all its facets. I just want to create things and so it’s less of a priority to cultivate one specific audience. I like to do lots of different things. It makes life (and creativity) more interesting.
How did you get started in spoken-word poetry? Was there a particular moment or season in your life that steered you toward art as a career?
I didn’t know spoken word poetry existed until I hitchhiked to BC one summer, when I was 20, and found myself at a performance at an art space on Hastings St. in East Vancouver called ‘The Church of Pointless Hysteria’. Two poets got up and delivered verse in a way I’d never seen before and I was mesmerized. Certainly, the fact that the poets, Shane Koyczan and Kinnie Starr were very talented helped to stun and wow me. So that was a big start. I mean, I started small and slow but that moment was a significant push. I wrote a poem and delivered it soon after at an open mic, and the audience reception was great and it propelled me to write more poems. I didn’t know for years, however, that I wanted to pursue art and performance as a career, but something was planting itself slowly and surely in my gut, and it jumpstarted that night at the ‘The Church’.
When you were beginning your artistic career did you ever have anyone tell you that your fusion of arts wouldn’t work? Do you have any advice for new writers who may come up against skepticism or even straight-up rejection?
I don’t remember anything that blatant. I’m sure I had (and have) lots of critics, skeptics, but those people weren’t as vocal, luckily. I’m pretty sensitive. For new writers coming up against rejection: keep going. What else is there to do? Rejection happens all the time, in so many aspects of our lives. We can choose to let it stop us and smother us but that’s boring. And depressing. And too easy. I’d say just lean into it, find your own bravery with it. If you really want to be a writer, you’ll write. It’s not too complicated. And hopefully you find some publishing or performance opportunities. If you persevere, you most likely will. Another thing I found helpful was not to read too many reviews, positive or negative. I realized I would let them get to me too much. I’m impressionable. And it’s not always helpful. Best to just continue along.
Having begun your career as a spoken word artist, how did it feel to debut your first book of written poems, At first, lonely, knowing that your audience would likely not hear these poems spoken (or sung) out loud? Was it a peculiar experience to have to trust an audience to hear aspects like rhythm and timing on their own?
It was nerve-wracking. And weird. At a performance, I say the poem and then it’s gone. Off into the air. And hopefully people get something out of it, a tone, a mood, an idea. With a book, however, they can read it over and over, pick apart the phrasing and the grammar, find the holes. It made me want to be a better writer, for the page.
What was your writing process like for your book of poems? Did it differ from your process for spoken-word poetry?
Some of the poems in the book were originally performance poems, so the process was more about editing and how to lay them out on the page so people would read them the way I intended them to be heard. Other poems I wrote just for the book but, no, the process didn’t really differ from that of writing my spoken-word poetry. Just had to sit down and write. Well, that’s the simple version.
Does music remain an important part of your work, even while creating written word?
I love music. I always will, I’m sure. I want to make music and create written word, fusing the two where and when it makes sense. I have started putting a bit more focus into the literary (publishing and performing) side of things though, rather than the music industry. I’m trying, currently, to find a new spot to stand, musically. How to play and perform music but not in the traditional, more formulaic ways that don’t really work for the kind of person I am. It’s a work in progress, I’ll keep you posted!
Included in At first, lonely are a few poems that have also been published in other mediums, such as music albums. When you are creating, are there some pieces that you feel are meant only for the written page, or only for spoken word, or do you feel open possibilities in each piece you write?
I feel open possibilities, yes. But, also, I can usually tell as I start working on something whether it’s intended for page or stage. Or whether it’s going to be a stand alone performance poem or one set to music. I don’t have a strict formula, it’s more of a feeling. Or, if poems become longer and longer, for instance, that’s a good sign that it’s not going to be with music, too many words!
Is collaborative art something that has always been important to you as an artist? How have you found that collaboration has impacted yourself and your work?
I love collaboration. It stretches my creativity muscles! Makes me work in new ways, try new things. And, as I said, I love to change and cultivate an eclectic practice. It wasn’t always like that, though, because at certain points, with certain people, I’ve been shy to collaborate, to show them my vulnerabilities in that regard. I also think that some people fit together well and some don’t, where collaboration is concerned, so it’s good to be mindful of that when trying out a new collaborative partnership.
How did your collaborative project with Andrea Dorfman come about?
Andrea approached me years ago, wanting to make a music video for a song of mine. At our first coffee meeting we just ended up talking about life and we quickly became friends. She did eventually make a video for my song ‘Art’ but by that point we were as much friends as colleagues. We had also been talking a lot about the nature of solitude, how important it is for artists, and how we both spend a lot of time alone in our lives, so when it was time to think about what we would do for a videopoem, Andrea suggested, ‘Well, that’s make one about how to be alone’. And so we did.
Were you surprised at the incredible, world-wide response to the videopoem? What do you think made that particular piece so resonant with so many people?
Yes, very surprised. We put it on the Internet once the contract with Bravo, who had funded the project, was up, so as to set the video free to the world – we thought we might as well post it and then people could watch if they wanted to. And it seems they did. I think it resonated with people simply because loneliness is something we all deal with, in one way or another, whether resisting or embracing it. It’s a basic human feeling, it’s a shared experience. So it isn’t a lofty or inaccessible topic; it is quite common and so people relate to it.
What practices do you maintain in order to keep your work developing and evolving?
I make sure to write almost every day, even a little bit. I do a lot of reading. I’ve also been listening to a lot more music lately, things I haven’t heard before, to open me up. I like to learn new skills that are related, to remind me that creativity is multi-faceted and fun. For instance, these days I’m taking tango lessons and teaching myself the drums. I also cultivate a lot of relationships with friends and community. I like to have big long conversations that get into the grit of life. I like to analyze and debrief things so as to then write about them. I also like to observe – people, places, moments – and take notes on this, small stanzas that I might use later. I take my notebook everywhere I go.
How to be Alone, from YouTube:
Alexis Pooley holds a Creative Writing degree from Dalhousie University and is currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. She lives and writes in Vancouver.