Friday, September 9, 2011

backpage with tanya davis (how to be alone)

i sat down with tanya davis this summer for atlantic books today. like three million other people, i had seen how to be alone, so i spent the time before the interview reading her new book of poetry, watching her canada games performance and watching her music videos. 

we had a great long talk about writing and she gave me a tour of three specific poems and how they were created. 

the article and 3 spotlights is in the new ABT, in the globe and mail today or available in bookstores and libraries across the region. 

Not So Alone Anymore

Tanya Davis arrived in Halifax five years ago as a broke artist full of dreams. She haunted the city’s cafes, notebook in hand, jotting down her thoughts and later harvesting them into poems and songs. Her lonely poetic PhD studied the human condition: we are born, we eat and procreate, we die. What do we do in between?

“I remember feeling quite doubtful. A lot. I’d call my mother, like, what am I doing?” she recalls.

Today, Tanya Davis is a broke artist full of dreams, haunting the city’s cafes, notebook in hand, jotting down thoughts on life and death and later harvesting them into poems and songs. Only now, she’s not so alone: she is the city’s Poet Laureate, just published her first collection of poetry (At First, Lonely, from AcornPress), shot to international YouTube fame with her spoken word gem, How To Be Alone, and opened the Canada Games.  

Davis, who is originally from P.E.I., lives in a pretty Victorian home in north end Halifax. It’s white, with purple trim and yellow highlights. In the summer, the flower garden decorates the house like it’s dressed for church. She shares the home with a musician, a fiddler/farmer and an engineer who knits. The paintings of another former artist-in-residence hang on the walls.

Her writing studio is upstairs. It’s a simple room with a few plants, two desks and lots of books. An acoustic guitar rests on a stand. There is one comfy chair and two wooden desks. One holds a computer and is pressed against a wall; the other faces the street window.

“I don’t let my computer go on that desk. I write there, and I compute there,” she says, pointing to the window and then wall desks.

Among writers, there are two basic camps: the mircowavers and the slowcookers. Microwavers zap words onto pages at high speeds, and then come back to clean up. Slowcookers stew over each word and when they’re done, they’re done.

Davis is a slowcooker. She writes in the morning, savouring each word, mixing it carefully into a line, editing back and forth over each stanza to make sure it all tastes good, before simmering to the end.

“And once it’s done, it’s done,” she says.

Travel brings vital spice to her creative machine. In her twenties, she crisscrossed Canada by bus and by thumb, sleeping “tentside in a field behind a gas station,” as she puts it in Made in Canada, adding, “I hold out my hands that have never held a passport; they show me their stamps, I show them the hats I bought at thrift stores in the towns I stopped.”

“One of my favourite things about going to a glorious new city is finding the best coffee shop to sit in,” she says. “It’s about what the new scenery does to my observations. Everything is new, but it’s always the same. We’re here, we live until we die. In between, we need to eat and procreate. I think about that stuff all the time!”

Given that everything is futile, she figures, why not do something fun? Or at least that brings consolation. 

And so she writes.

Success hasn’t changed her writing process. She is more efficient, and the rhymes and half-rhymes that populate her poetry come more easily, but the challenge remains the same. To borrow from Leonard Cohen, she pays her rent every day in the Tower of Song.

Davis has lofty plans for epic poems digging into her abandoned Catholic roots, and perhaps trying her pen at short stories and novels. But meantime, she’s enjoying life.

“In the arts world there are so many people running around with their heads cut off. It’s so stressful. I want to work hard, but I also want to enjoy my life. I don’t want it to pass me by as I’m trying to achieve these goals,” she says.

As Poet Laureate, she replaces Shauntay Grant with a five-year mandate to capture the city in words, and to promote poetry. One of her first tasks was to write a poem celebrating Pride week.

“The mayor may or not show up-” she says, and then stops dead, tasting something new. “The mayor may 
or not. Is that right? The word? The mayor may or may not show up,” she repeats.

You sense a poem has just been born.

To Mary Magdalene who wept
(from At First, Lonely)
The poem started at Easter when Davis overheard the line, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and jotted it down in her notebook. It’s Jesus, disguised as a gardener, addressing Mary Magdalene, crying outside his tomb. It’s a big moment – he’s about to announce the resurrection. But that’s not where Davis’s mind went.

What if Mary was just another woman and Jesus was just another guy, she wondered. It started as a song, but it became a poem.

“Woman, why are you weeping?
‘Cause Jesus up and left you
‘cause Jesus disappeared?
Did he pull a man trick, finish his business
and vanish,
leaving you feeling weird?”

Jesus’ words about weeping are no longer spiritual consolations, but the tone-deaf question of “another unintuitive man.”

Davis worked on the poem for two weeks, discovering that all abandoned lovers find the same solace. “Fast forward two thousand years and all the chocolate will go on sale to mark the anniversary of this weekend,” she writes.

How to be alone

The spoken-word piece was born when Davis and her filmmaker friend Andrea Dorfman decided to create a project.  For a topic, Dorfman suggested, “How about, how to be alone?”

Artists are professional loners, needing time to make observations and turn them into work, so Davis used her expertise to write a how-to guide. “We could start with the acceptable places: the bathroom, the coffee shop, the library,” she writes.

She and Dorfman posted the video to YouTube in July 2010. Interviews with local media brought it 100,000 views before Davis took a break in a cabin in the woods. While she was away, How to Be Alone went viral, passing the one million mark with a helpful tweet by film critic Roger Ebert. Today, it’s past 3.3 million views and Davis still gets daily emails from those who have just found it and and found it perfectly captured their life - and found they weren’t so alone after all.

Your Heart Beats Hard the Whole Time
Davis was commissioned to write a poem to start the Halifax Canada Games in 2010. The organizers wanted it to be about three minutes and directed to the athletes, but accessible to the tens of thousands watching fans.

Davis drew upon the emotions of performing on stage to capture the thrill of crouching at the starting line. 

“Look self, here you are, and if you don’t win this race, you still made it this far,” she writes.

She slowcooked word after word, rhyme after rhyme. The day before the performance, she tested it in the Metro Centre – and found her words echoed into incoherence. She pruned and slowed the poem.

At the opening ceremony, the words floated through the air like butterflies, joining their companions in the nervous stomachs of the competitors. 

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